by Jim Marquardt
It wasn’t a perfect fall day. It was cloudy, the wind was kicking up and there were small craft warnings. But that wasn’t going to stop the day-trippers who were intent on fishing, maybe catching the big one. They came out on the LIRR from the city and could walk from the Montauk Station to the dock where Pelican II was warming its engines. Others drove out from towns on Long Island — families, including a few youngsters, relatives and friends, all looking forward to a day on the water. Captain Eddie Carroll yelled “No more, can’t take any more,” but by the time the mate cast off her lines and Pelican headed out of Fort Pond Bay, the boat was overloaded with 62 passengers, plus the captain and mate. By mid- afternoon on Saturday, September 1, 1951, 45 of them would be dead.
Pelican proved again how seemingly minor problems can lead to another and another, and end in disaster, especially at sea, even with land close by. In those days recreational fishermen probably paid around $20 which gave them tight elbow room at the boat rail and an old coffee can of chopped up clams and squid for bait. They brought their own fishing poles and tackle. At 14 tons, the homely Pelican, a 42-ft “party boat” or “head boat,” was just below the requirement to meet Coast Guard regulations and annual inspections.
According to Van Field’s book Mayday, Pelican arrived at Frisbie’s fishing bank off Ditch Plains at 10 a.m. The captain shut down her twin, 100-hp Chrysler engines and began a drift for fish as the people aboard dropped their hooks into the water. Before too long, rough seas made everyone uncomfortable and at around 11:30, Carroll decided to go back inside the Point. But the engines wouldn’t start. He finally got one of the two going, and Pelican made slow headway as a squall line approached, generating a strong northeast wind that blew against an outgoing tide. She rode well enough heading into the wind but when Pelican rounded the Point she turned broadside to 35 mph gusts and 15-ft waves that pushed her over nearly 60 degrees. Then several big waves in a row hit her starboard side and suddenly she capsized, trapping cold and seasick passengers who had sought refuge in the cabin, and throwing those on deck into the rough water.
Though there were plenty of life preservers aboard, only one passenger had put one on. Private fishing boats nearby, Betty Jane and Bingo II, came to the rescue, heaving life jackets to people in the water and pulling 16 of them to safety. An hour later a Coast Guard picket boat arrived and saved one person still clinging to the overturned hull. A CG motor lifeboat that might have aided in the rescue had been called away earlier to search for another vessel in distress. As it turned out, no one bothered to notify the authorities that the other vessel already was safe in port.
Montauk fishing boat captain Frank Mundus secured the overturned hull and later the CG towed it into Lake Montauk where, according to Jeannette Rattray in Ship Ashore, ten bodies were recovered from inside the cabin. For several days, Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force units searched for bodies along the shore. William Friedel of East Moriches survived with the help of his 13-year old son, but lost his brother and sister-in-law. Angelo Testa of Patchogue fought desperately against the waves but was unable to save his father.
The Coast Guard Board of Inquiry Report of October 8th said that if the Pelican had been subject to inspection, she probably would have been permitted no more than 20 passengers. It stated that Captain Eddie Carroll, who did not survive, “failed to distribute the weight (passengers) to trim his boat,” had not kept track of weather and came too close to shore when rounding the Point. As invariably happens after a maritime disaster, new safety rules were put in place. “T-boat” regulations, which include routine inspections of all vessels for hire carrying more than seven people, and strict limits of passenger capacity went into effect in 1957. ( ”T-boat” because the rules covering them are laid down in “subchapter T of Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulation.”)
Pelican was towed to Greenport and hauled at a shipyard where she sat neglected for years, perhaps cursed by the disaster. She gradually fell apart and eventually was cleared away to make room for condominiums.