ORLEANS — Last week wasn't one of the finest hours for rescue lifeboat CG36500.
What started as a private chat Aug. 22 between author Casey Sherman and leaders of the Orleans Historical Society, which owns the boat used to save 32 sailors from the wreck of the tanker Pendleton in 1952, sent the rumor mill spinning with speculation about the future relocation of the boat.
Sherman contacted community members after being asked by OHS leadership “to leverage my relationship with the Coast Guard” regarding a possible move of the boat to Washington, D.C., for display.
“The idea of shipping the boat to Washington where only Coast Guard people would see it does a disservice,” Sherman said in an interview. “As Cape Codders, our mission is to save the boat.” That can be done locally if OHS is more aggressive about finding organizations to support keeping CG36500 on the Cape. OHS “is doing a poor job of marketing and monetizing” CG36500, “an internationally famous piece of history,” he said.
OHS Vice Chair Jay Stradal, the society's spokesman, said last Wednesday's conference call with Sherman, co-author of “The Finest Hours,” on which a Disney movie of the daring rescue was based, “was understood to be in strict confidence because it was strictly exploratory.” He participated along with OHS President Kathleen McNeil and a museum volunteer.
For years, Stradal said, the board has been concerned “about what happens when CG36500 has to come out of the water. The boat is 72 years old. A wooden boat has to stay in the water, or if it's taken out, to be preserved. Once it dries out, there are leaks. Our volunteers (who maintain and operate the boat) are not getting any younger. We want to be able to preserve that boat long-term.”
One of those volunteers is Chatham's Don St. Pierre, who's devoted decades to the care of the CG36500. At 78, he realizes his days at the helm are numbered, but he wants to ensure that the lifeboat remains on Cape Cod. He first encountered the boat in 1954, when it was still in active duty and rescued his family off Hyannis.
When CG36500 came out of service in 1968 (it was built in 1946 in Maryland), the Coast Guard donated the boat to the Cape Cod National Seashore, which was planning a lifesaving exhibit. Others in its class were not so fortunate; having donated other boats to the communities they served, the Coast Guard had tired of seeing them gather weeds in town squares and had taken to burning them and recycling the brass from their fittings.
But neglect was CG36500's lot as it sat at Seashore headquarters in Wellfleet. The boat wasn't the right age for the park's planned lifesaving museum, and talk about sending it the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., was just that. Last week, Stradal said the historical society received an inquiry two or three years ago about the boat from a civilian Coast Guard procurement officer in Washington, but the discussion “went nowhere.”
Around 1980, Orleans photographer, writer and historian Bill Quinn had his eyes on the long-abandoned boat, which by this time was on a trailer in a bed of weeds. One story has it that the Seashore wanted some historical photos in Quinn's possession, and he traded them for a permanent loan of the boat to the Orleans Historical Society. By October 1981, the title had been transferred to the OHS.
In a 1982 interview with The Chronicle's Priscilla Hatch Craven, Quinn shared that his grandfather, a Nova Scotia fisherman, became a literal washashore on Cape Cod when he was shipwrecked and came to land in Eastham. The sand in his grandson's shoes was real.
Craven detailed how Quinn organized a large group of volunteers to restore the CG36500. In September 1982, the paper's Eric Hartell began his story with a quote: “'Please be advised CG36500 has returned to homeport after a 15-year leave of absence.' The radio message...was sent by Don St. Pierre, commanding...”
Ahead for the rescue lifeboat was a career of appearances at maritime festivals, parades, port visits, and even a couple more rescues. In 1983 during a cruise on Cape Cod Bay, coxswain Dick Ryder saw flares and met up with a 17-foot vessel with engine trouble and no working radio; CG36500 towed the smaller boat to safety. In 1998, on the way to the Boston Antique and Classic Boat Festival in Quincy, where the lifeboat won first place in the Workboat class, the CG36500 encountered a disabled 30-foot motor craft and helped tow it to port.
In 1986, CG36500 needed to be rescued. The boat took on water during a gale and separated from a mooring at Claflin Landing in Chatham. Coast Guard Station Chatham crew braved the rain and wind to search for the treasured vessel, but it was St. Pierre who found the coxswain stand sticking out of the water at Andrew Harding Landing. He said he'd dreamt that night that the boat had sunk. Habormaster Peter Ford concluded that the lifeboat had laid sideways to the wind and taken on water; miraculously, there was no structural damage.
Over the years, much of the boat has been rebuilt by contractors and volunteers. St. Pierre said supporters have always found the necessary funds and other donations. It was ready for the dramatic 50th anniversary of the rescue in 2002, when the four-man crew returned to Chatham for special duty. As the paper's Alan Pollock wrote, “A timeless story of heroism and compassion was renewed last week when the famed CG36500 motor lifeboat pulled away from the fish pier, its gray-haired Gold Medal crew at the controls.”
St. Pierre is disturbed by the possibility of a move, even to his town, whose historical society declined the offer of the boat decades ago because it was busy with other projects. “There is no place for it in Chatham,” he said. “It can't go to the fish pier, and it would just get beat to death on a mooring. Orleans has a nice dock, and thousands can see it.” Sure enough, CG36500 has pride of place at the head of the dock at Rock Harbor, where a banner announces its presence, tours are given, and a converted mailbox accepts donations.
Speculation abut what sort of monetary settlement might be involved in transferring ownership of the lifeboat led some to wonder whether such funds would be used to help the Orleans Historical Society purchase the Capt. Linnell House, its intended new headquarters.
“It's no surprise we're in a capital campaign,” Stradal said. “The two are not necessarily connected. Something has to be done with the boat regardless of Linnell.” To that end, he said, the board's leaders will continue to explore options and share these when they acquire more substance.
In 1982, Bill Quinn made his view clear. “The Orleans Historical Society is guardian of the craft,” he said, “but she belongs to the people of Cape Cod.”