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Survival at Sea

With winds at 70 knots, seas at 60 feet, eighty-four crew members of World War II T2 oil tankers the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer prayed for a miracle in the early morning hours of February 18th, 1952. The 10,000-ton tankers independently split just aft of their bridges by the relentless pounding walls of icy water and gale force winds and drifted further by the minute into the abysmal blackness of the North Atlantic, their dismembered carcasses barely afloat.

An unyielding nor’easter had shrieked a frigid wakeup call at 5am, first breaking the Pendleton apart, taking the captain and seven crew members to the bottom of the ocean in her bow. Thirty-three terrified survivors clung to the remaining wreckage of her stern hoping their mayday had reached the Coast Guard before the fragment they clung to was battered to the depths.  Later the Mercer, also now in two pieces, floated away with more men who shivered against wind and snow that shrieked all around them from the bowels of hell, threatening a miserable fate.

The reporting of this fateful voyage resulted in a book called The Finest Hours, The true Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by writer and lecturer Michael Tougias, and co-authored by Casey Sherman. It is less about shipwrecks and more about heroism; the kind of gut level split-second action that saves lives. It is a story of life, death and all the choices that lie sandwiched in between.
This concept, as presented in The Finest Hours, has also caught the attention of world famous Disney productions.

A movie version of the book is currently in Hollywood production with a tentative release date in 2013. The impressive crew of that craft includes academy award winning screenwriter Dorothy Afiero, co–producer of The Fighter, starring Massachusetts’ own Mark Walberg. To date, some of the movie will be filmed in and around Cape Cod.

“It is still kind of hard for me to get my head around all this,” said Tougias. “But I think what caught Dorothy’s eye is that simple fact that audiences crave an inspirational story about overcoming tremendous obstacles. To me, The Finest Hours exemplifies the very definition of super hero of the old fashioned kind.”

Tougias, who hails from Plymouth, Massachusetts, began research on this once little known account in 2007, completing the project in 2009.  He was captivated by the  search tenacity of the Nantucket and Cape Cod Coast Guard in pursuing the survivors during one of the worst storm of that year. One of eighteen books Tougias has penned, he remains awed by the bravery of all involved in this story.
“The word “hero” simply isn’t big enough to describe them,” he said. “The concept of actions of human bravery, coupled with split-second decision making against tremendously negative odds by seemingly ordinary people inches from death’s grip, is simply fascinating.”

   Tougias spends a good deal of his time lecturing to audiences throughout the United States on just this concept, and his book The Finest Hours has become, for him, an extraordinary example of what a person will do to survive when faced with every extreme imaginable.  “These life lessons,” Tougais says, “can help all of us achieve our dreams in ordinary everyday life by learning to manage rapid organizational change, operate at peak performance and lead more fulfilling, productive lives,”  both on and off of the water.

A trim fifty-seven year old, Tougias sports the lean, muscular build of an athlete; one who loves being in and around the water. He gives more than seventy lectures a year, retelling stories from his writings that reflect the lessons learned about goal attainment, decision making under pressure and what it means to be a hero. Additionally, his previous books Ten Hours until Dawn and Fatal Forecast, both national best-sellers, illustrate what it takes to be a true survivor, a genuine hero.

“It is primarily the people in my water-related stories that intrigue me,” he says. “At the core of the men and women I write about, the rescuers as well as those who survive the terrible ordeals in extenuating circumstances who have beaten all the odds, is a very highly defined sense of life over death,” he continued. “Ordinary people who were in easy reach of fatality rose to the challenge of surviving, fighting long hours, sometimes days, with incredible tenacity, sheer will and absolute courage. The definition of what marks a hero -- fortitude, guts, valor, selflessness and strength of character -- has tremendous meaning to us as a society in these tumultuous times.”

“The U.S. Coast Guard both on Nantucket and the Cape made numerous attempts to rescue the crew from the Pendleton and the Mercer. One of the Coast Guard cutters was only 36 feet long (Monikered CG36500, she lives peacefully today at a dock on the Cape) a standard size back then, already was  carrying four crew members in her helm. Eventually they picked up thirty-three additional freezing crew members from the bow of the Pendleton and somehow squeezed them aboard and got them to dry land.

“The fact that these Coasties physically responded to such a seemingly hopeless call was a miracle in itself. But they were ‘just doing their job’,” said Tougias.

Although Nantucket’s Coast Guard played a pivotal role in the rescue attempts aboard the cutter Yakutat, the movie will most likely focus on Guardsman Bernie Webber, the twenty-four year old crew member of CG35600 from Chatham, who successfully saved those thirty-three of thirty-four men off the Pendleton Bow as they were being dwarfed by the 70-75 foot seas.

However, Nantucket’s Yakutat reached the still buoyant bow of the Mercer in the pitch black that night at 6:30 pm. The pitching cutter was commanded by J.W.Naab and skippered by Ralph Ormsby, with a four-man crew including Alfred Roy, Donald Pitts and John Dunn. Although Captain Naab danced the Yakutat around the fractured portion of the tanker and her frostbitten, terrified crew, there was no getting close without the monstrous waves crushing his boat against the side of their hull and possibly losing both crews. Finally, after more than five hours of watching for openings to get aboard the broken ship, they were ordered to seek safety on the Pollock Rip lightship. Another attempt was made later by tying together several Monomoy surf boats (designed with a high bow for big surf) and letting them drift to the wreckage, but no sailor could make the leap successfully. They would have to wait until daylight to try again.

“It must have been an agonizing decision for Captain Naab”, said Tougias. “But a very heroic one. He had two crews to consider. Bravery in the face of this kind of decision making takes on a new meaning”.

Here, in a page from the book, the unimaginable is delivered to the reader:

“He (Naab) was entering some of the most treacherous waters on the East Coast: the shifting labyrinth of shoals between Nantucket and the elbow of Cape Cod. The tides play havoc in the shallows here, as water moves back and forth between Nantucket Sound and the open ocean, creating rip currents of churning, sand filled seas that can be frightening even on a calm day.”


*Tougias’s latest book, A Storm Too Soon: A True Story of Disaster, Survival and an Incredible Rescue (Simon and Schuster) is available for pre-order on Amazon.com here