NASA Ops - Nighmare on the River


Louise Agee, FSO-PB, Fl. 46, Div. IV, Dist. 7

The Navigator, 1973

[NASA OPS]: Nightmare On The River

The last launch of the Apollo series will be long remembered by the 60 Division IV Auxiliarists who were on patrol in the waters surrounding the Kennedy Space Center on that memorable December night. Not, only will the spectacular beauty of the launch as viewed from the water be unforgotten, but so will the nightmare of herding over 500 boats four miles down the river to a new security line. Seventeen facilities from Division IV Flotillas were on patrol duty under command of Coast Guard Captain Ed Dorr and Division IV Captain Frank Hamby aboard SO-OP Bill Nelson s houseboat AQUARIUS. The AQUARIUS was anchored at light 15 in the Banana River where heaviest activity was expected. Auxiliary facilities arrived on station at 1000 and proceeded to set up security lines at light 35 in the Banana River, at the mouth of the Banana Creek in the Indian River and in Mosquito Lagoon east of the Haul-over Canal. By noon the picket boats were anchored in position and the communications net had been set up.

Boats from the Brevard Sheriff s Department, Florida Marine Patrol, and airboats from the U. S. Wildlife Service helped maintain security lines about six miles from the launch area. Rotating yellow lights were issued to the Auxiliary vessels, red rotating lights to the Sheriffs Department, blue lights to the Marine Patrol and white headlamps or spotlights to the Wild Life airboats. The rotating red, white and blue lights darting about on the water after dark added a patriotic touch to the occasion.

Security had been carefully planned at a meeting in the N[ational]. A[eronautics and]. S[pace]. A[dministration]. Security office two months before the scheduled launch. During the meeting it was noted that the trajectory of the rocket swings farther south if the launch runs late. I asked if this meant that the security zone would also move south and was told that, since the Banana River was south of the pad, the security line would be moved four miles south to marker 19. “But,” it was added, “don't worry. These launches have never been delayed”.

I didn t like the prospect of having to move several hundred boats four miles down the river at night but decided not to worry about it until the situation arose, forgetting my usual experience with Murphy s Law which states “If anything can go wrong it certainly will.”

Spectator boats began arriving early in the day. Each one trying to out-maneuver the other for the best position. As daylight faded 300 boats were counted, many more arrived before the 2153 launch time.

Boats of every size and description made the trip up the river. Two young men in a rubber life raft wandered among the larger boats. A Chinese Junk glided past a crudely constructed houseboat. A canoe was paddled up to a 75-foot yacht for a closer look.

Aboard another yacht passengers in formal dress were served cocktails by red jacketed stewards, while white coated mess boys could be seen setting the table for dinner. In contrast, anchored nearby the yacht was a class A outboard with two couples enjoying a picnic dinner. The men wearing faded jeans the girls almost wearing bikinis.

Everyone was in a festive mood. Several large yachts proceeded to party on board once they were anchored down. Small boats rafted together for companionship and good cheer, with “JOHN BARLEY-CORN” as their special guest. It was a time of togetherness and a time for sharing. Facilities without facilities were granted head privileges by the more adequately equipped boats.

It was a clear night with no wind. Everyone was enjoying themselves. No problem had developed, our radio circuits were quiet except for routine reports. The Apollo countdown progressed flawlessly. At last came what everyone was waiting for. The big bird went on internal power. Then it happened - seconds before ignition the automatic sequencer stopped the count and a hold was on.

No one knew what the trouble was, or how long it would be before the count resumed. We knew if it went over thirty minutes we would have to move the crowd. Two boats with loud hailers were circulated among the boats to prepare them for the possibility of moving.

Our nine boats plus the government agencies nine were divided so some could lead, some push and others circulate to give assistance. At 2245 the order came to move. We knew that the launch could not proceed until the spectator craft were out of the danger zone.

What followed was pure bedlam. The majority of the boaters were strangers to the area, everyone was trying to crowd into the narrow channel, not knowing that the river was plenty deep along most of its two mile width. Boats that were rafted together got fouled in each others lines. Boats that had been partying had difficulty maneuvering.

The skipper of a very large yacht stopped dead in the channel, insisting that he was aground in two feet of water. A law enforcement officer asked him politely to move. The skipper answered that he was a retired naval officer and knew when he was aground, adding “I am going to drop anchor and stay right here”, “That is fine”, said the lawman quietly, “As soon as you do I will board you and place you under arrest”. Miraculously, the channel deepened and the yacht was under way.

It was roundup time on the river, with officials herding the spectator craft slowly down the river. Some boats were stubborn and didn't want to move, some had over celebrated and wouldn't move, some had mechanical difficulties and couldn't move. The AQUARIUS raised anchor and followed the herd picking up the strays. Before long it had a large crowd aboard.

We arrived at our destination just as the countdown reached zero. The first night shot of man s largest spacecraft was a beautiful and thrilling sight. Its orange-gold light made the river as bright as day. Fish leaped high out of the water as though paying tribute to the huge bird taking wing.

The vessels on the river saluted the astronauts, wishing them “God Speed” with horns, bells and whistles. Cheers and applause arose from the boats. Then all H--1 broke loose. The suggested rules for leaving the launch area to prevent excessive wake damage were: Boats under 20 feet to leave the area first, 15 minutes later boats from 20- to 40-feet, and boats of more than 40 feet to leave 15 minutes after the second group.

As soon as Apollo disappeared from view it was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. There wasn't a boat over 20 feet on the river. One veteran of World War II said it was just like the evacuation of Dunkirk, one mad dash for home and safety.

Despite conditions no accidents were reported and very few assists were made. It was a new and unusual experience We felt we had gained some valuable training which will probably be used further during the Skylab program In all, about 60 members of Division IV participated in the operation, including some who volunteered to crew the airboats.  The nightmare ended at 0300 the next morning when we pulled into our home slip and dropped into the sack on board.