The Gathering Storm
Frank Quirk, Jr., often spent the night aboard the Can Do, and on the morning of February 6, 1978, he awoke on his vessel wondering when it would snow. The prior evening’s weather forecast called for snowfall to begin in the early-morning hours, yet there wasn’t a flake in the sky, just low leaden clouds and a bitter cold breeze. He could have caught a little more sleep, because no piloting jobs were scheduled, but that wasn’t his nature. The forty-nine-year-old former navy Seabee (construction battalion), with a wife and three children, was disciplined and full of energy. Although Frank’s crew-cut style hair was mostly gray, he kept in tip-top shape and was quite strong, with a stocky build. He was well liked, with an easygoing manner and a ready smile.
Frank had been plying these waters for over twenty years and had a healthy respect for the sea, but he also knew the location of most every peril and felt comfortable navigating his boat in all kinds of weather, even on the darkest nights. He considered himself quite fortunate: his work allowed him to be his own boss and, instead of being trapped in an office, he could be on the ocean nearly every day. Frank loved the sea, both the freedom it affords as well as its challenges and ever-changing nature. He felt the same about the Can Do, which he had dubbed with the Seabees’ motto.
Among Gloucester’s fishing and boating community Frank was well known. He had received two Mariner’s Medals for heroism at sea and countless times aided boaters in distress. Sometimes he just brought fuel to a skipper who had run out of gas, or dived overboard to retrieve a pair of eyeglasses dropped by a careless boater. One recreational boater recalls radioing for assistance when the engine on his runabout conked out on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Frank was relaxing on the Can Do, several miles away. When no boaters close to the runabout came on the radio, Quirk went on the air, offering a tow from Gloucester to the boat’s home port in Marblehead, several miles away. The tow and return trip consumed six or seven hours of Quirk’s day off, but he refused to accept any payment. He usually just said, “It was nothing at all,” or if the boat had fishermen aboard, “Just throw me a fish next time you see me.” His kids said Frank brought home a lot of fish and lobsters.
On that Monday morning, Quirk was listening to the marine radio in the Can Do’s wheelhouse. Surrounded by small rectangular glass windows, he had a good view of Gloucester’s inner harbor, where all manner of boats were docked, from battered and rusting fishing trawlers to sleek modern pleasure yachts. The National Weather Service was announcing an updated weather forecast, saying the snow was still coming and would be accompanied by high winds. Meteorologists explained that the snowfall could be significant and some even used the term blizzard, but few gave any inkling that New Englanders were about to be pounded by a blizzard of incredible proportions. New England’s “storm of the century” was on the way, heading directly up the eastern seaboard toward Massachusetts.
The storm was a deceptive one at this early stage. It was located off the Maryland coast, and during the morning hours the mid-Atlantic states as well as New Jersey and New York were receiving significant snowfall accompanied by strong winds. This region, however, was absorbing just a glancing blow compared to what was in store for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, because with each passing hour the storm intensified. The storm was strengthening so rapidly, meteorologists later would refer to it as a “bombo-genesis” or simply a bomb. As it moved north, winds would go from “strong” to hurricane-force, clocked at a ferocious 92 miles per hour when they reached Massachusetts. Winds of this magnitude caught everyone off guard, and no meteorologist predicted the other surprise the storm had in store—that it would stall south of Nantucket Island, allowing it to concentrate its full strength just to the north, along coastal Massachusetts. Before the storm finally headed out to sea its raging winds coupled with three feet of snow would claim ninety-nine lives.
After a quick breakfast, Frank did a little engine maintenance down in the underbelly of the Can Do, followed by some paperwork. About the time his work was finished, the wind began kicking up a considerable chop in the harbor. A few flakes of dry snow began falling as Frank left the Can Do and walked to his car, pulling the collar of his jacket more snugly around his neck in the cold breeze. His coat was a gift from the Gloucester Coast Guard Station, an olive green officer’s jacket, which Frank wore with pride. He hopped in his car and drove southwest on Rogers Street and Western Avenue, along the waterfront, passing the Coast Guard station and the Fisherman’s Memorial, where the names of hundreds of men lost at sea are etched in granite blocks. At the western end of Gloucester Harbor he crossed the drawbridge that spans the narrow canal connecting the harbor to the Annisquam River. Then he turned right on Essex Avenue and pulled into the parking lot of the Cape Ann Marina, where a large American flag snapped overhead. Frank was greeted by his friend and marina vice president Louis Linquata, who was not surprised to see him. Frank always wanted to be near his boat during foul weather and make himself available just in case the Coast Guard needed his services.
Linquata and Frank were joined by maintenance supervisor Gard Estes, and the three men fanned out to the marina’s many docks to secure boats and equipment. A few people lived on their boats year-round, and as Gard tightened lines he made sure no one intended to remain aboard a boat during the storm. The breeze died down briefly, and in the eerie calm Gard noticed he was being followed by three seagulls, walking on the dock just three feet behind him. When he stopped they stopped, but as soon as he resumed walking they stayed right at his heels. Usually the gulls gave Gard a wide berth, yet that day they followed him everywhere, as did two ducks in the water, and he wondered if the birds knew something about the coming snow that he didn’t.
When the men’s work was done at 1:00 p.m. they went inside for lunch and a beer. The marina’s restaurant and lounge were only a few years old, and its furnishings still looked new. One of Gard’s friends had recently added his own personal touch, bringing in a six-foot-long Styrofoam bluefin tuna and hung it on the back wall “to add a little more character.” The tuna was so well crafted that most customers thought it was a mounted specimen caught off Georges Bank. On one side of the restaurant a polished wooden bar with a blue Formica top ran from end to end, and adjacent to that was a wall of large glass sliding doors that opened to a deck above the river. The other two walls were finished with rough pine, stained a light gray, giving the restaurant a rustic feel. In the back corner, a large metal cone-shaped fireplace radiated heat, emitting a pleasant scent of wood smoke. The restaurant and bar had become a cozy meeting place for Frank’s wide circle of friends from Gloucester, including cops, carpenters, and fishermen.
Sitting down to a bowl of steaming chowder at the bar, Frank looked out the sliders and noticed how the wind had picked back up and was angrily stirring the black waters of the Annisquam River. The snow was still relatively light, but it was now being driven horizontally each time a particularly strong gust swept up the river from the ocean. During lunch the three men discussed the latest weather reports and learned that the snow was piling up in Providence, Rhode Island, ninety miles away, and that peak gusts of wind at Boston’s Logan Airport had hit 45 miles per hour. At this point it was still possible that the storm might swing out to sea and spare Gloucester, but their eyes told them otherwise; outside the sky was getting darker and it looked more like dusk than midday.
Over the course of the afternoon the men were joined by other friends: commercial fisherman Kenneth Fuller, thirty-four, of Rockport; Norman David Curley, thirty-five, a Gloucester electrician; and thirty-six-year-old Don Wilkinson of Rockport, who managed the Captain’s Bounty Motor Lodge. The men were relaxed, eating chowder and sipping beer while shooting the breeze, glad for an early end to the workday because of the approaching storm. Being the only customers in the restaurant, they could be as noisy as they liked, and because they were all such good friends they started teasing one another. Some of the men were standing around the bar, others sitting and smoking cigarettes. Frank enjoyed himself as much as his friends, but he also had one ear glued to the radio, monitoring the news about the storm.
At midafternoon the group was joined by Bill Lee, an oil barge captain who filled commercial vessels with fuel. Lee knew all the men, as their paths frequently crossed either on the waterfront or in the harbor. He and Frank had a lot in common, as they were both navy Seabees and they saw each other almost every day while they were working. Sometimes Frank would be in the Can Do waiting to off-load a pilot and Lee would be right next to him in his barge waiting to fuel the ship. Lee considered Frank an excellent mariner and very competent.
Lee socialized with the other men at the marina and recalled how nobody called Curley by his real first name of Norman, because he went by his middle name, David. “He was a quiet guy,” said Lee, “but he could be very funny. And he could take a joke, too: we always gave him the business about his bald head. He was at home on boats, because he had a twenty-four-foot cabin cruiser that he loved. He was always there to do a favor. Don Wilkinson was always talking about his two children and wife. His big thing was football, and I remember he went to the Superbowl every year. Don also raced powerboats. He was the bookworm of the group as well, and very bright. At one time he ran the marina and later became its business manager.”
Lee recalls Kenny Fuller as a street-smart guy who was constantly coming up with new ideas to make money. He was a real free spirit who was always up for fun but willing to pitch in if work needed to get done. As a commercial fisherman who owned his own boat, he would go far offshore fishing for tuna in the summer and fall and often ended the season by navigating his vessel from Gloucester to Florida.
When Lee joined the group at the marina that afternoon he told Frank that while he was out fueling boats he had heard that the Global Hope was dragging anchor down in Salem. The northeast winds had pushed the ship a few hundred feet to the southwest, despite its having its anchor set. “I realized,” says Lee, “that was one of the ships Frank had brought in and figured he’d want to know. By this time it was snowing pretty good and the winds were getting stronger each hour.”
The first people to notice that the ship had shifted position were concerned residents along the Beverly waterfront. They called local police who in turn notified Warren Andrews, the operator of the Salem Control (Radio) Station, which monitored all shipping in busy Salem Channel. Andrews had lost his sight at a young age but was a superb radio control operator, able to juggle all the incoming radio traffic and coordinate the activity. He always wore dark glasses and kept his graying hair combed straight back. His radio control room was off an L-shaped addition to his house, and Andrews knew exactly where each piece of communication equipment was located and was able to glide from one radio to another on a wheeled swivel chair. Warren grew up in Salem, and he could remember all the features of Salem Harbor from when he had his sight. Frank’s son Frank III recalls several visits to Warren with his dad: “Warren was amazing. He could move from one radio to the next in that control room in an instant. I marveled at his skill without the ability to see. I once said to my dad, ‘Are you sure he’s blind?’” Others compared Warren to an old lighthouse keeper, because he was always there.
Andrews made tape recordings of most of his daily radio activity, as a way to check facts at a later date if someone had a question Andrews couldn’t answer off the top of his head. That afternoon was no exception, and the tape chronicles how Warren notified the nearest Coast Guard station (in Gloucester) when the first calls came in regarding the Global Hope.
Coast Guard Station Gloucester immediately made contact with the captain of the Global Hope, asking if the captain had noticed a position change in his vessel since he last anchored. The captain had a strong accent and sometimes he struggled for the right word in English.
Station Gloucester repeated the question: “We need to verify if you have dragged anchor. Over.”
The Global Hope responded: “No, nothing.”
“Roger that. We received a report that you did drag anchor. Are you in distress now? Is there any reason you would be in distress?”
“No, up to now, up to now, nothing, ship stay in this position. We are in same position, same position as anchored.”
“Keep us informed, skipper, if you drag anchor any more.”
“OK, thank you.”
From this exchange it seems the Coast Guard doubted the captain’s ability to judge whether the Global Hope had dragged anchor or not. Their qualms were well founded.
After Bill Lee left the group to finish a final fueling job, Frank, Curley, Wilkinson, and Fuller paid their bill and headed down to the Can Do docked in the South Channel. Once on the boat Frank called Warren Andrews for the latest news on the Global Hope, then radioed Station Gloucester, informing them that he was dockside and standing by on channels 16 and 12. The Coast Guard men and woman at Station Gloucester all knew Frank and were aware that he could be counted on should they need his services. Several times he had assisted on rescues and also conducted dives for the Coast Guard, often helping draggers free their nets from submerged debris.
The group of men sat around a table in the Can Do’s wheelhouse, directly behind the captain’s chair and wheel. Visitors to the Can Do’s wheelhouse, surrounded with thick aluminum, compared it to a tank with windows. Everything about the boat was solid, prompting one mariner to call it a “fortress,” while another described it as a “surface submarine.” The Can Do was bobbing next to the dock, but the hissing of the wind was muffled by the thick superstructure and the men could carry on conversations as normal. They monitored the radio and realized the storm was going to be a bad one, with wind gusts approaching hurricane-force. On board the Can Do, the men were quite comfortable. The forty-nine-foot boat originally had been the pleasure yacht of a wealthy family from Rhode Island. Frank had bought the boat because it was built to take a beating with a three-eighths-inch Cor-Ten steel hull and a quarter-inch aluminum pilothouse. Frank modified the boat for his piloting, such as adding a rubber bumper at the tip of the bow and installing fat racing tires on the sides for protection when the Can Do was brought alongside tankers and freighters. In addition, he had installed an array of electronics for communication and guidance: two FM radios, two CB radios, a ship-to-shore AM radio, loran (long-range electronic navigation device) for land coordinates, top-quality radar, and huge searchlights.
The Can Do also had all the luxuries of home. A spiral staircase with a stainless-steel railing and mahogany steps led from the pilothouse forward to the “mates’ quarters,” which had two bunks, mahogany drawers beneath each bunk, a retractable television, a sink, and a toilet. From these quarters there was access to a storage compartment in the bow where anchorage material was stowed. In the aft section were the captain’s quarters and the galley. Four people could sleep in the captain’s quarters, which featured a walk-in closet, carpeted floor, mahogany woodwork throughout, large eighteen-by-eight-inch portholes that opened, and a toilet, sink, and shower. A full-size refrigerator, sink, counters, gas range, and stove made up the galley. Amidships, between the captain’s and mates’ quarters, was the engine room with the power pack radar, compressor for the air horn, battery system, oil burner for the forced hot-water heating system and domestic water, a one-cylinder diesel generator, and the main engine, a Cummings 220-horsepower that turned a large single propeller. A hatch located just steps from where the captain stood in the pilothouse opened to a ladder leading to the engine room.
When Frank piloted the boat, he literally had everything at his fingertips: steering wheel, stainless-steel compass, chrome navigational controls, access to all the radios, drawers for the charts and logbooks, controls for the searchlights, and a long wooden handle suspended from a chain for the whistle. Just aft the captain’s controls was the large mahogany table with cushioned benches where the men now sat, shooting the breeze and, like many others in Massachusetts, wondering if this blizzard would be as bad as the one that had struck just three weeks earlier. That storm set a record for snowfall but caused little damage, and seaside communities weathered that blizzard in stride.
About four-thirty Bill Lee finished his last fueling job, anchored his barge, and then checked on his pleasure boat in a slip within a stone’s throw of the Can Do before rejoining his friends. The men were relaxing, listening to the marine radio for more information about the Global Hope. There were no further transmissions between the Coast Guard and the ship, however, and they assumed the tanker was holding position and in good shape. They still had no idea just how quickly the storm was turning into a monster. “We knew it was shitty out there,” said Lee, “but nobody had any idea how bad it was beyond the breakwater. Frank was talking about maybe going down to Salem so he could have his boat on hand in the morning, knowing a pilot or shipping agent would want to be brought to the Global Hope.”
About 5:00 p.m. Lee figured his wife might wonder where he was and headed home. Just after he left, the men still onboard 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 ninety-five-foot cutter Cape George and 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 twenty-five nautical miles from Salem, and Provincetown is fifty. With sixty-knot winds blowing they might not get to the crippled tanker in time.
Station Gloucester next radioed Warren Andrews at Salem Control, hoping against the odds that there would be a boat in Salem that could aid the Global Hope. Warren said there were no boats available at this time of year.
This was what Station Gloucester feared. With Salem fifteen nautical miles from Gloucester and the storm building by the minute, Station Gloucester was faced with a terrible choice. The only boats at their disposal were two relatively small patrol boats, one a forty-one-footer and the other a forty-four-footer. On the one hand, to send them into the storm, which by then had whipped the ocean’s surface into ten-foot seas, was dangerous. On the other hand, there were thirty-two men aboard the Global Hope who were in jeopardy.
Frank had been monitoring the nervous exchanges on the radio and broke in:
“There’s nothing we can do at this end, either, at this time, but we will be standing by still dockside at Gloucester. I want you to be aware that as far as I know the ship is about six hundred and eighty feet long and she is light, very light, [most of the cargo off-loaded] and the last I got she is about eleven foot forward and twenty foot aft [below waterline], and whether they ballast [add seawater to designated ballast tanks] it down after that or not I don’t know. And it is going to be one great big problem if they do have a problem due to conditions here.”
Station Gloucester responded: “Roger that; I think I’m going to get a boat under way, and give him [the Global Hope captain] a call to see how bad he is taking on water.”
Frank urged caution: “I would think twice, you know, your discretion, but I would think twice about sending a boat up there tonight. You may get up there, but I don’t think you’re going to get back to Gloucester the way this is making up here now. If we can be of any help—I don’t have any pumps onboard, but if we can be of any help we’ll be standing by here.”
Frank then made a call to Charlie Bucko, twenty-nine, who had recently left the Coast Guard to take a job repairing boats at the Gloucester Marine Railway. Bucko and Frank were the best of friends, and because of Bucko’s Coast Guard training and rescue missions he had plenty of experience in stormy seas. When Frank called him, Bucko was living with his fiancée, Sharon Watts, on Eastern Point Road in Gloucester not far from the Can Do. “We had just finished dinner,” says Sharon, “when Frank called. He said there was a tanker in trouble in Salem and he wanted Charlie onboard in case they needed to go down and help. Charlie said he’d be right over. By this time it was snowing really hard and I could hear the winds howling outside. He knew I was concerned, and he said ‘Don’t worry; it was just as bad during the Chester Poling [another ship that needed rescuing] and I made it back, so I’ll make it back from this.’ Then he gave me a big hug and said, ‘I love you.’”
Bill Lee was also a friend of Charlie’s and recalled that when Charlie was a coxswain in the Coast Guard the younger men looked up to him because he was confident, outspoken, and had been decorated for bravery twice while fighting in the Vietnam War. But he also had a soft side, like the time he found an injured seagull. The seagull had a broken wing and Charlie felt sorry for it. Somehow he was able to get his hands around the injured gull and brought it back to Station Gloucester. Then he built a little pen for it out back, and every day Charlie would tend to the gull, feeding it fish and making sure it was OK.
When Bucko reached the Can Do, the situation with the Global Hope had become more confused because communication with the tanker had suddenly ceased, presumably from water shorting out its power. Station Gloucester had no way of knowing if the ship was sinking, breaking apart, or not in any immediate danger. It was ink black outside, with blinding snow, and no one down in Salem could see the Global Hope.
Station Gloucester made the difficult decision to send both patrol boats down to Salem, probably thinking with two boats together one could help the other if they encountered trouble on the way.
Copyright © 2005 by Michael J. Tougias