Maritime Log #30 – A Rescue Broken Off but Then a Fatal Moment on the Sea

by Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

There used to be a mantra in the Coast Guard that said, “You have to go out but you don’t have to come back.” Former Coastie Ralph Stevens remembers when his boat was sent out. It was called back. (Stevens is pictured above).

But another local vessel kept going – and five men died.

Stevens served four years in the Coast Guard (1975-79) but he was part of one of the most memorable – if unfortunate – events in Coast Guard history in New England. A pilot boat with five aboard sank in the Blizzard of 1978.

Stevens, assigned to the station in Gloucester in the late ‘70s, was part of a mission in which the Coast Guard made the right decision. A mission was cancelled.

“It was a terrible storm,” said Stevens, retired from employment with the state, and a part-time bar tender at the Park Lunch restaurant in Newburyport. “People even today remember the snowy roads and cars that got stuck, but on the ocean it was 25 to 30 foot waves and winds at maybe 50 knots.

“We got a mayday call from a tanker in trouble off Gloucester, and we started out in a 41-footer. But we couldn’t see because of the snow and wind, and it was decided that we would not be able to find the boat under these conditions We didn’t leave the harbor.”

A local pilot boat heard the chatter on its radio. It did respond. It was the Can Do, a powerful 50-footer.

The tanker, The Global Home, was outside Gloucester harbor, and its captain felt the vessel was in distress. But it was a very large ship, and historians in retrospect wonder how much a small vessel could have helped

The crew was headed by captain Frank Quirk. Because all of his men were capable seamen, those who heard that the Can Do was missing felt the sturdy vessel would return.

But this was the worst storm in a century. The Coast Guard did not go out.The Can Do did. No one returned.

“When an emergency call is received, people sometimes operate on adrenalin rather than taking a step back to analyze the situation,” Stevens said years later. “I understand how in some circumstances there is no time to waste, but in the case of this (600-foot) tanker, it wasn’t going anywhere. The Coast Guard officers paused and looked at the big picture and let common sense dictate action. They stopped us.

“Going out during a blizzard is dangerous. I was on the same 41-foot Coastie boat when we rushed to save the Chester Poling, in another tough situation, and I’m lucky we made it back from that one.

“Losing guys on the Can Do was awful. It was heartbreaking then and it still is heartbreaking now.”

If your organization would like me to speak at an event, please get in touch. I can be reached at dhendrickson@thechmm.org.

Thanks. Dyke Hendrickson