Off Soundings* -Richard Hiscock** Updated: 20 June, 2019

* Said of a vessel navigating beyond the 100-fathom line of soundings.

Welcome to Off Soundings: A source for Marine and Fishing Vessel Safety Information.

Where is all the knowledge we lost with information? T. S. Eliot

"The question should be, is it worth trying to do, not can it be done." Al Lowenstein, 1966 (NYT, 1993)

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Off Soundings


Julia McWilliams Child died on 13 August 2004. Long before she was “The French Chef” she worked for OSS and headed the clerical staff of the Emergency Rescue Equipment Section.

ERE developed several lifesaving devices that today we take for granted, including the signal mirror, the PFD light, and most notably the ‘lightweight exposure suit’ that eventually replaced the lifesaving suit, and yes shark repellent. Read "Miss Williams goes to Washington" from her biography.

In 1998 I was privileged to interview Julia in her kitchen in Cambridge (along with my mother, Alice who was the exhibit coordinator for ERE), about their experiences.

Thanks for the memories, Julia / rch

NEW! Recently discovered training film on the use of the 1943 ESM/1 signal mirror, can be viewed on YouTube. My thank to Richard Fowell for his tireless searching of information on signal mirrors.

Samuel Plimsoll

The Elements of Seamanship ... "When you call up the Coast Guard, or the Air National Guard, or whomever, you are asking them to risk their lives to save yours. You are also asking them to spend a lot of money in the process. The rescuers neither ask for nor get much in return (those who make a career out of criticizing the Coast Guard all too often forget that), and they value their lives as much as we value ours.

"It is the duty of those who go to sea to avoid getting into situations that require the aid of the rescue services – heed the season, equip your vessel properly, keep a sharp eye for weather changes, shake down a new vessel conscientiously, don't expect your ship to do something she can't, pump for your life if you're sinking, maneuver your vessel if you're not, think ahead. Anything less and you will be asking more of others than you ask of yourself."

Peter H. Spectre
"North Atlantic Shakedown: The Abandonment of the JOHN F. LEAVITT"
WoodenBoat, Number 33, p. 28, March/April 1980

The way we were… "It is helpful to recall the approach to safety of the Commercial Vessel Safety Program: first to prevent the casualty; second to minimize the effect of the casualty, given that it has occurred; and third to maximize lives saved, given that the vessel has become uninhabitable. The theory of this approach takes on practical significance in the assigning of probabilities to alternative safety standards. For a more complete discussion of this approach see 'A Study of Cost, Benefits, Effectiveness of the Merchant Marine Safety Program, May 1, 1968, U.S. Coast Guard.' "

The above is footnote 2 on page V-3
Vol. I B Study
A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Alternative Safety Programs for U.S. Commercial Fishing Vessels
An issue study conducted by (the) Planning Staff Office of Merchant Marine Safety
U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters Washington, D.C.
16 April 1971

Seaworthy …. "While no vessel can ever be regarded as unsinkable, it should be capable of absorbing a number of errors and misfortunes before there is a danger of sinking.

"The accident rarely has a single overwhelming cause. Usually there are a number of elements, none necessarily of outstanding significance in isolation, whose combination proves fatal."

Statements by the Royal Institution of Naval Architects following the Estonia disaster, quoted in:

"Machinery failure" (BRIEFING)
Seatrade Review,
December 1994, page 7 and 9 Published by The Seatrade Organization Ltd.
Seatrade House,
42 North Station Road,
Colchester CO1 1RB, UK

From the Fall / Winter 2018-19 Cupola, the Moses Brown alumni bulletin.

"For 40 years Richard Hiscock (Class of '64) has advocated for improved fishing and marine safety. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program, one of the toughest military training courses in the country and was fortunate to work for the House Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation Subcommittee as senior professional staff. In this role, Richard had the opportunity to prepare legislation that will make commercial fishing safer through the establishment of workforce policies and procedures."


"The odds -- the probability of winning -- are all you need to know for betting in a game of chance, but you need far more information to predict who will win and who will lose when the outcome depends on skill as well as luck. There are cardplayers and racetrack bettors who are genuine professionals, but no one makes a successful profession out of shooting craps." [p.14]

Against the Gods -- The Remarkable Story of Risk"
Peter L. Bernstein
John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1996

Master Chief Jack Downey, USCG with retired Warrant Officer Bernie Webber (1928-2009) aboard CG 36500 May 2002

Bernie Webber crosses the bar ... one last time

By Robert Frump

Melbourne, Fl. -- Bernard C. Webber, who steered his small boat into the impassable waves of Chatham Bar on an impossible mission to rescue the crew of a stricken tanker off Cape Code, died January 24, 2009 at age 80 in Melbourne, Florida.

Mr. Webber, one of the U.S. Coast Guard's most fabled and honored rescuers, was stationed on Cape Cod in February of 1952 when two tankers, the SS Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer, split in half on the same day in rough weather.

"Bernie Webber represented the very best values of the Coast Guard and of America," said Robert R. Frump, a maritime writer who had interviewed Webber recently. "The code he followed and the culture he engendered through his actions will live on so long as there is a U.S. Coast Guard."

Webber and his makeshift crew were dispatched on what was considered a suicide mission in an era when the informal motto of the Coast Guard was, "You have to go out, you don't have to come back."

His orders were to perform four virtually impossible tasks that night. He was to take a small motorized lifeboat over the perilous bar at Chatham, Ma. Then, in a blizzard and 60-foot waves in the darkness of night, he was supposed to find the Pendleton stern section, rescue more than 30 men in a boat rated for 20, and then find his way back to Chatham - all without the help of radar.

Most thought Webber's rescue effort would end at the Chatham Bar. There, churning seas from the storm hammered down on a shallow bar as breakers pounded the beach. Webber was counseled by friends in the fishing community of Chatham to say he got lost or could not shoot the bar because the bar had previously been thought impassable at such times.

Instead, Webber revved up the lifeboat - the CG 36500 - and headed straight into breakers as high as a house.

The waves picked up the little boat and slammed it down hard on the bar, shattering the windshield and destroying the compass. Shards of glass were embedded in Webber's head and face. But he and the crew managed to right the boat and survive the breakers.

Then they faced 60-foot swells and the dead of night and the confusion of a blizzard, but through luck and skill found the stern half of the Pendleton - the second impossible task.

The third task was evacuating 30 men down the side of a storm-tossed tanker into a boat rated to carry only 20. They lost only one man in the process, and, loaded so ?? that the boat was barely clear of the water, turned back toward land.

Again, through skill and luck, Webber and his crew were able to find Chatham Bar, and cross it again! The entire town turned out to welcome him home at the Chatham Fish Pier, and to treat the half-frozen crew and tankermen.

The rescue was front-page news worldwide the next day. Webber and his crew were awarded the Coast Guard's highest honor - the Gold Lifesaving Medal - and Webber toured on behalf of the Coast Guard for several years.

At heart, he was a humble man who yearned for little more than the ranks of the Coast Guard, and he often wore his hero's status uncomfortably. He told an interviewer in 2008 that he still thought daily of the man they lost on the Pendleton and it was that sorrow he carried with him rather than a sense of heroism or being special.

He also revealed in later years that he refused the Gold Medal initially because his crew was offered only the Silver Medal. The Coast Guard agreed to grant the whole crew the gold medal.

The U.S. Coast Guard honored Webber and his crew again in 2002 on the 50th anniversary of the rescue. He steered the restored CG 36500 over the Chatham Bar yet again on a mild day in May.

Webber's widow, Miriam Webber, told the Cape Code Times that a memorial service would be scheduled on the Cape in the spring.

For more information about Bernie Webber, go to -- the website of a non-profit organization that restored Bernie's rescue boat.

For additional articles about Bernie, the PENDLETON and the FORT MERCER - from the Cape Cod Times (01/26 & 01/28/2009), the Boston Globe (01/29/2009), The Cape Cod Chronicle (01/29/2009) and the Baltimore Sun (03/01 & 03/15//2009) go to this link.

"You manage things; You lead people."

Captain Grace Hopper, USN 1983

** Richard C. Hiscock ... Fisherman on F/V BENJO, out of Chatham Fish Pier 1977-78; Assistant Harbormaster Town of Chatham, 1977-87; Executive Director U.S. Lifesaving Manufacturer’s Association 1984-86; Investigator Marine Safety Consultants, Fairhaven, Mass., 1987-91; President ERE Associates Ltd. 1991 – 2002. Instructor hypothermia, cold-water survival, emergency rescue equipment and fishing vessel safety, 1979 – 2006. Drafted bill to establish crew licensing, inspection and additional safety requirements on commercial fishing vessels, 1986. Served as Senior Professional Staff, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation in the U.S. House of Representaties from February 2007 to June 2009, and all too briefly (June to October 2009) as Maritime Policy Advisor for Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Served as a member of the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel (Safety) Advisory Committee, 1991-98; and as Industry Advisor to the U.S. Coast Guard Fishing Vessel Casualty Task Force, 1999. Founding board member of the Marine Safety Foundation, 1993; Vice-president 1999 – 2007.

Author of papers on the Coast Guard, the development of exposure suits, survival craft on passenger vessels, and the history of fishing vessel safety in the U.S. Co-author / editor of the Fisherman’s Digest and the Fishing Vessel Digest.

Recipient U.S.C.G. Public Service Commendation, 1984; U.S.C.G. Certificate of Merit, 1998, and the U.S.C.G. Meritorious Team Commendation, 1999, and the 2006 Plimsoll Award from editors of Professional Mariner magazine, 2007. Member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers; and honorary life-member of the U.S. Marine Safety Association. Article in Soundings November 2006. MORE