The children march down the gangplank onto the dock to meet the CG36500, an impossibly small, beautiful boat credited with carrying 32 men from their wrecked ship to safety during the February storm of 1952.
The boat, a floating museum owned by the Orleans Historical Society, resides in Rock Harbor during the summer, and winters at Nauset Marine East in Meeting House Pond.
Ironically, the man who tells the children the boat’s story, was once like them: a local 12-year-old boy growing up in Chatham. Unlike them, Richard Ryder says he wasn’t allowed to go down to the pier that stormy historic day to see the CG36500 arrive at the Chatham Fish Pier.
“I’d stayed home from school sick that day,” Richard Ryder said. “My mother told me if I was too sick to go to school, I sure as heck wasn’t going out in a storm like that one.” Instead, he listened to the Coast Guard radio traffic.”
Ryder is frequently on hand at the harbor during the summer months as a docent. He is one of the many who keep the old wooden boat afloat and tell her story, keeping it alive.
“[We] try to make it interesting for them,” Ryder said. “Who knows what they might take away…? It seems they do get the wonder and magic of [getting] 36 men on a 36-foot boat. The very same boat! In February. At night.”
Several days after that historic storm in 1952, Cape Codder reporter Arthur Dickey called the rescue “one of the most brilliant….in the history of the treacherous Chatham Bars….”
Two tankers, the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton, wrecked off the back side of the Cape in 25- foot seas, though those seas have built with time and telling to reports as high as 60 feet further off shore. Other Coast Guard vessels and a merchant ship were dispatched to the Fort Mercer, which was further offshore and south of the Pendleton. Of its 43 crew members, 38 were eventually rescued.
Meanwhile, the Pendleton was torn asunder with her captain, his three mates, the radio operator and three seamen stranded on the bow. The Coast Guard Cutter McCulloch circled the bow for hours, but none were saved.
The stern of the Pendleton ultimately lay one mile southeast of Chatham Light. People crowded the bluffs overlooking the ferocious ocean; fishermen huddled together at the fish pier. Everyone waited and hoped.
Boatswain’s mate Bernard Webber and his crew Irving Maske, Andrew Fitzgerald and Richard P. Livesey set out aboard the “Old CG 36500.” So far, other boats hadn’t been able to reach the wreck. According to accounts, those aboard the CG36500 didn’t expect to either; nor did they think they’d survive trying.
But they did, bringing 32 of 33 seaman to safety. One by one, with the help of an enormous crewmember nicknamed “Tiny,” they had lowered themselves to the boat that Webber skillfully kept near the wreck.
“And finally it came Tiny’s turn to lower himself down the hastily rigged ladder,” the Cape Codder reported. “The 350-pound seaman, officially listed as George Meyers, leaped from the ladder toward the lifeboat. But the vessels parted suddenly and the sailor plunged into the water. Coast Guards grabbed for him, but the vessels came together violently. George Meyers died a hero’s death…”
While the two boats broken in two created four separate rescue missions that night, the improbable story of a little boat that could and her brave crew saving 32 men captured the nation’s imagination. The rescue made national headlines; and the coast guardsmen were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, a rarely given honor.
Numerous books have been written about the rescue and one, The Finest Hours by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, has been turned into a movie set to be released in January by Disney Studios. In it, The CG36500 is played by other 36 footers, obtained by Disney for the film.
“She’s fully functional,” said Jay Stradal, board member and communication advisor for the Orleans Historical Society.
While the heroic feats performed aboard the CG36500 give her great cache in the Coast Guard community and being featured in a major motion picture will make her star shine more brightly, the story of the Old 36500 includes another chapter on rescue, this time hers. It is the tale of the passion a community has for its past and a will they have to preserve it.
In 1968, the boat was retired from service. While most of the “36s” were slated for destruction, Chatham’s boat, because of the historic rescue was spared. The Cape Cod National Seashore took ownership to create an exhibit. Government cuts to the park service backburnered CG36500’s restoration. She sat behind headquarters in Wellfleet, beneath scrub pines, neglected, gathering needles.
In 1981, the late William Quinn, Sr. and others rescued her.
“He went to talk to them at the park,” Ryder said. “He looked out the window and said ‘What the hell are you going to do with that?” pointing at the weather-beaten, peeling hull behind the building.” Those who remember Quinn, Sr. will hear the gruff humor in the question.
Hundreds of people put in thousands of hours and hundreds of businesses and individuals funded it. The community rallied with the same intensity and commitment it had for saving the many souls stranded by the ocean upon its shores for centuries.
Stradal, Ryder, and others at the historical society hope the CG36500’s rise to movie-star fame will generate interest and income to continue her preservation. With the changing demographic on the Cape, Stradal is concerned about maintenance.
“Love for this boat will alway be there,” Stradal said. “…can you find the people to maintain her who have the proper licenses, skills and certifications. One thing we can say for sure is the historical society is intent on keeping her afloat.”
“I am very proud of what so many people from the Outer Cape have done since 1981 to keep the history of the SS Pendleton rescue alive, and to keep the CG36500 still in the water and operational,” Ryder said. “There are few, if any, communities that can boast having a Gold Medal Life-Saving boat in their midst! Maybe when the Orleans kids leave and travel to distant shores, then come back, they will appreciate more what they left behind.”