Eleven Die In Coast Guard's Cuyohoga Disaster

By James Donahue

The U.S. Coast Guard's Commanding Officer Donald K. Robinson was faulted by a board of inquiry for the 1978 collision that sank his command, the Cutter Cuyohoga, and took 11 sailors to the bottom of Chesapeake Bay with it.

It was about 10 p.m. on October 20 when the cutter was struck broadside by the Argentine coal freighter Santa Cruz II at the mouth of the Potomac River. The 521-foot bulk carrier rammed the 125-foot cutter on the starboard side, between amidships and the stern.

Witnesses said the cutter was dragged in reverse for a minute, when as it fell away from the big freighter it rolled on its side and sank so fast that the 11 crew members who perished were trapped below deck and could not escape.

As it was, 18 crew members survived. The Santa Cruz stood by, picking survivors out of the water until help arrived.

Wreck Recovery

Two large floating cranes were later used to recover the wreck where it sank in 57 feet of water. While declared a total wreck, the vessel was raised as part of the Coast Guard investigation as to what happened. It later was re-sunk in 100 feet of water off the West Virginia coast where it now serves as a reef.

A Marine Board of Inquiry that convened in Baltimore, Maryland, concluded that Commander Robinson failed to properly identify the navigation lights displayed on the approaching freighter and mistakenly turned the Cuyahoga directly into the path of the larger ship.

As a partial result of the accident the Coast Guard instituted tougher controls and certifications for trainees. This includes periodic examinations for deck watch officers and rigorous seamanship refresher courses for all prospective commanding officers and executive officers.

Built in 1927, the Cuyahoga was the oldest operational commissioned ship in all of the United States sea services at the time it was lost. Its steel hull was driven by two diesel engines and twin screws which gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots. She had a maximum cruising range of 4,900 miles.

During those 51 years of service, Cuyahoga was involved in chasing rum runners, served as a U.S. Navy tender for the Presidential Yacht USS Potomac, patrolled the U.S. coast during World War II and also escorted vessels between Guantanamo Bay, Trinidad and Paramaribo. During the war Cuyahoga was armed with one anti-aircraft gun and two depth charge racks.

From 1957 until the day it was rammed, Cuyahoga served mostly as a training vessel.

Cuyahoga In 1945

Great And Lost Ships Of The World