Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2021

From the Commodore

“Big Martin Helps Rescue the Franconia”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

The Master of the lighthouse tender Lilac was an American of experience in the District. It was through him that I learned of my task ahead for the next seven years. The District extended from the Virgin Islands on the East to the Panama Canal on the West. At least two trips back and forth over these two thousand miles had to be made each year to work buoys in the many harbors, to visit some twenty light stations for inspection, maintenance and to deliver supplies. The complement of the tender contained only two Americans out of the twenty-six.

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The U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Lilac. Notice ...

The First Officer was a German from Argentina, a very capable, energetic ship man for the hard-worked tender (and we had just finished a war against Germany). Good officers were hard to find in the Tropics, so his pedigree was not important to me. Besides, he was trilingual: Spanish, German, and even understandable English.

There was Jesus Preira, (pure Spanish,) the Chief Engineer, very capable, who also could form a few English words. The crew were composed of real seamen, none of whom spoke English, except Martin Damascus, the Boatswain, who spoke all languages as needed with the crew gathered from the four corners of the West Indies, selected for their ability to do ship work on a lighthouse tender.

Martin, who spoke Papiamento, a mixture of Spanish, Dutch, and English, selected the crew. Never had I seen a finer exhibition of deck generalship than when “Big” Martin worked his deck gang loading or unloading an eight-ton lighted buoy in a choppy sea.

“Venica, hombres,” in Martin’s language (Venga aca, hombres was correct Castilian meaning Come here, men or boys in English). Also, “Tenga cuidao, muchaches,” (Tenga cuidado, muchachos equals Spanish, which means, Take care, boys, or lookout, lads). Martin stood about six feet with great hairy chest and arms, a big swarthy head with close-cropped curly hair, with an alert expression seeing everything.

He remained apart directing every move but scarcely ever touching a line except in an emergency when he would be right there to save the day. “Engacha le,” (hook on). “Baja le,” (lower away). “Pa arriba” (Spanish: Para arriba; English: Take it up). Martin could chide the crew for their mistakes or encourage them in their efforts in the most picturesque Spanish or Papiamento. He had boundless courage and confidence. His years of experience as stevedore for steamship companies plying tropical waters to harbors in Puerto Rico, Curaçao, South America and Cuba made him a rare find as Boatswain for the tender Lilac.

I must not forget to mention the time when the Franconia, bound on a West Indies cruise loaded with happy, pleasure-seeking passengers, entered San Juan Harbor and plowed on a reef almost in front of my home.

The lighthouse tender was at the depot wharf and soon a messenger came in my office with a letter from the captain of the Franconia asking for the help of the lighthouse tender in freeing the Franconia from the shoal. I went aboard the Franconia and found Lt. Commander Virgil Cook assuming charge of the salvage work. I knew him as a retired officer from the Navy and as the steamboat inspector at San Juan in the Federal Steamboat Inspection Service, a civilian position.

Lt. Commander Virgil Cook had been busy. He ordered the Navy tug over from St. Thomas . . . The lighthouse tender, equipped to handle heavy weights, had taken the enormous spare anchor from the Franconia and made it fast alongside the buoy port and ran off toward El Morro with the two-inch spare Franconia mooring cable. The anchor was dropped well off the port bow of the Franconia.

The Franconia had lightened herself of fuel oil, pulled on the anchor placed by the tender, was soon free of the shoal, and dropping the bitter end of the mooring cable overboard, proceeded to the inner harbor. The tender proceeded to the location of the Franconia’s anchor, fished it up, bringing the French submarine cable up in the flukes of the anchor.

Big Martin skillfully released the French cable and all that day and all that night, with me aboard, the tender took up the great length of the two-inch diameter Franconia spare mooring cable, coiled it aboard on the busy deck in giant figure eights, then proceeded to the Franconia in the upper harbor and passed it aboard, including the massive anchor.

As soon as the Franconia was freed from the shoal as the result of the tender’s work, Cook and his hastily-formed salvage company libeled the Cunard Line for a huge sum, something like $60,000 for salvage charges. I never did fully ascertain how the matter was finally settled but did make a statement for the Federal Court stating the work of the tender in freeing the Franconia from the shoal.

This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses – 9th District: 1920 to 1927” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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