Heroism in the Blizzard of 1978

Heroism in the Blizzard of 1978

Illustrations by Brett Affrunti

Back in 1978, Frank Quirk II was a well-known figure on the Gloucester, Massachusetts waterfront. As the captain of the 50-foot pilot boat, Can Do, he would bring pilots to freighters where those pilots then took over control of the ships and maneuvered them to port.

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Although the Can Do’s slip was in Gloucester’s South Channel off Rogers Street near the Coast Guard station, Quirk also serviced Salem Harbor, just 15 miles to the south. It was here, on February 1, that Quirk helped guide in a huge, 685-foot Greek registered oil tanker. The tanker was named the Global Hope and its oil was to be offloaded at a power plant. The job was a routine one for Quirk, and he reckoned the next time he’d hear from the tanker would be when it was ready to leave and a pilot was needed.

Instead, fate, the actions of the tanker’s captain and a blizzard of incredible fury set in motion events that spiraled out of control.

The rough and ready pilot vessel Can Do. Nothing could have prepared her and her crew for the violence of the Blizzard of ‘78.

* * *

In the late afternoon on February 6, 1978 a blizzard—later to be called The Storm of the Century—was beginning to explode. Quirk was safely hunkered down aboard Can Do at the dock in Gloucester with no intention of going anywhere. He was joined by his friends Kenney Fuller, Dave Curley and Don Wilkinson, all listening to updates about the storm and Coast Guard messages on the marine radio. The four sat around a table in the Can Do’s wheelhouse, directly behind the captain’s chair and wheel.

Suddenly they heard a frantic, crackling distress cry on the radio.

“Coast Guard, Coast Guard, this is Global Hope!”

“This is Coast Guard Station Gloucester.”

“We are in dangerous place! The water is coming inside into engine!”

“Did you say you are taking on water?”

“Water in engine room, engine room! Hull is broken!”

“Did you say the hull is broken and you are taking on water in the engine room?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“We will dispatch a boat with a pump at this time; stand by.”

Station Gloucester immediately contacted Boston Search and Rescue, which dispatched the 95-foot cutter Cape George. Search and Rescue also instructed a much larger cutter, the 210-foot Decisive, to leave its anchorage outside Provincetown, Cape Cod, and speed to Salem. Boston, however, is about 25 nautical miles from Salem, while Provincetown is 50. With sixty-knot winds blowing and seas building, they might not reach the crippled tanker in time.

Quirk had been monitoring the nervous radio exchanges and informed the Coast Guard he was standing by if help was needed.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Station Gloucester responded: “Roger that; I think I’m going to get a boat under way [a 44-foot motor lifeboat], and give him [the Global Hope captain] a call to see how bad he is taking on water.”

Quirk urged caution and also said he would be aboard Can Do in case they were needed. He then made a call to Charlie Bucko, who at 29 had recently left the Coast Guard to take a job repairing boats at the Gloucester Marine Railway. Bucko and Quirk were the best of friends, and because of Bucko’s Coast Guard training and rescue missions, he had plenty of experience in stormy seas. Bucko was living with his fiancée, Sharon Watts, on Eastern Point Road in Gloucester, not far from the Can Do.

As the storm bombed out, station Gloucester became unable to make radio contact with the Global Hope. The 44-foot motor lifeboat, referred simply as the 44 started pounding its way from Gloucester to Salem, to provide aid to the tanker. On board were four young coastguardsmen, Bob McIlvride, Roger Mathurin, Tom Desroseirs and Bob Krom. During their mission, the storm grew in intensity and soon the 44 lost its radar. At that time, of course, there was no GPS.

Roger Mathurin still vividly remembers the conditions: “With the searchlights on, all we could see was snow coming down almost horizontally and enormous seas,” he says. “Let me give you an idea of how bad it was. The top of our radar antenna extended exactly 13 feet, three inches, above the waterline. When we were down in the troughs, I could look up and see a wall of water that was about 15 feet above the top of the antenna. When we were down in those troughs it was eerily quiet. The wind didn’t reach down there, but as soon as we rode up the next wave there was incredible shrieking from the wind. I’ve been in the Coast Guard twenty-five years and I’ve never seen seas that were anything like those waves.”

It was about this time that Frank Quirk and his crew volunteered to head out. They wanted to find the 44 and guide it to safety and also try to make contact with the Global Hope. No one knew what had happened to the tanker. Station Gloucester gave Quirk the “OK,” and the Can Do headed out in to the storm sometime between 6:30 and 7 p.m.

A half hour later, the greatest fears of the 44 crew were realized when they heard a massive boom and the boat shuddered. She had struck something hard. Both engines immediately stalled from the hit.

This was the darkest moment for the crew of the 44. The boat had likely struck a rock outcropping. Running from Gloucester there had been comfort in the sound of the engines. When they died, the silence was eerie—and terrifying.

Massive waves batter the historic homes at Peggotty Beach, Scituate, Massachusetts on February 9, 1978.

Photo: Historic NWS Collection

In the darkness, 44 Skipper Bob McIlvride, wet and weary, radioed Commander, Mike Paradis, at Coast Guard Station Gloucester and shouted that the engines were dead. Paradis knew the drifting boat could be turned and slammed broadside by a wave or could take a breaking wave over the stern. These disasters could be avoided by setting the anchor off the bow. When it took hold, the 44, would swing around bow-first into the waves.

Paradis radioed back, “Drop your hook [anchor].”

McIlvride answered, “Roger.”

Yet despite his affirmative answer, McIlvride he had no intention of following the order to drop anchor. There was no way he was going to send one of his crew out on the bow to release the anchor and secure it. The 44 was pitching like a roller coaster, and if one of the men fell off, he would die almost instantly. The skipper figured if the engines wouldn’t restart there might still be time to drop the anchor—but he wasn’t about to tell Paradis that.

Paradis’ concern reached a new level and it showed in his impatience. After waiting a few agonizing seconds, he came back on the radio: “Have you restarted your engines?”

“We’re working on it.”

“Let me know immediately.”

Suddenly a report came from belowdecks. Desrosiers, the engineer, had managed get the engines restarted.

McIlvride quickly notified Paradis: “Engines restarted at this time. We’re going to try to circle into the wind and waves.”

“If you see any aid (offshore buoy) at all make a real attempt to tie up to it or stay as near to it as possible. Commencing now, I want you men to give me a radio check every ten minutes.”

“We are looking for an aid but nothing in sight,” said McIlvride. “We’re still proceeding in slow.”

Although the engines were working, the radar and depth finder were still offline. Should the 44 slam into a ledge again, her engines might die for good.

The worrying continued for Paradis, and he contacted Quirk aboard the Can Do to give him an update and to let him know his help was still needed: “Quirk, whatever he hit, he’s clear of it,” said Paradis. “He’s maneuvering. Totally disoriented at this time. He doesn’t have compass or radar. If it’s at all possible, I’d appreciate it if you would head over that way.”

Quirk replied that he would do his best but that the seas were enormous.

* * *

A few minutes later, good news from the 44. “We have our radar back at this time,” radioed McIlvride. “We are attempting to navigate into Beverly Harbor.”

Then, just as McIlvride completed this sentence, Quirk came on the radio and addressed Paradis from Can Do. In a calm, matter-of-fact voice, Quirk said, “Station Gloucester, I have to turn around. My radar went out for some reason, plus the AM antenna. That went overboard with a big crash. So if I can get turned around, I’ll be a while getting back. I’ve got no radar to work with, so I’ll be taking it slow.”

“Roger, Quirk,” said Paradis. “Probably a good idea to call us in 15 minutes.”

“If I don’t get back to you, give me a call,” replied Quirk. “We’re going to be busy here for a while.”

Paradis was caught in a nightmare. First the Global Hope issued her Mayday, then his 44 was almost lost, and now Can Do was somewhere off Baker’s Island in 30-foot seas without radar. Quirk’s voice made losing the radar sound like no big deal, but both he and Paradis knew they had a serious problem. In a raging blizzard, all Quirk had now was a compass for navigation. But without radar, and in the blinding weather, he had no landmarks to determine exactly where he was.

* * *

Each man on board the Can Do knew it was imperative to find the entrance to Gloucester Harbor immediately. Judging from the previous radio communications, from 10 p.m. to midnight, the crew believed they were getting closer to safety. After 12 a.m. little more was said and Quirk put all his focus into feeling his way up each wave while keeping his bow pointed north-northeast.

Suddenly, at approximately 1:00 a.m., a different voice came over the radio from the Can Do. It was Charlie Bucko. “Gloucester Station, Can Do, Gloucester Station, Can Do.”

At Station Gloucester, a lower-level officer had temporarily relieved Paradis from the communications room. He quickly responded, “Roger, this is Gloucester Station.”

Bucko, in a remarkably clear and calm voice, then said, “Roger. This is not a drill; this is not a drill … a Mayday, a Mayday, a Mayday. Over.”

“Roger, pilot boat Can Do, this is Gloucester; we have you at this time.”

There was a long pause and nothing more was heard from the Can Do.

Station Gloucester shouted, “Can Do, keep sending traffic, over!”

There was no response. The young officer immediately had Paradis summoned back to the communications room, and shortly after his arrival, Bucko came back on the radio, his voice now out of breath. “We’re not sure what has happened at this time … ah. … We feel we may have hit the breakwater [outside the harbor].” Bucko paused for three seconds and then shouted, “Negative on my last, negative on my last!”

“Roger, do you happen to know approximately where you might be?”

“That’s a negative.”

There were several anxious seconds of silence; then Paradis, exhausted and tense, responded, “This is Gloucester Station; keep on talking to us here.”

“Mike, be advised we are in shoal water—” Suddenly, in the background, Quirk’s angry voice was heard: “Look, give me that—” The rest of Quirk’s words were cut off.

“This is Gloucester Station, over. Keep talking to us. Let us know the situation.”

“We’re trying to get into deeper water here.” The voice was Bucko’s again.

“Keep talking.”

“We’re in shoal water. Our windshield is out. Position unknown. Action extremely violent.”

Bucko’s last message began to explain what happened. The Can Do hit something in shallow water, either the seafloor or a rock ledge, and at the same instant, the windshield was blown out, probably from a giant wave. The wall of water and parts of the windshield crashed into Quirk’s head, knocking him from the wheel. Likely standing by the wheel with Quirk, Bucko, too, would have been sent reeling backward, arms flailing, by the booming fist of water. The pounding of the seas—which was loud even inside a sealed wheelhouse—was now a deafening roar.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Curley, Wilkinson, and Fuller had all accompanied Quirk and Charlie to lend a hand—now they were needed and then some. They must have been stunned by the water pouring into the boat, but they had to recover immediately or they’d lose the Can Do and their lives to the freezing water.

* * *

While the men on the Can Do initially thought they were near Gloucester Harbor, the waves had actually been pushing the vessel backward, close to Bakers Island. When the windshield broke, Quirk was temporarily knocked unconscious, and that’s why Bucko took over the radio and the wheel. When Quirk regained consciousness, he wanted to get back to the wheel, despite having severe cuts on his face and head. Quirk and Paradis communicated for about thirty minutes, and then all communication was lost. It seemed that finally the sea had got the better of the pilot boat.

At 2 a.m., however, a new voice came on the radio. It was Mel Cole of Beverly who lived on a hilltop with an extremely strong and expensive radio. Cole, an electronics expert, explained to Paradis that he could still communicate with Quirk, detailing how Quirk had calmly said, “Hard aground. No power. Taking on water.”

At 2:15 a.m. Quirk came back on the radio: “We’ve got an anchor set and are holding our own. Taking a beating but no further injuries. Trying to build up some power and get things started again. Our position unknown.”

It’s unknown who set the anchor, but the decision to do so must have been made within seconds of either the grounding or Can Do being swept clear of the seafloor. The crewman who dropped the anchor would not have been Quirk because he was injured and, as captain of the Can Do, had the most knowledge of the boat. Viewed in a cold, analytical way, his life could simply not be spared in such a high-risk act. The task could have thus been handed to any one of the remaining men, Curly, Fuller, Wilkinson, or Charlie Bucko, with the most likely one being Bucko.

As difficult as dropping the anchor was, somehow they got it done, and it bought them more time. Now the anchor chain and line had to hold.

Back on Indian Hill in Beverly, Mel told Quirk he was still trying to get a fix on his location.

Quirk in turn gave Mel a quick update: “No luck on the power. Thirty-two-volt batteries all shorted out. Can’t get the engine started. I have a mattress stuffed in the window to keep the seas out, and the boys have me pretty well patched up. Water not building up in the boat at this time.”

Shortly after that update no one, not even Mel Cole could communicate with the Can Do. The storm showed no mercy and continued to snow and hurl hurricane force winds for another 18 hours. The men on the Can Do did not survive. Their bodies would all be found over the next two week period.

* * *

And what happened to the Global Hope—the vessel that set in motion the events of that terrible night? It turned out that the tanker was never in serious jeopardy.

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This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

Source: https://www.powerandmotoryacht.com/at-sea/heroism-in-the-blizzard-of-1978

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