The Long Blue Line: Cutter Tamaroa and ‘The Perfect Storm’

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Cutter Tamaroa (WMEC-166) underway in relatively calm conditions. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Cutter Tamaroa (WMEC-166) underway in relatively calm conditions. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of “The Perfect Storm,” also known as the “Halloween Nor’easter” because it struck in late October 1991. It was the third major weather event to hit the East Coast in an unusually active month. By October 28, two large weather systems collided off the East Coast. Hurricane Grace had formed the day before and was moving from the southeast on course for an un-named extra-tropical cyclone. The two weather systems spawned a much larger and more powerful storm. By October 30, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data buoys reported sustained winds of over sixty miles per hour with gusts well over 70 mph, and waves as high as 40 feet.

Based on the book, the movie “The Perfect Storm” mistakenly depicted the Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa as one of the Service’s more modern 210-foot medium endurance cutters, but the search and rescue operations of the actual Tamaroa (WMEC-166) make for a more amazing story. Built by the U.S. Navy in 1943 as seagoing tug USS Zuni for towing damaged battleships, Tamaroa relied on a single screw. She had a seaworthy design and a relatively high freeboard of ten feet, but her World War II crew nicknamed her the “Automatic Trough Finder.” In 1946, the Coast Guard received this surplus Navy vessel into the fleet and, by the time of the storm, she was celebrating nearly 50 years of service.

The 32-foot sailboat Satori served not only as a yacht, but also as a home for her owner and he invited two experienced sailors to help sail her from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Bermuda. The three sailed into the middle of the storm and, at around midnight on October 29, 1991, a freighter relayed Satori’s first distress calls to the Coast Guard 1st District command center. Not long after the calls came in, an HU-25 Guardian Falcon Jet from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod located Satori. As day broke, Coast Guard HH-3F Pelican helicopters and HU-25 jets flew cover in shifts until Tamaroa could slug her way through the brutal seas.

Sailboat Satori buried in the heavy seas of “The Perfect Storm.” U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Sailboat Satori buried in the heavy seas of “The Perfect Storm.” U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Around mid-day, the Coast Guard assets assembled for Satori included a Coast Guard jet flying cover; an H-3 hovering overhead; and the nearby Tamaroa, now standing by and experiencing nerve-wracking ninety-degree rolls. After the Coast Guard 1st District commander determined Satori’s voyage “manifestly unsafe,” Tamaroa’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Larry Brudnicki, ordered an evacuation of the sailboat using Tamaroa’s rigid-hulled inflatable boat. The seas proved insurmountable for the RHIB, so the hovering H-3 deployed its rescue swimmer to avoid the danger posed to its hoist cable by Satori’s wildly swinging mast. Satori’s crew entered the water and, with the assistance of the rescue swimmer, the process took less than twenty minutes. After an hour’s flight back to Air Station Cape Cod, the H-3 touched down safely with all three of Satori’s crew.

Not long after the Satori rescue, Tamaroa had to alter course and render assistance yet again. This time, a New York Air National Guard HH-60 helicopter returning from its own storm-related mission, ran low on fuel, could not connect with its C-130 fuel tanker and had to ditch ninety miles south of Montauk, New York. Another Falcon jet took off from Cape Cod and flew a circular sector search with a 20-mile radius around the H-60’s last known position. The jet’s commander had brought along night-vision goggles allowing his crew to see the downed helicopter crew’s emergency strobes and to vector in a Coast Guard H-3 helicopter. Unfortunately, wind speeds now reached 100 mph and attempts to use the rescue hoist failed because the wind blew the basket too close the helicopter’s tail rotor. Again, the Tamaroa would prove the storm victims’ best chance for survival.

After a four-hour transit from Satori’s evacuation site, Tamaroa arrived near the downed airmen. The sea state and winds had worsened with the cutter rolling through an arc of 110 degrees; and the World War II tug’s gunwales, which ordinarily stood 10 feet above the water, swung from even with the water level to 20-feet above it.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa braving the elements during “The Perfect Storm.” U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa braving the elements during “The Perfect Storm.” U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Brudnicki looked out from the bridge to see wave tops towering over the ship. Green water regularly swept Tam’s deck, swamping her deck crew. Meanwhile, the engineering crew worked feverishly to keep the 50-year-old powerplant running; a breakdown during this critical point, especially with only one screw, would prove disastrous. With the National Guard aircrew fighting for their lives in the roiling water, Brudnicki tried several times to position the cutter upsea of the men and drift down on them for the rescue. After two hours, Tamaroa succeeded in maneuvering next to the hypothermic aircrew while the deck gang dropped a scramble net over the cutter’s side. By pulling the net up in sync with the cutter’s severe roll, the Tam’s crew retrieved one airman and then pulled up a group of three others. The downed H-60’s pararescueman, Rick Smith, was never found despite a massive search effort later mounted to locate him.

Among the many other response efforts mounted during the 1991 “Perfect Storm,” these operations demonstrated the importance of employing aviation and sea-going assets together to get the job done. In the evacuation of the Satori, the sea state prevented the Tamaroa from extricating the crew from the sailboat, but it took only minutes for an H-3 helicopter to evacuate them from the water. In the rescue of the Air National Guard helicopter crew, the men of the Tamaroa overcame extreme weather conditions to retrieve the airmen from the mountainous seas. In both cases, these Coast Guardsmen overcame technological and environmental obstacles and met the challenges head-on with resourcefulness, resilience and adaptability.

In recognition of the Tamaroa’s achievements in the storm, the cutter received the Coast Guard Unit Commendation and the Coast Guard Foundation Award. In addition, many of the crew received the Air Force Commendation Medal and 18 of Tamaroa’s crew received the Coast Guard Medal, the largest group recognition in the history of that Service award. The crew of the Tamaroa demonstrated without a doubt the ability of Coast Guard personnel to use the assets at hand, no matter the age and obsolescence, to get the job done. They were members of the long blue line and served in the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard.

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8 Responses

  1. Art Silver, USCGAux (retrd) says:

    I had the honor of serving on the Americas Cup patrol in San Diego under then Capt. Brudnicki’s command. Of the several Americas Cup patrols in which I served Capt. Brudnicki’s was the best organized and best executed.

  2. Phil says:

    Heroic efforts by many that day! It’s probably worth mentioning that the downed NY Air National Guard’s H-60 was searching for the lost Commercial Fishing Vessel, Andre Gail. And the movie, the “Perfect Storm”, does a nice job of portraying the difficulties all those heroes were battling.

  3. Patrick Alarcon says:

    Most definitely one of the finest articles I’ve read about this event. Words clearly present an imagery of the weather’s devastating impact on man and machine. I’ve read the book twice but sincerely appreciate the realities presented by your article. Bravo Zulu.

  4. Jack Read says:

    Semper Paratus

    Ww2 CmoMM

  5. Vincent Pica says:

    Bill, where is she now? should we be mounting an effort to save her for the Museum? Vin

  6. Karl Stroman, MCPO, USCG (ret) says:

    One additional important item of note is that when the Tamaroa RHIB was launched for the Satori rescue, one of the boat lifting eyes was ripped off due to the heavy seas and the boat could not be recovered. Once the Satori crew was rescued by the H-3, the RHIB crew was also hoisted and returned to Air Station Cape Cod.

  7. Tim C says:

    Heroic, what an inspiring story!

  8. Darren Root says:

    Thank you for the article about the Cutter Tamaroa. I was a Seaman, assigned to USCG Station Gloucester, Ma during the Halloween/Perfect Storm. The crew of the Cutter Tamaroa did an amazing job under the conditions they were under. BZ to all members of the Cutter Tamaroa, Air Station Cape Code and the Air National Guard H60 crew. To the family of Guardsman Rick Smith my condolences.

    Regards,
    CWO Darren Root