Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Rescue Gone Wrong – Review of “Dead Men Tapping: The End of the Heather Lynne II” by Kate Yeomans

I grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts - within a stone’s throw from the mouth of the Merrimac River. We lived close enough to the river that I could tell by the smells in the air how high or low the tide was at any moment. So, when I learned that “Dead Men Tapping” told the tale of an ill-fated fishing boat based in Newburyport, I knew I had to read it. It was as if the story of “The Perfect Storm” were being retold, but with connections even closer to home.

Kate Yeomans is part of the Newburyport fishing community, so as she tells the story of the demise of the Heather Lynne II and her three-man crew in 1996 off the coast of Gloucester, she makes no claims at objectivity. It is clear that many members of that close-knit community feel strongly that Kevin Foster, Jeffrey Hutchins and John Michael Lowther need not have died that September day ten years ago. The boat, heading out to Jeffrey’s Ledge for a day of fishing for the elusive bluefin tuna, was run down by a tugboat and the 272-foot barge it was towing. The Heather Lynne II capsized, leaving her crew trapped in an air pocket struggling to survive and tapping on the hull to let would-be rescuers know they were still alive.

The book’s author does a “yeoman’s job” in telling the story of what happened that day, and of the subsequent hearings and trial that sought to unravel the mystery of why the elaborate Search & Rescue efforts led by the Coast Guard ultimately resulted in the recovery of three bodies rather than the rescue of three live fisherman. While telling a very balanced story, it is clear that Ms. Yeoman’s sympathies lie with the families of the men who perished that day and who sought to lay the blame at the feet of the usually-reliable Coast Guard.

I will not elaborate on the details of the accident and the subsequent S&R activities; the author fills over 300 pages with riveting and elaborate reconstruction of those events. So, read the book. What emerged for me was a surprising picture of the Coast Guard and the decisions its personnel made that day. Ironically, Newburyport was the place where the U.S. Coast Guard was born – with the launching of the first revenue cutter in the early 1790’s. I have always thought of the Coast Guard as identical with its motto – Semper Paratus (Always Prepared). I have many friends who are graduates of the Coast Guard Academy and others who have served as enlisted men and officers in the USCG. I hold them and what they do in the highest esteem.

What emerged as I read this book was a picture of an organization that is undergoing a “sea change” in its mission - a picture painted through anecdotes of the often-uneven ways in which that changing mission is carried out. Chronically under-funded and under-staffed, the Coast Guard has not been able to keep up with the growing demands and the high expectations that the boating public has for this group of men and women who have distinguished themselves with a stellar record of over two centuries of guarding our coastlines and protecting those who go to sea for business or pleasure.

“[Inspector General Kenneth Mead of the Department of Transportation] found that SAR station readiness had continued to deteriorate. Since 1989, Coast Guard studies had identified serious staffing, training and equipment problems in the SAR program, but the Coast Guard had yet to implement many of the studies’ solutions. Specific readiness problems he found included staff shortages that required crew at 90 percent of SAR stations to work an average of 84 hours each week. Eight-four percent of the rescue boat fleet inspected by the Coast Guard in 2000 was found not ready for sea, though many identified problems were minor ones, corrected within about two days.” (Page 286)

“Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Coast Guard’s law-enforcement missions were indeed shifted to port security, while at the same time it insisted that SAR remained among its top missions. The administration of President George W. Bush pushed for a major budget increase to address the readiness woes the agency faced while handling the cases of the Heather Lynne II, Northern Voyager and Morning Dew. As one Coast Guardsman said, throwing money at the Coast Guard won’t solve its decades-old readiness problems, but it’s a start.

In early 2003, when the agency was transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security, its larger budget started funding such improvements as new boats, a modernized communications system, and an increase in personnel. While these new assets and an increased presence on the water could benefit recreational boaters and commercial fishermen, the Coast Guard advised in spring 2003 that the war in Iraq – where the Coast Guard cutter Adak was deployed to help escort the first humanitarian aid ships into the port of Um Quasar – and elevated security concerns at home shoved SAR into the backseat of Coast Guard priorities.

‘Homeland Security is our number one mission now,’ Commander James McPherson told an Associated Press reporter in March 2003. His comments were echoed by the commander of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Coast Guard station, who added, 'Before it was all about boater safety, and search and rescue. Now it’s all about Homeland Security.’ (Page 282)

As I weigh all the ramifications of the tale that Yeomans tells in this book, the most immediate cause for concern is that boaters who ply the littoral waters of our shores need to be aware that the Coast Guard may not be able to be as omnipresent and omnipotent as we have come to expect them to be. Seafarers need to be vigilant and prepared to offer mutual aid in the absence of timely Coast Guard response, or even to supplement inadequate Coast Guard equipment or personnel.

I have asked some of my friends who are veterans of the Coast Guard to read this book and offer their own comments. Stay tuned!


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