The 1980 disappearance of the SS Poet

The recent death of Capt. Paul J. Esbensen, 76, of Stevensville, who was a highly respected wreck investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board and a well-known port figure, recalled his role investigating the loss of the SS Poet more than two decades ago.

He had spent 15 years as senior marine investigator for the NTSB before retiring in 1996. During his tenure with the NTSB, he investigated 25 major maritime accidents, including the Poet and the loss of the Pride of Baltimore.


Almost 26 years after the Poet mysteriously disappeared, what happened to it is still the subject of much speculation.

Originally built as the General Omar Bundy at the Kaiser Shipbuilding Corp. yard in Richmond, Calif., in 1944, the ship transported troops until 1949, when it was laid up in the James River Reserve Fleet.


There it languished until 1964, when it was delivered to Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Baltimore, which undertook its conversion into a bulk carrier at its Sparrows Point shipyard. Renamed the SS Portmar, the ship was operated by the steel company's Calmar Steamship Corp. subsidiary transporting steel products between the East and West.

Later renamed the Port, it finally became the Poet after being acquired by Hawaiian Eugenia Corp. in 1979.

The 522-foot U.S. flag vessel was loaded with 13,500 tons of bulk corn at Girard Point Terminal in South Philadelphia, and it prepared to leave on what was to have been a routine voyage to Port Said, Egypt, on Oct. 24, 1980.

"Before she left Philadelphia, a Coast Guard petty officer conducted an inspection and found three violations. At two points, oil drums and acetylene tanks were lashed to rails without proper 'dunnage,' or padding underneath, to prevent sparks. The ship was also found to lack a required piece of navigational equipment, called a loran, an acronym for long-range navigation," The New York Times reported at the time.

Early on the morning of Oct. 24, the Poet began slowly making its way down the Delaware River toward the Atlantic. Capt. LeRoy A. Warren, a Bel Air resident with 41 years of experience at sea, was on the bridge, and the ship held a crew of 34, including two from Baltimore -- Frank E. Holland, a deck engineer, and Walter M. Mitchell, an oiler.

Capt. Gary Harper, the pilot who was taking the Poet down the Delaware River, noted that the ship was "heavy at the bow and sluggish in responding to the wheel," the Times reported.

"It took a little longer for the ship to respond because the ship was by-head," Harper told the newspaper, "meaning the bow rode low in the water."

At 8:30 a.m., the ship reported its last position as it sailed past Cape Henlopen, Del. It was the last time that anyone would hear from the ill-fated Poet.


The Poet also gave its Oct. 24 position to the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System, an international center that tracks ship movements in the Atlantic and Pacific.

The next day, as the ship steamed east, it encountered a severe storm with 30-foot seas and winds gusting to 60 knots. The storm lashed the Atlantic Coast for the next two days.

Experts said that the storm was nothing unusual, and the Poet had encountered and survived far worse storms in its 36-year career.

The owners of the vessel reported Nov. 3 -- nine days after receiving their last message from the Poet -- that they had not heard from the ship, which was due to dock in Port Said on Nov. 9.

The Poet had vanished into the lonely Atlantic depths without so much as an SOS.

A 200,000-square-mile Coast Guard search of the ocean, from the Straits of Gibraltar to Cape Henlopen, failed to find any trace whatsoever of the ship or its crew.


"Although planes have crisscrossed the ocean, they have spotted neither the Poet nor any lifeboats. And no ships crossing the Poet's intended route have seen any sign of the ship," The Sun reported at the time.

In its marine casualty report, the Coast Guard reported that the "precise time and location of the vessel's loss are unknown and cannot be determined. The Board concludes that the Poet was most likely lost during the period when it encountered the most severe weather conditions between the morning of 25 October and the evening of 26 October."

Regarding no radio signals, the report said, "The Board concludes that it is likely that the lack of any radio distress message was due to the loss of the ship being so sudden that there was no time to send a distress message on 500 kHz using the main or emergency radio transmitters or the lifeboat radio."

The report also stressed the lack of any wreckage, lifeboats or oil slicks, and said it "appears quite possible that if the vessel was lost very rapidly, the lifeboats may well have been secured in their cradles by the gripes and would have gone down with the vessel."

Page 3 of the report gives the most likely explanation for the loss of the Poet: "The commandant has concurred with the Marine Board that the proximate cause of the casualty cannot be determined."

The Coast Guard and NTSB agreed that "some loss of hull integrity occurred."


"If a loss of hull integrity occurred, the ingress of water could have gone undetected by the crew long enough to lead to the sudden loss of the ship by plunging, capsizing or foundering."

In an interview last year, Esbensen told Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Sun reporter and editor, "I asked people all over, if they find one piece of the ship with the Poet written on it, please send it to me. I went to every possible avenue of help. Nothing."

He added: "Everyone has a theory on why the ship sank, including hijacking. She was in a seaway. I think the natural roll of the ship and the ocean waves combined. No one can prove it or any other theory."

In 1983, a bronze plaque honoring those lost on the Poet was unveiled in Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church in Philadelphia overlooking the river where the ship began its last voyage into maritime history.

The Poet's sinking recalls the words of the old sailors' song: "Many a brave heart lies asleep in the deep."