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Joseph L. Mayes

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death January 5, 2001 of Joseph Louis Mayes, an oiler aboard Research Vessel Knorr. Joe became ill aboard Knorr while at sea in the southern ocean 1,200 miles south of Africa and was airlifted to a hospital in Capetown, South Africa, where he was pronounced dead despite heroic efforts by the Knorr crew to keep him alive as they headed into port.

Joe Mayes began working at WHOI as a relief oiler on Atlantis II in June 1990. Between June 1990 and March 1992, he was a relief oiler on Atlantis II and Knorr and served as a junior engineer on Oceanus. On March 20, 1992, he was made a Regular Relief Oiler, and except for a short assignment from June to October 1999 on Atlantis, all Joe’s time had been on Knorr. He was made the Regular Oiler on Knorr on October 5, 1995.

Born in Mesa, Arizona, on October 4, 1954, Joe traveled extensively around the United States and abroad. He served in the U.S. Navy for more than ten years, achieving the rank of Machinist Mate Second Class. Always interested in learning, he attended college for a while, majoring in English. When off duty, he was often found in some quiet spot aboard ship reading books. His shipmates recall that he knew about everything, from mythology to Biblical studies to current events, noting that he would have been a good contestant on the game show “Jeopardy.” When on vacation, Joe enjoyed tinkering with cars and his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He was often found looking at catalogs for Harley parts and accessories.

oe was an interesting, likable guy. He was ‘family’, and he will be missed,” said A.D. Colburn, III, Master of R/V Knorr. Interested in people, Joe had a very gentle side despite his imposing presence. “He was a very good shipmate,” Port Engineer Dutch Wegman recalls. “He was very predictable, and was a very good mechanic. He really understood machinery.”

On January 1, Relief Captain George Silva called Joe Coburn at home to report that Joe Mayes was unconscious and had suffered respiratory failure. Science was interrupted and Knorr headed back to Cape Town, from which it had departed December 9. Captain Silva arranged for medical evacuation as soon as the ship was within helicopter range. Joe was transported to a hospital in Capetown, where he died January 5. His fiancée, Claudette Bigby of Oregon, was at his bedside.

During the long transit to South Africa, the crew voluntarily took turns squeezing a breathing bag. “By my estimation, the crew pumped approximately, 79,680 breaths into Joe, nothing short of miraculous,” said Captain Silva. “The effort that the crew put forth is beyond words. I know you all share my pride and gratitude to them, and our deep sense of loss at the death of our shipmate.”

Joe is survived by his parents, Frank and Barbara Mayes, of Arizona; a brother and sister, also of Arizona; and a son, Peter, of Michigan.

Joseph L. Mayes