Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein, 7th Coast Guard District Public Affairs
“It still gives me pause,” said Kristopher Furtney, who retired in 2001 as a lieutenant commander following two decades of service.
Furtney, 53, meticulously described details of the late-October weather system immortalized by the film, The Perfect Storm. A ferocious nor’easter, it was also dubbed “the storm of the century” because three massive weather systems collided, resulting in treacherous conditions at sea.
Calm before the storm
Originally built for the United States Navy during World War II as a seagoing tug, the USS Zuni became the Tamaroa in 1946, when transferred to the Coast Guard. Although a reliable vessel, the single-screw cutter met its match Halloween weekend of 1991.
The dramatic events of Halloween weekend 1991 began to unfold after the crew returned from a 48-hour mid-patrol break in its homeport, Newcastle, N.H. When they pulled their 205-foot tug into Provincetown, Mass., the blowing wind alerted them of an impending storm. What they couldn’t know is that the sun would rise and set five more times before they headed back into port.
“I remember looking at the blustery conditions and the darkening sky, hearing the constant crackling of the radio and saying, ‘It isn’t a matter of if we get called, but when,’” Furtney said.
Those words would prove prophetic.
Search for Satori
Like countless Coast Guardsmen before them, the crew of Tamaroa, tied down anything that might come loose topside and below deck. While at anchor, the winds and seas were gradually building offshore. At 10:00 p.m. taps was piped. Yet just 10 minutes later, the crew heard reveille, when they should have been drifting off to sleep. Heading out into the stormy night, they began searching for Satori, a sailing vessel in distress 75 miles off Nantucket Island.
With Block Island to their east and Montauk Point to the west, seas began to build on the ship’s stern as they made best speed to Satori, still 80 nautical miles away. With a helicopter and a Falcon jet on scene, the Tamaroa arrived at approximately noon. The crew of Satori had survived a disastrous night where they had lost all their sails and pitch-pulled.
“The captain of the Tamaroa determined it was a manifestly unsafe voyage, and the 1st District commander agreed,” said Furtney.
Rescuing the crew proved challenging in high winds and rough seas. A boat launched from Tamaroa sustained damage to one of its lifting eyes. Still able to control the boat, the crew was able to pass foul weather gear to the sailors, in preparation for their hoist to safety by a helicopter. Yet the small boat sustained further damage to two pontoons. Reluctantly, three seasoned crewmembers were hoisted to safety, as it would have been nearly impossible to receiver the small boat.
“From a search and rescue point of view, we had reduced our crew and lost one of our rigid hull inflatable boats,” said Furtney. “I was thinking, ‘I’m glad they’re safe, let’s get out of this weather,’” he said.
But their work was far from over.
Rescue in 60-knot winds
Another search and rescue case developed in the vicinity of Bermuda and an Air National Guard crew was dispatched. Heading north and making less than three miles an hour into the heavy winds and sea, the crew of Tamaroa ate a simple supper of scrambled eggs, sweetened juice, toast and medication to combat the seasickness that had set in.
At 10:00 p.m., taps was once again piped throughout the ship. Yet five minutes later, Furtney heard a command to change frequencies for an Air National Guard helicopter in distress. His adrenaline racing, he heard the co-pilot say, “We’ve lost number one, 40 pounds of fuel remaining, preparing to ditch.”
Furtney raced to brief the captain, and reveille was piped to awaken the crew once again. They learned the helicopter ditched approximately 30 nautical miles south of the Tamaroa.
“As the ship came about, all hands experienced the fury of 60-knot winds and 30-foot seas,” said Furtney.
After nearly three hours, Tamaroa arrived on scene in the dead of night. With the assistance of aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, they located two sets of strobes about two miles apart.
“If not for those strobe lights, the aircraft and the Tamaroa would have never seen those survivors in the water,” said Furtney.
Trying multiple approaches over the next two and a half hours, they settled on using large cargo nets to pick up the survivors. During the rescue, the ship was put beam to the sea and the crew experienced 52-degree rolls for more than an hour.
“Visibility was severely impaired and water was blowing off the top of the high seas,” recalled Furtney.
At the height of the rescue, seas were greater than 40 feet and winds exceeded 80 knots. Pressing on, they were fueled by adrenaline and an intense desire to help. Although Tamaroa’s crew successfully rescued four Air National Guardsmen, there was one man still missing.
Furtney discussed the exhaustive search to locate the highly-decorated pararescueman, Rick Smith and recalled the emotional rollercoaster that came from numerous unconfirmed sightings in the water over the next 48 hours.
At the height of the rescue, the crew of Tamaroa had been working with little or no sleep. Many were ordered to get some rest.
“Adrenaline can only take you so far,” said Furtney.
Remembering two decades later
Two decades later, Furtney reflected on teamwork, leadership, the importance of evaluating risk and being prepared.
“One should expect the unexpected and constantly reevaluate the long-term impact of decisions upon your crew,” he said. “It’s also critical to remember each person plays a vital role, and that you must rely upon one another.”
The “Perfect Storm” provided an opportunity for the Coast Guard to perform well under horrific conditions. Furtney credits the work during the storm to collective critical thinking skills, the Coast Guard’s rich tradition of rescues under challenging conditions and solid teamwork.
“Making tough decisions and calculated risks on land can be challenging at times,” he said. “Factoring in fatigue and diminished control in rough weather at sea is a different game altogether.”
Giving his crew high marks for endurance and resilience, Furtney said the rescue was memorable but bittersweet.
“We were glad to have rescued four, but wished we could have rescued all five crewmembers during the Perfect Storm, and I still have strong emotions about that,” he said. “But having this opportunity to serve the public and help save a human life is why I joined the Coast Guard in the first place.”