The U.S. Coast Guard's official motto is "semper paratus," or "always prepared." For decades, the unofficial motto was, "You have to go out, but you do not have to come back."
Personal sacrifice in the mission of saving lives is the theme of "The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue." In February 1952, a massive winter storm covered New England in 2 feet of snow and turned the waters off Cape Cod into a maelstrom of 60-foot seas. Two oil tankers, the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer, both built quickly and pressed into service during World War II, broke apart in the seas. Only one tanker was able to send a Mayday signal. Now, with four halves of ships adrift in the raging storm, a complex and dangerous search and rescue operation was underway.
Authors Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman use the 48 hours of storm, wreck and rescue as the backbone of a story that weaves in the personal stories of the Coasties, their families and their boats. A son of a Baptist minister, groomed for a life in the ministry, becomes the captain of a heroic crew of a 36-foot lifeboat, then spends the rest of his life shedding the praise. The lifeboat, known simply as "CG36500," is relegated to a maintenance yard, then is discovered and restored by a new generation of fans.
This same geography and type of tragedy was covered in 1997 by Sebastian Junger in "The Perfect Storm." The narrative in "The Finest Hours" is not nearly as tight. Like riding a lifeboat at sea, reading it is a bit rough. The editing can be choppy, and it needs a good map of the wrecks and the ports. And unlike Junger's book, "The Finest Hours" is told from the perspective of the rescuers -- a change in our thinking since 9/11.
The story will resonate in Minnesota; Duluth and Lake Superior have their own tales of Coast Guard sacrifice and shipping tragedy, from rescue operations in Duluth's piers to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. At the Duluth Coast Guard station at Canal Park sits a 36-foot lifeboat identical to the boat that brought 32 shipwrecked Pendleton sailors to safety.
For the fan of marine adventure and heroic public service, the book captures the spirit of those who had to go out -- and those who did come back. This book captures the wit, grit and sacrifice of Coasties and their boats.
Andrew Slade, who writes guidebooks, lives along Lake Superior and blogs at http://northshore-thereandback. blogspot.com/.