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Hurricane Bob | The Hurricane Nobody Took Seriously

Hurricane Bob | The Hurricane Nobody Took Seriously
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Hurricane Bob
Belle and Gloria weren’t so bad. So when Hurricane Bob blew into Provincetown on August 19, 1991, even experienced sailors saw no reason to panic. After all, their boats were safe in the harbor – weren’t they?

Even some of Provincetown’s saltiest characters didn’t take the threat of Hurricane Bob all that seriously.

After all, Provincetown Harbor is one of the safest anchorages in New England, sheltered on the north and west by the spiral arm of Cape Cod and on the south by a barrier beach called Long Point, its inner harbor guarded by a granite breakwater that would cut the legs out from under any wave that might manage to get past the natural sentries.

What’s more, Boston weathermen always predicted disaster. Gloria had been the last hurricane to pass through, Belle before that, and if everyone had believed Boston weathermen back then, all of Cape Cod would have run for the White Mountains. Sure, both storms had huffed and puffed, but they hadn’t blown the house down — or the boat off the mooring. There had been too many windy wolf cries in the recent past to get panicky about Hurricane Bob.

Which made what four men on one 44-foot Coast Guard patrol boat faced on August 19, 1991, in what was supposed to be the security of Provincetown Harbor, that much more remarkable, destructive, and dangerous.

Ken Cope, boatswain’s mate second Class, 24 years old, could tell his crew was nervous — maybe excited was a better word — from the tone of the talking and joking as the cards went down for a game of spades. But he felt pretty comfortable. He had two full packs of cigarettes, so that was all right. But more important was his training, only six months earlier, at the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School off the Washington coast, which teaches coxswains how to handle heavy weather and surf. Perfect training for a hurricane. He was the natural choice of the station’s officer in charge, Bill Curtis, to take the wheel of the 44.

Looking around the table, he liked what he saw. Dean Demers, 23, machinery technician, five years in the Coast Guard, was the boat’s engineer. After a year running together, Cope knew that Dean was experienced, resourceful, and cool under pressure. Seaman Matthew O’Malley, 19, had also served with Cope for a year, so he knew the ropes — although he was bunmed out about his canceled leave. The fourth was Seaman Apprentice Kevin Yalmokas, also 19, new to the crew, in the Coast Guard since April. Seemed solid; everyone called him “Yak” because of his last name, not because he was a big talker.

And of course there was a fifth personality to consider: patrol boat 44397. At 20 she was older than two of the crew. Of the station’s two boats, this was the one for heavy weather, no doubt about it. The 41-footer was faster, but the 44’s twin engines 185 horsepower apiece, gave her muscle to burn, left a deep V wake wherever she went. Part of the reason she managed only 12 knots was that her steel hull had been made even heavier by lead ballast down below; if she ever flipped in heavy seas, the weight would quickly right her again. She could handle 50-knot winds and 30-foot swells.

By 9:00 A.M. the four crewmen had helped tape the station’s windows at the west end of town and battened down what could be secured ashore. Then they motored a quarter mile into Provincetown Harbor to put the 44 on one of the Coast Guard’s heavy-weather moorings — standard policy with the station on full alert, Condition One. All 37 Coast Guard stations from New Jersey to Maine were doing variations of the same thing. Bigger Coast Guard boats had run to the open seas, a safer place for a large vessel to ride out bad weather than anywhere near the dangerous shallows. Smaller boats had moved behind hurricane barriers like New Bedford’s or into the safety of the Cape Cod Canal.

Cope and his crew expected to ride out Hurricane Bob bouncing around their mooring, with a safe fish-eye view of the storm. Yet Officer Curtis insisted that the crew of the 44 pack 24 hours’ worth of provisions and carry a portable radio to back up the regular communications system. Cope and his crew thought that kind of extreme, although of course they did it.

By 9:45 the winds were at 35 knots, and the card game was suspended; the crewmen, wearing their orange Mustang suits and heavy-weather harnesses, were on deck watching what was, for most of them, their first hurricane at sea. The first call came in: Flyer’s Boatyard, a neighbor of the Coast Guard station in the west end of town, had been working feverishly to pull as many boats as possible from the harbor. But a bunch of floats still bobbed around. John Santos, whose family has run the yard for decades, knew he had to get them to a safer spot, and the far end of the harbor, tucked up against Long Point, seemed like the best place. He had strung the floats together, towing them with two outboards through the rising chop when an engine sputtered and died.

Bad timing, worst case. But this was the kind of work the 44 was built to do; 35-knot winds were well within her range. Cope ordered the boat off the mooring. The crew attached a towline to the front of the makeshift caravan of floats. Cope agreed that the lee of Long Point was the best place to hide. Approaching the shallows, he built up speed and then released the towline. “We kind of slingshot them up onto the beach,” he said.

Cope swung back to his mooring, snagging the line to tie up. The cards waited, but this was one game that would never be played out. The radio crackled again: The Golden Dawn, a Maine fishing boat taking shelter in Provincetown Harbor, called to say she was taking on water.

The Golden Dawn sat at the edge of the inner harbor, east of the Coast Guard mooring, less than a mile away. It was tight quarters, with dozens of boats crowded into the protection of the granite breakwater. Cope was glad for his recent training. He remembered to use engine power to help steer, to back one engine and rev the other for tight turns, to drive rather than pivot, simple techniques made possible by two powerful throttles. Dean Demers prepared a pump and made ready to board the fishing boat as they approached, when a new version came back: “He’s not taking on water, he might be taking on water’,” Cope heard on the radio. In the howl of the rising wind, the 44 tossing, Cope looked around angrily. The fishing boat’s battery was dead and needed a jump start, actually, which the Coast Guard could not provide. This was not a life-threatening situation. The 44 turned and fought her way back to the mooring, leaving the Golden Dawn on her mooring inside the breakwater.

Updated Monday, December 2nd, 2013

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