Famed rescue vessel returns to Menemsha

After 50 years, Wayne Iacono returns to the wheel of CG36500.

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Lobsterman Wayne Iacono was thrilled to board Coast Guard motor lifeboat 36500 half a century after he’d served on it. “It was so nice to get back on there and go for a ride,” he said, “honest to God. And then to run it and dock it.”

Earlier this month, the motor lifeboat trundled wharfside in Chilmark from a two-day layover at Cuttyhunk, and took its place on display by the vintage draggers Roann and Little Lady, active fishing boats, and modern Coast Guard vessels at Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust’s Meet the Fleet event.

CG36500 gained its fame in a blizzard on the night of Feb. 18, 1952, when Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernie Webber piloted the 36-foot boat from Chatham Station into enormous waves to rescue 32 souls from the tanker Pendleton, which had broken in two.

CG36500 beat the odds, not only for the waves it withstood, but because it managed to remain afloat with an overcapacity of rescued people aboard. Webber, along with Coasties Irving Maske, Richard Livesey, and Andy Fitzgerald brought the tanker crewmen back to Chatham through angry seas and made history, in what is considered the greatest small boat rescue ever performed in the Coast Guard.

The rescue was chronicled in the book “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue” by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, and later made into a Disney motion picture starring Chris Pine as Bernie Webber.

CG36500 spent some of its final months as a commissioned vessel in Chilmark at Station Menemsha. Iacono served aboard the motor lifeboat there in 1968.

“Even at the time when we picked it up in 1968, it was kind of part of history,” Iacono said. Iacono piloted the boat to its reassignment in Chilmark from Chatham, where it had been stationed.

Speaking on the West Dock in Menemsha, with two contemporary 47-foot motor lifeboats in the background at Station Menemsha’s boathouse, Iacono reflected on an analog era. “We didn’t have the sophisticated gear they have now, that’s for sure,” he said.

Iacono recalled even the attire was simpler then — dungarees and chambray shirts, oilskins and thin wetsuits. When they used to run CG36500, the throttle kept “creeping down,” so they’d wedge it with a wooden block, he said.

In the few months CG36500 served in Menemsha, it continued to facilitate marine rescues. Aboard CG36500, Iacono helped tow two disabled draggers to New Bedford at night.

Now an auxiliarist, Iacono served eight years in the Coast Guard. In his first year, he was stationed with Webber.

“My first year in the Coast Guard was Bernie Webber’s last,” he said. “I was at Woods Hole and he was at Woods Hole. He was on a buoy tender. He was just like a god. I mean everybody kind of idolized him.”

A normally mellow person, Iacono said, being sent overseas to war soured Webber. “He was very bitter toward the end, because they sent him to Vietnam late in his career and he shouldn’t have really gone,” he said. Webber underwent “severe training in California” in preparation to embark. He was ordered to go “because of his rate and his rank, he was a chief boatswain’s mate, and they needed them on those boats, on the 82-footers [Point-Class cutters],” he said. “They gave him no notice.”

During his Coast Guard career, Iacono also served on the cutter Yakutat, a WWII Navy seaplane tender converted into a Coast Guard cutter. Earlier in its service, the Yakutat deployed in the same 1952 blizzard as CG36500, and rescued merchant mariners from the Pendleton’s sister ship, the Fort Mercer, which also broke in two.

A Station Chatham Coastie, who appeared in the book and film about the Pendleton rescue, served with Iacono on the Yakutat. “Mel Gouthro, the kid that was sick — he was the engineering officer on the ship I was on,” Iacono said.

Gouthro couldn’t head out on CG36500 to rescue the crew of the Pendleton because he was too ill that night. “He was pretty neat, but he never talked about it much,” Iacono said.

Quoting Orleans Historical Society volunteer Marcia Bromley, Richard Ryder, operations manager for the CG36500, said, “This thing has a soul of its own.”

Ryder said the CG36500 was built in Maryland out of cypress in 1946. The hull is so tough because its ribs are placed “quite close together” and fastened with bronze screws, he said. The keel and the bow are plated in monel, a kind of nickel alloy, he said, which gives the motor lifeboat icebreaking capability. As a boy growing up in Chatham, he saw CG36500 break ice around fishing boats “back when we had colder winters.” He also said CG36500 is designed to “roll over and right itself in about 12 seconds” if capsized. Owned by the Orleans Historical Society, CG36500 spends its summers in Rock Harbor and its winters in Meeting House Pond, he said. Insurance and maintenance run about $6,000 per year, he said.

“We get support from a lot of people,” he said.

Chief Robert Parent of Station Menemsha was stationed in Chatham from 2004 to 2008, and is familiar with the Chatham Bar, the sandbar Webber had to pilot CG36500 over en route to the Pendleton. He used to cross the bar to take part in rescues aboard old 44-foot motor lifeboats. Even with a full complement of modern electronics, passing over the turbulent bar was taxing. “It was still everything you had to get across that bar some nights,” he said.

Even after the vessel was acquired by the Orleans Historical Society, Parent got a chance to operate it occasionally. He described the feel of it as much less stiff than the present metal motor lifeboats: “It rides a lot differently because it’s wood. It’s a much softer ride.”

He said such a rescue today would remain extremely challenging for a motor lifeboat crew, and marveled at the feat, crediting Webber’s seamanship, his local marine knowledge, and a smidgen of luck.

CG36500 had not been back to Menemsha in 50 years. For Ryder, it was at least 50 years since he’d been there — a long-ago trip with his mother that included visiting the Gay Head Cliffs.

Aboard CG36500, Ryder was joined by Bernie Webber’s daughter, Patty Webber-Hamilton, Ryder’s spouse Pat Ryder, Coast Guard flight surgeon Mark Perni, Fred Eckar, and several guests from Cuttyhunk, including lobsterman Bruce Borges, who piloted the boat to and from Cuttyhunk.

Before CG36500 headed back to Cuttyhunk and then the Cape, Ryder took Iacono for a spin around Menemsha Harbor and then passed off the wheel to him.

“He hadn’t lost his touch,” Ryder said.

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Sidebar: Five questions of Michael J. Tougias, co-author of “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue”

Would it be safe to say that lifeboat and those who crewed it sum up the ongoing search and rescue (SAR) mission of that branch of the military?
The determination of that crew is a great example of countless USCG rescues, whether by aircraft, cutter, or smaller boat. And I like to remember all the people not on the front lines who make the rescues possible; from the mechanics to the communications officers, everyone plays a role.

What about CG36500 do you find notable?
When I was aboard the vessel, I could not imagine that 32 survivors and a four-man crew could fit on this 36-foot boat. I wondered how they managed to stay on board with waves bigger than the vessel crashing around it. And when I took the wheel of the boat, I wondered how on earth Bernie Webber was able to maneuver it. To me the 36500 was not the most responsive boat by today’s standards, and even felt a little sluggish. But I remember Andy Fitzgerald (one of the rescuers) saying he had total faith in that vessel and in Bernie’s seamanship, particularly when it came to navigating the Chatham Bar.

Do you consider CG36500 to be a character in your book?
Bernie Webber loved that boat, and his passion rubbed off on me, so yes, the 36500 felt like a real character. Bernie was a real historian and stickler for getting the smallest of detail in the book perfect. Without him “The Finest Hours” would not be half the book it was. And best of all, as Bernie and I got to know each other, we became friends and had many laughs during our long interviews by phone. To me, that was the very best aspect of “The Finest Hours” — how the research led to a friendship. He was so happy that volunteers have restored the 36500 and keep it shipshape!”

What parallels and differences strike you between motor lifeboat crews circa your book and today’s crews?
While the bravery today is no different than that of the men in “The Finest Hours,” I believe today’s Coast Guard has evolved in a positive way: They do a risk analysis before putting their people in harm’s way. If the analysis shows that those attempting the rescue have a high probability of becoming casualties themselves, they rethink the mission. Maybe they use different resources, maybe they approach it differently, or maybe they wait for a break in the weather.

Could you cite a contemporary Coast Guard rescue that made an impression on you?
In 2007 in subtropical Storm Andrea, a CG helicopter crew performed a rescue that I did not think possible. I was so impressed I wrote a book about, it titled “A Storm Too Soon.” Three survivors were clinging to a tiny life raft in 80-foot seas off the Carolinas. The Jayhawk helicopter pilot and co-pilot had to position the aircraft just a few feet above the towering waves in hurricane-force winds while the hoist operator and rescue swimmer prepared to enter the cauldron. Some of what happened is shown on a video on my website. The rescue swimmer was in a situation so dangerous it was uncertain if the helo crew would be able to get him back in the helicopter. And the survivors never dreamed that a helo or rescue swimmer could make it 200 miles out to sea in such a storm to try and save them.