COAST GUARD TRAGEDY: Eleven crewmembers died due to the commanding officer of Cutter Cuyahoga failing to properly identify the running lights of a freighter, steering his vessel directly into the path of the Santa Cruz II in the Chesapeake Bay


Rear Adm. Daniel Neptun addresses survivors of the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga’s sinking at the 30th anniversary memorial at Training Center Yorktown, Va., Oct. 20, 2008. The Cuyahoga sank quickly after being struck amidships and 11 men died in the tragedy. Neptun was in the same Coast Guard Academy class as some of the cadets who died. Family members of the men who died were also in attendance.


U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown marks the 39th anniversary of the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga tragedy with a memorial service Friday, October 20, 2017. Following morning colors, a service was conducted in the Old Yorke Chapel.


The Cuyahoga sank after the Coast Guard Commander of the Cuyahoga, Chief Warrant Officer Donald Robertson failed to recognize the lights of a freighter bearing down on his vessel and amazingly turned directly into the path. At the last minute, the Cuyahoga Commander realized his peril and ordered all engines stopped and full reverse, putting his crew and vessel into the path of the freighter’s bulbous bow and being struck by motor vessel Santa Cruz II on October 20, 1978, and 11 crewmen perished as a result. (U. S. Coast Guard photograph by Auxiliarist Trey Clifton/Released).

On 20 October 1978 at approximately 2107 the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter CUYAHOGA and the Argentinean general cargo vessel SANTA CRUZ II collided in the Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Potomac River. The CUYAHOGA was struck on the starboard side and listing from 40 to 50 degrees to port, CUYAHOGA was pushed by the SANTA CRUZ II for 30 to 45 seconds. The CUYAHOGA flooded rapidly and sank in approximately 2 minutes. Eleven persons perished. Eighteen CUYAHOGA crew members were rescued by the crew of the SANTA CRUZ II.

This report contains the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation report and the Action taken by the Commandant to determine the proximate cause of the casualty and the recommendations to prevent a recurrence.

The Commandant has determined that the proximate cause of the casualty was that the commanding officer of the USCGC CUYAHOGA, Chief Warrant Officer Donald K. Robinson, failed to properly identify the navigation lights displayed by the M/V SANTA CRUZ II. As a result, he did not comprehend that the vessels were in a meeting situation and altered the CUYAHOGA’s course to port taking his vessel into the path of the SANTA CRUZ II.

To make matters worse, when the Coast Guard CO realized from warning blasts from the Santa Cruz II that he was on a collision course, he stopped his engines and ordered his vessel to reverse engines, backing up into the exact path of the freighter. 


Ship’s History from the U. S. Coast Guard:

The USCGC Cuyahoga, which was homeported at the Reserve Training Center at Yorktown, Virginia celebrated 50 years of commissioned service on 3 March 1977.  She was the oldest operational commissioned ship in all of the United States sea services at that time.  

(WIX-157) was built at the American Brown Boveri Corporation in 1926.  She was launched 27 January 1927 and placed in commission 3 March 1927 at Camden, New Jersey. 

She was 125 feet long and had a beam of 23 feet 6 inches and a draft of 9 feet.  Her total displacement was 276 tons.  Her hull was steel and she had two diesel engines and twin screw propulsion which gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots and a maximum cruising range of 4,900 miles.

On 29 May 1933, Cuyahoga arrived at the Washington Navy Yard following her six years of chasing rum runners to assume the duties with the Navy as a tender for the Presidential Yacht USS Potomac.   She was returned to Coast Guard jurisdiction on 17 May 1941 and recommissioned by the Coast Guard at the Washington Navy Yard on that day.  She was assigned her new permanent station in Baltimore, Maryland, and arrived there on 20 May 1941.

Cuyahoga_1945 – was the oldest Coast Guard Cutter in service when it was on a training mission and turned directly in front of a freighter that couldn’t stop.

On 17 January 1942, her permanent station was changed from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, where she reported to Commander Defense Area Group for duty.  During the war, the Cuyahoga was on escort duty attached to Commander Eastern Sea Frontier and Commander Caribbean Sea Frontier.  From October 1942 to June 1945 she spent the majority of her time in the Caribbean Sea, usually escorting vessels between Guantanamo Bay, Trinidad, and Paramaribo.  During the war, the Cuyahoga was armed with one 3″/23 caliber anti­aircraft gun and two depth charge racks.

Following the war, the Cuyahoga once more operated out of Norfolk until May of 1946 when she, along with the Calypso, was placed “In Commission-Reserve” status due to personnel shortages.  In April 1947 the Cuyahoga was transferred from Norfolk to the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland, and worked with the Field Testing and Development Unit except for occasional engineering and other operational activities.

From 1957 to 1959 she was assigned to New London, Connecticut for training officer candidates.  Later in 1959, she assumed her station at Yorktown, where she continued to provide training for officer candidates.  She was the last of her class still in commission at the time of her loss.



At about 2100 hours on 20 October 1978, in an area about 3 1/2 miles northwest of Smith Point, which marks the mouth of the Potomac River as it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, a catastrophe occurred.

The Argentine coal freighter Santa Cruz II, a 521-foot bulk carrier, hit the Cuyahoga on her starboard side between amidships and the stern. A consensus of accounts indicated that the cutter was dragged backward for a minute and then fell away from the tanker, rolled on her side, and sank within a couple of minutes.

The Santa Cruz rescued 18 survivors from the water and stayed on the scene until help arrived.  The remaining 11 men embarked on the Cuyahoga were lost.  Four days after the accident, a Marine Board of Inquiry convened in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Marine Safety Office to investigate the accident.

After some delay due to heavy seas and high winds, two massive floating cranes were used to raise the Cuyahoga, which was in 57 feet of water.  After an initial inspection, the ship was placed on barges and towed 65 miles to Portsmouth for a full inspection.

Lost shipmates:

MKCS David B. Makin  
YN1 William M. Carter  
SS1 Ernestino A. Balina  
SA Michael A. Atkinson  
FA James L. Hellyer  
SA David S. McDowell
OC James W. Clark  
OC John P. Heistand  
OC Edward J. Thomason  
OC Bruce E. Wood
LI Wiyono Sumalyo, Indonesian Navy

Survivors of the collision were:

CWO Donald K. Robinson
BM1 Roger E. Wild
QM2 Randy V. Rose
MK2 Stephen D. Baker
SN Kevin J. Henderson
SA Jeffery I. Fox  
SA Michael E. Myers  
OC Arne O. Denny  
OC Peter S. Eident  
OC Earl W. Fairchild, Jr.  
OC Michael E. Moser  
OC Frederick J. Riemer  
OC Joseph L. Robinson  
OC Robert P. Rutledge  
OC Timothy C. Stone  
OC Earl C. Thomas  
OC Lawrence V. Williams  
LT Jonathan Arisasmita, Indonesian Navy  

The Marine Casualty Report, number USCG 16732 / 92368 and dated 31 July 1979, concluded:

The Commandant has determined that the proximate cause of the casualty was that the commanding officer of the USCGC CUYAHOGA failed to properly identify the navigation lights displayed by the M/V SANTA CRUZ II.  As a result he did not comprehend that the vessels were in a meeting situation, and altered the CUYAHOGA’s course to port taking his vessel into the path of the SANTA CRUZ II.

The Cuyahoga was later sunk off the coast of Virginia as an artificial reef.

  • Bull Shark from Potomac in 2010 Buzzs Marina

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