The red distress flare shot up from the sinking ship,the Smith Voyager.Every man aboard our Coast Guard cutter,the Rockaway,knew that time had run out.We had been circling the crippled freightering for the 35-foot waves to ease up.But now the crewmen remaining aboard the Voyager had to be rescued.And quikly.
The 439-foot ship was being hopelessly beaten by the sea.With each roll she took in more water.The last life raft had broken away,and darkness would fall in half an hour.We could wait no longer.
The SOS from the Voyager had reached us the afternoon before.On patrol 300miles away,we immediately speeded toward her posion.Another vessel had picked up 34 survivors,but the Voyager's captain and three crewmen had stayed aboard.They had hoped the storm didn't die down.And saving those four men was our job.
The weather couldn't have been worse.The winds were roaring.The waves were like watery mountains.There was only one way to save the four men on the Voyager.We must pick them up in a small boat.
Commanding the rescue boat was my assignment.Two boats were ready.The26-foot pullingboat,which has to be rowed,needs a crew of 12 men.The equally long powerboat has a mighty long powerboat has a mighty engine to do much of the work and needs only four men.I went to our skipper,Captain McGarity,expecting him to deside which boat to use.
He didn't."Which boat do you want to take?"he asked.
I thought hard and,for better or worse,made up my mind.With a pulling boat,the lives of 12 men would be in danger.But if we used the powerboat,an engine failure could mean disaster.The bits of wreakage could easily snarl our propeller.And if a man went overboat,he might never be heard above the engine's roar.
The captain repeated his question,"which boat do you want to take?"
"The pulling boat,sir,"I said.
Captain McGarity gave me a long look.Then he snapped,"Okay.Go ahead."
The pulling boat's crew lined up before me.My heart sank!Some of the men didn't wegh more than135 pounds.Others looked too young to be in service.And,because we had had so much bad weather on this trip,the crew had never worked together in a rescue boat.
We said little as the cutter rolled and plunged to drop us 500yards from the Voyager.Every man felt fear,but we tried not to show it.One of the oarsman joked,"Is it too late to quit?I kept forgetting to take my name off the volunteer list.""The exercise will do you good,"said another seaman.
It look ten minutes to reach the wreck.The oarsmen strained at the two rows of oars.Usually,one man can handle the seep oar which acts as the rudder and steers the boat.But in these wild seas both the"extra"man and I had to grip the sweep oar.We struggled to keep the boat from swinging sideways,because one wave could flood our boat in a second.
Cautiously,we worked our way up to the Voyager.We had to get as close as possible to the survivors,but we dared not move too close.As the Voyager rolled down,we could be sucked over the deck.Then we would be smashed to splinters as she rolled up again.Or we could get caught under the 20-foot water-falls that plunged off the desks with each roll.
As the wreck drifted closer to us,we could see the captain and the three crewman clinging to the rails.I threw out a floatable line.The survivors jumped into the water and grabbed hold,but there was no time to pull them aboard.The last two man on the line looked dangerously close to being washed back onto the crashing decks of the Voyager.
"Let's get out of here!"I shouted.Now the most important moments were upon us.The men bent over the oars.Iheld the sweep oar with one hand.With my other hand,I clung to the rescue time to tie it to the seat of the boat.
The men rowed hard - but nothing happened.The drag of the survivors and the pull of the seas seemed to nail us to that one spot.
Why,why,I thought,didn't Captain McGarity tell me to take the powerboat?
"Harder!"I shouted.As the men strained,Icould see drops of blood oozing between their fingers.But their struggle wasn't enough.The wreck was drifting down on us.If that's all the strength you've got,I thought,we're all though.
"Give,give!"I yelled. I was praying for someing more than muscle
We were rolling so widly that Icouldn't see when it began to happen.But,suddenly,as if by a miracle,the wreck was no closer.And then we began inching away.
"Keep it up - keep it up.We're not out of trouble yet!"
Then,all at once,we were.We were free of that sinking monster of a ship.
The pull of the rescue line on my hand became unbearable.It cut into my fingers.My arm felt unhinged at the socket.I was losing the struggle to keep hold of theline."They 're pulling me out of the boat!"I yelled.
The "extra"man leaped toward me.He jammed the line down hard on the edge of the boat,Unwinding the rope from my hand,I hitched it around a seat.And the oarsman never missed a stroke.
Then a funny thing happened.Someone started to sing.It was the first man on the rescue line.And his favorite song at that moment was "Cruising Down the River on a Sunday Afternoon."The words came joyously and bravely through the howling wind.What a strange scene it was - 12 men in the boat,four men hanging onto the line,giant waves,the beating rain.And then that gay song.
In 15 minutes of brutal rowing we had travelwd only about 125 feet from the wreck,but now,at last,we could drag in the line.We pulled in the surviors like sacks of potatoes and rowed on before the wreck got dangerously close again.The freighter's captain gasped,"I couldn't have held on two minutes longer."
By this time darkness covered us,but we kept on rowing until we saw our cutter creping toward us.Her seachlights were driving holes in the rain and dusk,so we rowed for the lights.
Ten minutes later we were pulled aboard.The Coast Guard has a saying,"You've got to go out,but you don't have to come back."We were bruised,drenched and totally exhausted - but we were back.
I was dry and warm under sweaters and blankets when Captain McGarity came by."Congratulations on afine job,"he said quietly."And especially for being smart enough to have picked the pulling boat."
He left as quickly as he had appeared.
I thought about his words.For the first time I began to understand what had actually brought us back alive.
I had chosen the pulling boat for good reasons,but I had not thought of the most important reason.The engine in that powerboat has only a limited amount of strengh and power.A machine can not give beyond its limit.Without knowing it,I had gambled our lives on a special power that can never be built into an engine.It is the extra strengh that men can always find within themselves when they know they must.I had gambled and won.