If you mention the Sunshine Skyway, most people remember the disaster that claimed 35 lives in 1980, when the MV Summit Venture collided with a support column during a freak squall, later identified as a Microburst. That morning six cars, a truck, and a Greyhound bus fell 150 feet into Tampa Bay. May 9th, 1980.
What most people don’t remember, myself included, was the first disaster near the bridge that happened on January 28th of that same year.
USCGC Blackthorn (WLB-391) was a 180-foot seagoing buoy tender, commissioned on March 27, 1944, with a crew of 50. In 1979 the Blackthorn was at Gulf Tampa Drydock Company getting an overhaul. January 28 1980, the overhaul completed, the ship was outward bound from Tampa Bay.
The tanker Capricorn, owned by Kingston Shipping Company was standing (traveling with right-of-way) into the bay. Blackthorn‘s captain, Lieutenant Commander George Sepel left the bridge to investigate a problem with the newly installed propulsion shaft, leaving Ensign John Ryan with the conn.
Earlier, the Blackthorn had been overtaken by the Kazakhstan, a Russian passenger ship. When requested by Kazakhstan to pass, the Blackthorn navigated starboard permitting Kazakhstan to pass. The Blackthorn then navigated to mid-channel and resumed course.
Below is the text of what happened next from the official USCG report.
“On 28 January 1980 at approximately 2021 e.s.t. the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter BLACKTHORN and the U. S. tankship CAPRICORN collided in Tampa Bay near the junction of Cut “A” and Mullet Key Channels. As a result of the impact, the port anchor of CAPRICORN became imbedded in BLACKTHORN’s port side. The momentum of the two vessels caused the CAPRICORN’s port anchor chain to become taut and resulted in the capsizing of the BLACKTHORN. The Capricorn grounded on the north side of Cut “A” channel and the BLACKTHORN sank in Cut “A” channel. Twenty seven BLACKTHORN crew members were rescued, however, twenty three crew members perished. There were no personnel casualties aboard the CAPRICORN.”
The collision of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn and the U.S Tankship Capricorn is the less remembered tragedy in the waters of Tampa Bay in 1980. May the twenty three crew members who lost their life that day never be forgotten.