Author honors the courage of Can Do crew
In February 1978 a northeaster of historical intensity struck New England. As what would come to be known as the Blizzard of 1978 hammered the coast, the tanker Global Hope floundered on the shoals in Salem Sound and called for help.
The Coast Guard heard the mayday calls and immediately dispatched a 44-foot motor lifeboat. The Coast Guardsmen soon lost their radar and depth finder leaving them lost in the blinding snow and in serious jeopardy in the 40-foot seas.
Pilot boat captain Frank Quirk was monitoring the rescue effort by radio. When he heard that the Coast Guard boat was in trouble he gathered his crew of four, which included former Coast Guardsman Charlie Bucko who was known for his ability to act under pressure, aboard his 49-foot steel boat, the Can Do, and notified the Coast Guard that he would attempt a rescue.
Captain Quirk and his crew left the comfort and safety of Gloucester Harbor and put aside the concerns of friends and family to enter a cauldron of water driven by winds in excess of 100 miles per hour: not because they had to or were expected to, but because they chose to.
The long Memorial Day weekend is expected to provide sunny skies and good fishing. On Monday not as many people as should will take time to think about the sacrifices of the many military men and women the holiday was set aside to honor and remember.
Memorial Day is also an opportunity to remember sacrifices made far from any battlefronts. Next Thursday at the Vineyard Haven library, author Michael Tougias will tell the story of a group or ordinary men with extraordinary courage who made a selfless decision to help others. They are the type of men and women who inhabit waterfront communities across the country and it is a story we should all be grateful was told.
The title of Mr. Tougias's book is "Ten Hours Until Dawn, The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do (St. Martin's)."
The story is made more compelling because it is based on the actual ten hours of audio recordings from the night of the storm of the voices of men of the Coast Guard and the Can Do.
I spoke with Mr. Tougias Tuesday as he prepared to speak in a community in northern Vermont
He said Captain Quirk was on the dock with no intention to go out when he heard that the Coast Guardsmen were in trouble. He called the Coast Guard commander in Gloucester and said he would see if he could find the boat on his radar and escort them back in to the harbor. The crew of the motor lifeboat was young, between 19 and 22 years of age.
Several years ago I had an opportunity to listen to a recorded exchange between a Coast Guard radio operator from Group Woods Hole and a panicked woman aboard a sailboat after her husband fell overboard. The drama needed no embellishment as the radioman calmly spoke to the distressed woman and attempted to get a location.
Mr. Tougias, an experienced journalist, said he was immediately attracted to the story of the Can Do after he learned that everything was captured on the audiotapes. "The audio tape is just so gripping, partly because the men on the Can Do are so damn calm, even as hour by hour the boat is being taken apart," he said.
Mr. Tougias said the type of sacrifice we remember on Memorial Day is also the essence of the story of the Can Do. "These men didn't have to go out," he said. "They were not in the Coast Guard. It was not like the Perfect Storm where bad luck puts you in the middle of a storm. They knew what they were getting into. They got permission from the Coast Guard to see if they could find that lost boat and out they went."
Frank Quirk was the type of man who could always be counted on to help a boater in trouble. "If you ran out of gas, he was the one who came and never would charge you," he said.
In the case of Charlie Bucko, 29, who had just left the Coast Guard, his fiancée begged him not to go, telling him that he was no longer in the Coast Guard. But he had trained some of the men in peril that night and could not be dissuaded.
Eventually the crew of the motor lifeboat would make it back to port while the Can Do would lose its radar and then its windows. Still, they managed to stay afloat as the Coast Guard tried to assist them.
The Cape George, a 95-foot Coast Guard Cutter sent to assist the tanker was directed by the Coast Guard commander in a radio message to change its mission and search for the Can Do. Mr. Tougias said, "The captain of the Cape George comes back and says, 'we are presently lost. I repeat. We are presently lost. We have no radar. We have no LORAN. We have no Fathometer.' And you can tell they are in as much trouble as the Can Do."
The act of writing about other people in a life-and-death situation is an intimate experience. It is hard for a writer not to think of the people he or she is writing about and want to do his best. I asked Mr. Tougias if he thought about the men of the Can Do. I was not surprised by his answer. "I keep Frank and Charlie's picture right in my office," he said. "I felt like I was entrusted to do the best with their story because they both led colorful lives long before this happened."
Writing the story gave him a deep appreciation for the Coast Guard, so much so that he has encouraged his 16-year-old son to look at it as an option. "I just found these men honest and straightforward and they like their jobs, which was unusual in today's world. Even the men who were on that lost 44, they told the story like it was and did not pull any punches. They didn't try to make themselves sound brave or anything else and that is kind of the way most of the Coasties I've met are."
Every writer likes to think that his or her readers will find something of meaning in their story. I asked Mr. Tougias what he wanted readers to come away with once they finished his book. He said a reader summed it up best in a letter. "She said, 'when I bought this book I thought it might be depressing, but now that I am through with it I am inspired to know that there are men like Frank Quirk and Charlie Bucko, people out there that will step forward when everybody else steps back.'"
This Memorial Day, no matter how good the fishing might be at the time, it is worth pausing for a moment to remember and honor the fact that our country has people, in uniform and out, who have always been willing to step forward.
Mr. Tougias's presentation, "A Fight for Survival in the Blizzard of 1978," is told in documentary fashion using photos and audiotapes. It begins at 7 pm in the Vineyard Haven Library.
Timing is everything and Steve Morris appears to have timing on his side this week. The Dick's Bait and Tackle 15th annual Memorial Day tournament begins 12:01 am Friday and ends noon Monday. This week's change in weather bodes well for the arrival of schools of hungry bluefish and more striped bass.
There are shore and boat divisions and considerable cash prizes. The entry fee is $30. Register at Dick's on New York Ave. in Oak Bluffs. Call 508-693-7669 for information.
Schoolie bass are turning up around the Island. Menemsha Pond and Sengekontacket are likely spots to have fun with light tackle. Coop says fishermen are finding bigger bass fishing squid on the bottom along South Beach and blues are beginning to show up with some regularity along Chappy. Fishermen are cautioned to be very careful at the Norton Point cut.
Launch Tenders Course Offered.
Sail Martha's Vineyard will be offering a Limited Masters (Launch Tenders) Course at the Sail MV building on Main Street in Vineyard Haven on Sunday, June 3, from 9 am to 5 pm and Monday, June 4, from 8 am to 4 pm. The course grants a U.S. Coast Guard approved certification and is open to anyone 17 years old and older. The cost of the course is $275. There is a 20-percent discount for Sail MV members. To register, call Sail MV at 508-696-7644.