Michael Tougias tells stories that make the reader happy he or she is on dry land. He has the skill and talent required not to let his writing get in the way of facts that need no dramatic embellishment. The truth is awe-inspiring enough.
Imagine, setting out on a pitch-black February night in a 36-foot wooden boat into a howling winter blizzard knowing you would have to make it through roaring surf breaking on a sandbar. You get over the bar and then face 70-foot waves you must plow through without any navigational equipment, to look for a group of men desperately counting on your arrival. You could turn back, nobody would blame you, in those conditions.
The crew of the Chatham Coast Guard station, all volunteers, had plenty to consider the night of February 18, 1952, when called on to help rescue the crew of a tanker that had split in two.
Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernard Webber, Junior Engineer Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Irving Maske, who was not even assigned to the station but volunteered, boarded Coast Guard surf boat 36500 and headed through the surf. A wave smashed the windshield and ripped away the compass as they navigated Chatham Bar, but they did not turn back.
The surf boats of that era were designed to carry a crew of four, plus up to 12 people in a rescue. On that perilous night, the crew of the CG-36500, dressed in foul weather gear that seems laughable by today’s standards, rescued 32 of 33 men from the stern of the tanker Pendleton, because Bernie Webber was unwilling to leave anyone behind.
And his crew was only one part of the story. Another surf boat from Nantucket and a Coast Guard cutter joined the effort to rescue the crew of not one but two split tankers.
In May, I dashed into the Vineyard Haven library to get a book on CD for a long car ride to Vermont. I picked up, “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue.” The story was riveting. Several times, I had to stop the CD or risk missing highway exits.
It is no surprise that Disney recognized a great story and has begun making a movie based on the book. Jim Whittaker is the producer. He made “Apollo 13,” “Cinderella Man,” and many other award-winning movies. Filming begins this winter, some of it on the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard, Mike said.
I met Michael Tougias about five years ago when he visited the Vineyard to talk about his book, “Ten Hours Until Dawn, The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do” (St. Martin’s). That was an equally gripping story about a rescue effort in February, 1978, when a northeaster of historic intensity struck New England.
On Tuesday, September 17, Mike will return to the Vineyard to give a slide presentation based on his newest book, “A Storm Too Soon: A True Story of Disaster, Survival and Incredible Rescue.”
The common denominator in all of these stories is the sea and the extraordinary courage of often ordinary people, and the importance of the Coast Guard in every coastal community.
There has been some gnashing of teeth in Chilmark over the size and design of the new Coast Guard boathouse that will replace the 50-year-old boathouse destroyed by fire. Boathouses, like the surf boats, have evolved. Memories are short.
It was not that long ago that Chilmarkers were fretting because it appeared the station would be closed in a wave of federal cost-cutting. Longtime selectman, builder, and lobsterman Herbie Hancock, a Yankee of uncommon good sense, now gone and sorely missed, fought to keep it manned.
The station now maintains two 47-foot motor life boats and a rigid hull inflatable that flies. It is easy to take the Coast Guard for granted when the seas are calm and the weather is fine. But if you are an Island fisherman, motorboater or sailor, you know that when trouble strikes, you will be looking for that 47, or the distinctive Jayhawk helicopter.
On Tuesday, according to the press kit I received, Mike will use slides to describe the situation facing three men clinging to a tattered life raft 250 miles out to sea in the Gulf Stream.
“Trying to reach these survivors before it’s too late are four Coast Guardsmen battling hurricane force winds in their Jayhawk helicopter. They know the waves in the Gulf Stream will be extreme, but when they arrive they are astounded to find crashing seas of seventy feet, with some waves topping eighty feet. To lower the helicopter and then drop a rescue swimmer into such chaos is a high-risk proposition. The pilots wonder if they have a realistic chance of saving the sailors clinging to the broken life raft and if they will be able to retrieve their own rescue swimmer from the towering seas. Once they commit to the rescue, they find themselves in almost as much trouble as the survivors, facing several life and death decisions.”
Mike said he likes slide presentations as opposed to author readings, which he described as boring. “I like to transport the audience into the heart of the storm so that they ask themselves ‘what would I have done,'” he said.
The program begins at 7 pm and it’s free. Former Coasties, sailors, fishermen, and anyone with an appreciation for a dramatic story should enjoy the presentation.
No buts about it, Corinna Majno-Kaufman of Aquinnah (aka the Seaweed lady) thinks her husband, Ken, deserves to be recognized for his commitment to fishing. Corinna was collecting seaweed early in the morning along the beach at Gay Head, she said in an email, when her husband spotted breaking fish just off the beach in a feeding frenzy.
Not wanting to get his clothes wet and reacting to some primeval urge, he stripped his clothes off and scrambled to the top of a nearby rock, apparently not considering the risks from a rogue bluefish or barnacles, and began fishing in the buff.
“I must have heard, ‘I got a bite’ because I suddenly looked up to see that, once again, my goofy and totally unpredictable husband had done it again,” Corinna said in an email. “And I could only smile and wish I had my camera.”
Luckily, she said, a couple came walking by and took a photo of his posterior for posterity. I suspect it will be featured in their vacation album. She did send it along for publication, but this is a family newspaper.
Spool those reels, sharpen those hooks, and grind the coffee beans. The 68th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish derby begins at 12:01 am, Sunday. The Derby committee needs volunteers to help out on the fillet table, mornings and evenings, 8-10. Contact Matt Malowski (email@example.com) or sign up at the weigh station. Derby information is available at Island tackle shops or at mvderby.com.