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Hurricane Bob | The Hurricane Nobody Took Seriously

In just the 20 or 30 minutes needed to reach the Golden Dawn and return, Cope realized that the winds had doubled to 70 knots. Bob was arriving. Now would be the time to tie up and ride him out, like every other Coast Guard boat in the Northeast was doing. But in Provincetown, it would be different: The Bay Lady II, over 80 feet long, a strikingly handsome steel-hulled boat that offered summertime harbor cruises, was too big for her anchor and mooring. Slowly, inexorably, Bob was pushing her toward the beach, toward a jutting pier, toward a score of other boats moored in her path. On board, the owners called for help.

Cope was willing, but it was Officer Curtis’s call. Do what you can, Curtis told him. “We don’t run away from problems. That’s not why the Coast Guard is here.”

The Bay Lady was close by, on the western side of the harbor. Cope tried to position the 44 as close as possible, fighting chop at every turn, while Demers waited for the right instant to heave a line. Heaving a line across 70-knot winds is not something that can be practiced. Cope jockeyed the 44 to within 25 yards, and Demers hurled the lightweight messenger line; it was a perfect throw, wrapping itself snugly around a stay on the bigger boat. “Beautiful!” Cope yelled to his engineer. “That’s beautiful to see.”

They played out 200 feet of the heavier towing line and started the tow, a 44-foot boat trying to drag an 82-foot boat across hurricane-force winds. “We made all of one knot moving across the harbor,” says Cope. Demers, positioned to the stem, heard the line under so much stress that it was growling, barking like an angry dog. Yet it was holding — so far. The shallows in the lee of Long Point, the same place Cope had taken the floats, was the only place the Bay Lady might be able to anchor. Slowly, the 44 pulled her burden across the harbor. As they neared the point, Cope checked his fathometer to see how much water they had underneath them. No reading. The bottom was churning violently, sand swirling to the surface, blinding the equipment. He made his best guess, got the Bay Lady tight into the lee, and ordered his men to stand by while the sailing boat tried to anchor. As they watched, it was clear their work would be for naught: The Bay Lady was too big, the anchor too small. The boat already was being pushed back across the harbor toward Provincetown.

“There’s nothing left we can do with the boat,” Cope yelled to the Bay Lady’s skipper. “We’ll take you off if you want.”

No, the skipper would stay, unhappy that the Coast Guard wouldn’t. “It was a decision I had to make and live with,” says Officer Curtis, who was monitoring the action by radio. More distress calls were starting to come in. “For the rest of the people in that harbor, it was the best decision.” The Bay Lady, pushed back toward shore, drove aground. She was damaged, but her hull was intact — and she avoided crashing into other boats, avoided the potentially deadly piers jutting nearby.

Freed from his tow, Cope tried to get his bearings. It was not yet noon, but in less than an hour, the face of Provincetown Harbor had changed almost beyond recognition. Dense mist and fog reduced visibility to 20 feet at best. Mean, sloppy chop reached eight to ten feet; the 44 could handle rollers much higher, but this stuff was without rhythm, unpredictable. Gusting past 100 miles per hour, the winds far surpassed what the boat was rated to sustain.

Cope ordered his men to clip their harnesses into the D-rings located all over the boat to prevent them from washing overboard. “Hey, Yak,” Matt O’Malley screamed into the wind, talking to the apprentice seaman. “You better be hooked up good, because when we roll over, I want you to be here when we come up.”

“I’ll be here,” Yak called back.

Waves slammed into the hull, washing over the deck. Both the secure and standard radios on board took water and shorted; the crew could hear calls on Channel 16, but could not respond. The portable radio that Curtis had insisted they carry became their only voice out.

Cope heard on 16 that the Miss Lisa, another fishing boat, had broken loose behind the breakwater. She had no steering and could not keep from ramming whatever boats were in her way or dashing against the granite meant as protection. Curtis ordered the 44 to respond.

Again they fought east, bucking surges and chop to find the Miss Lisa. She was ghosting toward a dozen or more boats moored in her path. There was little time. Demers heaved the line, hitting his target on the first cast. No 200 feet of line this time. There was no room to let the Miss Lisa swing wide. They kept her tight on the hip, the twin engines of the 44 straining, the line taut and vibrating. Cope knew there was a big green mooring ball on the far side of the breakwater that could hold a fishing boat this size. They came alongside and snagged the ball, tying the Miss Lisa down. She would ride out the storm safely.

Exhaustion was setting in. Cope felt the strain, knew his crew could too. He hadn’t smoked a single cigarette or had one cup of coffee since they boarded that morning. Now, at midday, Bob was at his howling height. Cope steered for the inner harbor, looking for any available shelter. Then engineer Demers heard the one sound he prayed not to hear that day: the alarm bell signaling trouble in the engine compartment.

Seconds later, the port engine cut out. Demers wrestled out of his restraints and went below. As he passed through the crew quarters, he noticed that the cards from the game of spades were scattered all around. He opened the door to the small engine room. The engine wasn’t turning over. Nothing at all. He knew he had to do something fast, but the wild gyrations of the boat were bouncing him around, hampering his ability to work. As the seconds passed, Cope, at the wheel of his crippled boat, fought a rising panic: Without both engines, he could not maneuver in this hurricane.

Cope could see next to nothing in the mist, but he knew he was near other boats, near the breakwater. He looked at the radar to get a fix on his position, but the screen was blank. The wind had ripped the radar equipment off its mount, leaving Cope blind.

Updated Monday, December 2nd, 2013

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