1980s crew reunites aboard Duluth
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1980s crew reunites aboard Duluth

Jun 07, 2023

DULUTH — Approximately 90 former crew members and their guests climbed aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter Sundew one more time on Friday for a 1980s crew reunion.

Terry Rice organized the reunion. Returning to the ship, now privately owned and docked at Duluth's Pier B, for the first time in 37 years brought him to tears.

Rice served from 1982-1987 as a non-rate, a seaman and a deck hand, and worked the buoys.

"I was actually on board here twice. This was my home. I was single at the time and basically had a bed with a locker underneath it and a stand-up locker. That was my home for three years," Rice said.

One of Rice's greatest memories was when a 6-foot-wide, 20-foot-long buoy broke lose on the deck.


"We broke the crane free. When we rolled, and when the buoy rolled over to the side of the gunnel, we actually brought the boom on it, cinched the boom down and drove home in 18-foot seas with our boom hanging over the side. It was quite the experience," Rice said.

The 180-foot seagoing buoy tender was built in Duluth by Marine Iron and Shipbuilding Corporation, one of 39 built between 1942 and 1944. It originally cost $861,589.

Sundew served 60 years for the Coast Guard. Commissioned on Aug. 24, 1944, it called many places home, including Manitowoc, Milwaukee and Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin. The ship was also assigned to Charlevoix, Michigan, until 1977, before returning to Duluth where it served until retirement on May 27, 2004.

Between 1987 and 1988, it sailed in salt water for the first and only time. The ship wintered in the Caribbean to conduct search-and-rescue law enforcement operations, and serviced Coast Guard navigation aids.

After decommission, it was given to the city of Duluth and used as a museum ship. In 2009, the Sundew was sold to Jeff Foster, Toni Foster, David Johnson and Mary Phillipp as a private recreational vessel. A volunteer crew brought it back to operating condition and it now resides in the slip at Pier B.

Jay Keller was 23 years old when he began working on the Sundew, where he was stationed from June 1985 to October 1988.

As part of its engineering department, Keller could be found down in the engine room or up above performing daily checks on the boat. Later he was selected to be part of teams that boarded occasionally hostile vessels.

"We had to go and board all these boats. We were looking for contraband. There was other applicable federal laws we were doing, it wasn't just drug interdiction," Keller said. "The whole ship was a platform for us guys to do law enforcement and add additional manpower to the Seventh District out of Miami, Florida."


His service with the Coast Guard prepared Keller for his next assignment. Afterward, he went to the East Coast where he was tasked to do presidential security with the Secret Service.

"I learned a lot of that here," Keller said. "I had so much exposure, but that was the neat thing about the Coast Guard. You're going to do it all whether you wanted to or not because there is not enough guys to do it all."

David Loerzel served aboard the Sundew as executive officer from 1982 to 1984, and as commanding officer from 1986 to 1989. Now 71 years old, Loerzel traveled from Fort Myers, Florida, to attend the reunion.

"Lots of good memories of crew. Lots of good sea duty. A trip all the way to the Caribbean and back. Lots of ice breaking," Loerzel said. "Depending on people because they're going to save your life, and they depend on you. It's like being with your brothers all the time and looking out for each other."

Once while trying to pull into Cancun for a port call, Loerzel recalled a storm with about 40-foot waves and 60-70 knot winds that had came up from behind the Sundew.

"We had to turn around and try to beat our way off of a lee shore behind us with rocks and surf. And we're trying to fight our way back out. It took a long time. I remember the crew would sneak up and open the door the bridge just to make sure the captain was still OK and hadn't lost it yet," Loerzel said.

Sundew encountered many storms on Lake Superior as well during his time, especially when placing buoys in spring, he said.

Stephen Hageman of Watertown, South Dakota, served as a deck hand and advanced to an officer third class from October 1986 through July 1989.


During his time on board, the Sundew traveled to the Caribbean, where the seas could be either really heavy or calm.

"It was a lot of learning, a lot of being mentored by other shipmates. Working hard. Playing hard," Hageman said. "This boat's got a lot of soul."

Frank Lynch served on the Sundew from 1980 to 1982 as second in command, and at times, acting commanding officer when the captain was on leave.

Lynch recalled the recovery of a Grand Marais man who jumped in his row boat to retrieve his canoe in December 1980.

"When he went around the point, he got blown out into the middle of Lake Superior and died sometime that night. We had to go look for him, and the seas were about 20-24 foot so we were rocking all the way across the lake," Lynch said.

When the Coast Guard arrived in the morning, the crew had to stop and beat the ice from the Sundew with ax handles so the ship wouldn't capsize from the weight.

"We found him, but he was long gone. This was no rescue, this was a recovery and we knew it when we left," Lynch said.

Not all memories were as somber, however.


Lynch recalled another instance when the Sundew headed toward Thunder Bay in early spring for some rest and relaxation. The captain instructed the officer of the deck to watch the ice floes overnight.

"Well he wasn't careful enough," Lynch said. "The ice on one side of the ship and the ice on the other side of the ship was clear for a while and then it started to move down on the ship and they didn't see it on the radar. It was dark; they couldn't see it. So it started to push the ship sideways at 4 knots. The ice on the other side moved until it hit Isle Royale and then it didn't want to go anywhere."

The ship listed at approximately 20 degrees. Since Lynch was sleeping in the bunk above the engine, he woke to its rumbling. After making his way up the bridge in the dark, Lynch saw the captain pacing.

"He finally sees me and he says to me, 'Wake up everybody on ship and tell them we may have to abandon ship.' I said, 'What? Where we going? Are we going to stand out on the ice floe like a bunch of penguins?"

The ice had crawled up the side of the ship and had nearly reached the running lights.

"But because it was April, the ice was soft and it started to fall back. So we finally got free. Needless to say we didn't go to Thunder Bay that night," Lynch said.

When asked what he remembered most of his time on the Sundew, Lynch responded with a chuckle, "All this ice and no Scotch!"

All joking aside, Lynch said it was the best job he had in the Coast Guard.


Jeff Sell served on the Sundew from 1981-1983 and again from 1987-1989. During his first tour, Sell was as a deckhand.

"We actually went out on a search and rescue case one night, and the weather was so bad it took us four hours to even get through the breakwall underneath the lift bridge in Duluth. The whole bow of the ship was underneath the water, and there was a lot of people that were getting sick. It was crazy. I mean, just to leave the Duluth area to go find these people that had fallen in the water. Their boat had capsized," Sell said.

He took his job seriously and enjoyed keeping people safe by taking care of Great Lakes lighthouses. Mostly, he thinks back to all the people he worked alongside.

"I had an opportunity to hang from the lighthouses when we had to paint them, and trusting other people to lure me down as we were painting. I'm not scared of heights, so I trusted my teammates to do that for me," Sell recalled.

"It was just a great opportunity to get together with these people after all these years and trying to recognize a lot of the faces. It was just very overwhelming," Sell said.