ROCK HARBOR — The heroic rescue of 32 seamen off the Chatham coast more than 60 years ago has been called the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history.
Today, the small boat at the center of that tale has its own determined crew of rescuers. But they’re now facing a shortfall that could once again leave their famous charge high and dry.
Retired from service for nearly half a century, the 36-foot motor lifeboat known as CG36500 sits at the mouth of Rock Harbor, inconspicuously docked at the end of a line of fishing boats. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the floating museum, known to few, “looks like it could fit into a bathtub,” said Casey Sherman, coauthor of “The Finest Hours,” a 2009 book about the rescue. It gets 200 or so visitors every year, though that could change. A film adaptation of “The Finest Hours” comes out in January, starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.
On Aug. 7 the boat will venture to Boston for the first time in a decade to attend the commissioning of the Coast Guard Cutter Joshua James, named for a gold medal lifesaver who worked out of Hull in the early 1900s, and National Lighthouse Day events.
Few would guess that the sparkling white 69-year-old wooden vessel is in need of its own restoration.
“Clearly at some point we will not be able to keep it in the water,” said Jay Stradal of the Orleans Historical Society, the nonprofit that owns the boat. The society recently held a Save the CG36500 Lifeboat raffle to raise $9,000 for repairs, but came up $4,500 short. A donation box is on the pier nearby, but the take is small.
The boat is tended by a devoted troupe of 15, maybe 20, men and women who share a passion for CG36500, and volunteer their time to keep it seaworthy and its story alive. Some come every day to wash it, check it over, and do repairs; others take pieces of it home — engine parts, the windshield — and work on them there.
Some like Richard Ryder, 75, of Eastham, have a long history with the boat. Ryder, whose father was a fisherman, was a boy when the rescue took place in 1952.
Now he’s one of the two coxswains, along with Don St. Pierre, who’s also 75 and owned a garage in Chatham for 47 years. “I fortunately have been at the controls longer than any person on earth,” St. Pierre said. “I’ve been working on it so long it’s a part of who I am.”
Others like Nancy Rabke are so-called “washashores,” people who come to live on the Cape but aren’t from there. The retired school nurse came to Eastham from Manhattan in 2010 after her husband died and heard that Ryder was looking for volunteers.
Sometimes she stands on the boat by herself “and it’s during those times that you begin to look around the boat and see what an incredible feat it was to brave that kind of rescue situation.”
The story of CG36500 and its extraordinary mission in a brutal nor’easter is the stuff of legend. On Feb. 18, 1952, a four-man crew skippered by a Milton minister’s son named Bernie Webber was summoned to brave blinding snow and waves the size of buildings to save 32 merchant men clinging to life on a tanker, the Pendleton, that had been split in half by the force of the storm.
The lifeboat was meant to carry no more than 20, but double that number of men wedged into the boat and returned to safety.
The rescue made headlines around the world. Its crew received the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal, a rare commendation.
But acclaim is short-lived, and after it was decommissioned in 1968, CG36500 was “literally left for dead and in total disrepair,” said Sherman, who wrote “The Finest Hours” with Michael J. Tougias.
It was given to the Cape Cod National Seashore with the intention of maintaining it as an exhibit “but there was never any money available to do what was intended,” said Stradal. The boat languished, uncovered, in a field in Wellfleet for 13 years, until about 30 years ago when a TV news photographer named Bill Quinn spotted it and connected the faded numbers near its bow to the historic rescue.
“He started scheming to get ahold of the boat for the Orleans Historical Society,” said his son, Bill Quinn Jr. Acquired in 1981, it took volunteers six months working seven days a week to restore it.
“I always tell people the boat has a spirit,” said volunteer Marcia Bromley, who grew up in Chatham and lives in Eastham. “I swear the boat reached out of the water and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘You will work on me.’ ”
Now it stays in the water year-round, spending the summer in Rock Harbor and the winter in Orleans where it’s stored in the water at the Nauset Marine East boatyard. In the summer, it takes Historical Society members out for excursions to Dennis or Wellfleet.
It is not a fast boat. Its top speed is 9 miles per hour. (It will take eight hours to get to Boston.) But “once that old 1948 GM Detroit 4-71 diesel engine gets started, it will go at the same speed for hours with no problems,” Ryder noted in an e-mail.
Going out on the boat “is magic,” said Richard Besciak, 71, of Orleans, a retired high school history teacher and a regular volunteer. “We took two ladies in their 80s out on a rough day and they wrote us a letter to tell us it was the thrill of their lives, to get soaking wet in the forward section.”
He added: “We tend to use the word ‘hero’ too lightly. A hero isn’t Batman. It’s not Superman. It’s not Tom Brady. It’s men like Bernie Webber.”
Webber, the skipper, died in 2009, but is still very much alive to the volunteers. Sherman’s last e-mail from him came three days before he died, with a photo of the refurbished 36500.
“Here’s your boat,” Webber wrote. “Give her a kiss for me!”