The Perfect Storm, 20 years later

Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa's rescue boat is sent to help the sailing vessel Satori.  Satori, with three people aboard, needed help after being caught in a storm that raked New England over Halloween weekend 1991.  U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa’s rescue boat is sent to help the sailing vessel Satori. Satori, with three people aboard, needed help after being caught in a storm that raked New England over Halloween weekend 1991. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein, 7th Coast Guard District Public Affairs

Two decades after the massive and now-infamous No Name Halloween Storm pounded the northeast; the former operations officer of Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa continues to ponder the life-changing event.

“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

The sailing vessel Satori is tossed by a wave about 75 miles south of Nantucket Island. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The sailing vessel Satori is tossed by a wave about 75 miles south of Nantucket Island. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer Petty Officer David Moore prepares three Coast Guardsmen from Tamaroa to be hoisted into a helicopter following the Satori rescue. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer Petty Officer David Moore prepares three Coast Guardsmen from Tamaroa to be hoisted into a helicopter following the Satori rescue. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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.”

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Kristopher Furtney was the operations officer of Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa during the life-changing rescue of an Air National Guard crew and sailing vessel Satori. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy Silverstein.

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Kristopher Furtney was the operations officer of Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa during the life-changing rescue of an Air National Guard crew and sailing vessel Satori. Photo courtesy of Kristopher Furtney.

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.”

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  • Steve Ashley

    A good article! Having spent a year aboard the “Tam” I know how seaworthy she is. Rough seas were always fun, and the ship does roll. I recall a winter storm while we were East of the Maryland coastline and went through a 10″ snow storm. The added ice and snow topside made things risky. There was a ton or two of iron weight in the bilge to keep her center of gravity low.

    I’m proud of my former skipper (D. Carey) and my fellow crew members. They keep our Coast Guard traditions alive.

  • Dr. Jim Revkin

    re: The Perfect Storm, 20 years later
    The text states “With Block Island (BI) to their east and Montauk Point (MP) to the west, seas began to build on the ship’s stern.” The ship would have had to have left port from Westerly, Rhode Island or perhaps New London, Connecticut, not a port in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, if BI or MP were in those locations. Something doesn’t fit in this narrative.

    Please clarify.
    thanks
    Jim Revkin

  • Clay Johnson

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it. I was in the US Coast Guard stationed at Station Scituate (just south of Boston) when the storm hit. It was something like I have never seen with seas over 30 feet and wind gust in excess of 60 mph. I still remember that day and the days afterward.

    Clay

  • tara

    thank-you for the wonderful article

  • Ray Philyaw

    One part of the story that was not reported here concerns the crew of the CGC Spencer that got underway in the middle of the night from Boston, Mass to assist in the search for the missing PJ. Standing out of Boston Harbor and heading into the “teeth” of the storm at 0200 was an incredible feeling. We had no idea how big the seas were, but I estimated them to be between 25 and 40 feet as we rounded Cape Cod. The crew performed well and we all wished we could have located the last air crewman, but it was not to be. 10 days later we returned to Boston.

  • LT Wayne Barfield

    I remember that storm well and was amazed at the size of it. I was a MK3 at CG Station Parramore Beach (barrier island off the Eastern Shore of VA)and we were forced to leave the station because of flooding and ride it out on our 44′ lifeboat. The seas were amazing and that was a experience I will never forget!

  • MCPO Jeff Pomeroy

    Searched for 3 days in a C-130 for the missing PJ among others. Spent the first night reminiscing with his National Guard buddies…not a dry eye in the room. Never will I forget “The Perfect Storm”.

  • Chuck Mathis

    Dr. Jim Revkin – I’ve sailed those water on the EVERGREEN and CHEROKEE. A prudent mariner will take the shortest, quickest and safest route from Provincetown to south of Long Island going through Cape Cod Canal, Buzzards Bay and Narraganset Sound before turning south between Block Island and Montauk. The CO of the TAMAROA was a very wise and prudent mariner. A trip around the tip of Cape Cod then south past Nantucket would have beat the crap out of the ship and crew. Been there, done that.

    Chuck Mathis, LTjg/QM1 USCG Retired

  • L.D. Kramer

    Brings back the old agage, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Many brave folks during this incident. One I knew and sailed with was BM1 Mark Gibbons who was assigned to the TAM during this incident. Mark was one of the finest BM’s I ever knew. He and his boat crew from what I understand volunteered to get underway on the TAM’s smallboat to effect the rescue. Its due to the people like BM1 Gibbons and the rest of the fine men on the TAMAROA that instill a strong sense of pride within me.

    L.D. Kramer
    CPO USCG Retired

  • Tom Sherwood

    Another little known fact is how the term “The Perfect Storm” was actually coined. The movie characterizes it as a local TV news station meteorologist musing to a coworker while gazing at a monitor. In fact, it was a man named Bob Case, who was with the Boston station of the National Huricane Center (I believe he was the station chief). He was giving an interview (probably to CNN, but I’m not certain about that) and coined the phrase completely off-the-cuff, to describe what was happening. I knew him personally when he was with the Coral Gables, Florida station, and this squares prefectly with the wit and intelligence that I remember about him.

    Unfortunately, Bob passed away in 2008 of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He is deeply missed by all who knew him.

  • Don Bruzdzinski

    As Ops of CGC SPENCER I recall that we were 12 crew short – the guys who live out on Cape Cod who were unable to return to the ship. I went into the All Hands Club and grabbed the bartender and three others to round out our crew. The 270 Command and Control suite was on display as OSC as we served as air controllers for 12 aircraft onscene at the same time searching for the last ANG pilot. My brother Andy was on the engine controls on TAMAROA’s bridge. My first tour was aboard the mighty TAM as we relocated her from Governor’s Island to New Castle, NH.

  • Michelle Rivers

    My brother DC 3 Archie Rivers was also on board during that storm, and I am sure he is just as proud today as he was then..

  • Judy L. Silverstein

    In response to Dr. Revkin, we double checked with our crewmember source, and our story notes. It may help to clarify that after leaving Provincetown. Mass., the crew of the Tamaroa crossed the Cape Cod Canal from east to west. Once in the waters south of New Bedford, Mass., they responded to search and rescue calls.

    We are deeply appreciative to all for sharing such vibrant stories and historic information, including the origin of the storm’s name. Please keep that information coming.

    Respectfully,
    Petty Officer 1st Class, Judy L. Silverstein

  • Nils “Kris” Hagen Jr

    I served on the Tam in the early eighties as an EM in the engine room ( Main Control )for all of my watch quarter and station bill assignments. We had an inclinometer on a bulkhead nearby that would tell us how far over she would roll. Most of the time we would watch it with a nervous smile and comments.

    I always imagined that if the Tam made it through World War Two intact and still afloat, it could pretty much handle what nature could dish out.
    That is of course as long as we kept the engines running. All those engineering Es we got had to say something good about her crews over the years. I do recall many times I had to tie myself into my bunk to keep from sliding out in rough weather. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in those times were a godsend.

  • Dave Soby

    I remember the storm and served aboard the CGC Bittersweet during that time, some memories from those days. I also served with LT CDR Furtney The stories of what Coasties went through during that storm will always be remebered.

  • Sy Kipp

    I served on the Tam from 1/74 to 2/76. I was an MK3 in B-2 engineroom. I remember rebuilding engines underway and having the opportunity to watch the the pitch indicator swinging over 30 degree lists. The whole ship would shake when the bow went into the trough exposing the prop only to feel the slap of it as the stern dropped back in coming out of the trough. The most exciting times of my entire life.

  • Rick Koenig

    I served on an ATF during my time in the Navy, and can attest to the stories about rough seas. Crossing the North Atlantic in icy February will test your mettle. Still, nothing like what the brave sailors on Tamaroa faced in this ordeal. This was a great rescue operation. Bravo Zulu to all involved.

    I’m proud to be associated with the volunteers at Zuni-Tamaroa Maritime Foundation who are busy bringing this historic ship back to full operational status. If you have time or resources to help, it’s for a great cause. Check out and lend a hand if you can in some way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rhonda.waller Rhonda Waller

    Much love and respect to these guys for their incredible bravery and dedication to saving lives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-Reed/100002575690115 Stephen Reed

    Cutter Spencer was tasked to sail from Boston while the rescue helo was ditching. I had only done one patrol since I had been in so it was a very new experience. In the end I just wish that we could have found Rick Smith the PJ.

  • HoosierDaddy757

    Steve, I remember how the Base Boston club bartenders and customers jumped onto Spencer to fill in, because a lot of bridges were out and roads were impassable to return to the ship. Even with those, we sailed 20 percent short of complement, in the dark. Glad to have you alongside me during all that. –RMC Dean Bonner, CGC Spencer