The recent movie release of “The Finest Hours,” starring Chris Pine, is Disney’s latest foray into entertainment on the high seas, but instead of following marauding pirates, this movie documents the real life bravery of several Coast Guard crews during a daring rescue mission off the coast of Massachusetts. The inspiration for the film, a book by the same name, features the co-writing of two established authors, Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, who manage to race through the details of that chaotic day in history in such cinematic fashion, it is no wonder the story found a home on the big screen.
The book opens with a visit to a small restored boat, an unassuming wooden vessel with no name on her side, no clever reference to a favorite pet or a girlfriend. Instead, “CG36500” is all that defines her, signifying her as nothing more extraordinary than the 500th boat in the Coast Guard’s class of 36-footers built during the middle of the 20th century.
Though its claim to fame is largely forgotten, this small boat is just one player in a very thrilling series of events that unfolded on the frigid seas of the Atlantic during a brutal winter storm in 1952. On the battering waves of that unfortunate February day, two oil tankers were among the several vessels trying to navigate the tumultuous conditions off the coast of New England, when they broke apart, putting the lives of nearly 100 men in peril.
In an unlucky twist of fate, both the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer suffered a catastrophic structural failure, with each vessel splitting in two upon the icy waters, battered by waves that approached 75 feet. With crew members separated on to the four fragments of the two ships, the call for rescue crackled through the wind and rain in a desperate Morse code plea for assistance.
What unfolded in those desperate hours, as the gaping halves of the two ships slowly sank, and the unprecedented rescue efforts that followed, is the subject of this real-world maritime thriller. The authors capably weave together the gripping moments of the multiple actions by Coast Guard crews that took place, painting fully developed pictures of the individuals who risked their own lives to assist.
Long held as the pivotal hero of the day’s events, and the main focus of both the book and movie version of “The Finest Hours,” is the young captain of “CG36500,” Bernie Webber, who looms large throughout the fast-moving narrative. Webber, like many sailors who served with the Coast Guard during World War II, discovered that the sea was in his blood, so he stayed on to serve his country by assisting vessels along the Atlantic shores near his childhood home. Every day, his workplace was in and around the harbors of Cape Cod, and though young, he repeatedly exhibited a resolve and a seriousness far beyond his age.
So, it was unsurprising that Webber and his three crew mates willingly joined the growing assortment of rescue parties, even though they already had been working for hours in the freezing waters of the storm, assisting local fishing boats. But, driving Webber’s decision, as it always did, was the Coast Guard motto, “You have to go out, but you do not have to come back.”
Both the imperiled tankers were a type of ship with a reputation for being troublesome. Dubbed “serial sinkers,” they were of a type of ship that was notorious for cracking, including one that broke in half while docked in port. Constructed from what was called, “dirty steel,” the ships were more vulnerable to the turbulent waters and the cold temperatures of the Atlantic.
The cracks that split the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer were remarkably similar to each other, and the results equally so, resulting in eighty-four men struggling for survival on shattered hulks of metal rapidly draining of oil and filling with ice-laden water.
The book moves swiftly through the chaos, pulling stories together from the rescuers as well as those awaiting aid. Woven in, without being ponderous or distracting, is the fascinating history of the local area and details about the community’s long relationship with the sea and the Coast Guard that protected it.
The most gripping sections of the book, of course, are in the pages that cover the climactic moments of the rescues, themselves, and as there were four ship segments, the details are varied and tense, yet equally compelling, and comprise a great deal of the book’s content. The movie is sure to be in theaters for awhile, and reading this masterfully paced book first will only enhance the viewing experience.