History – CGC Tamaroa and “The Perfect Storm”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Post Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

CGC TAMAROA

This image of the Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa was shot one year before it would sail into the vicious Halloween storm to save lives. USCG Photo courtesy Coast Guard Historian.

Since 1790, Coast Guard vessels have ventured into harm’s way to carry out the service’s missions. Some were overcome by conditions and tragically lost at sea, while others were able to complete their mission – relying heavily on the skill and courage of their crews. In the so-called “Perfect Storm,” the major nor’easter made famous by a bestselling book and film of the same name, the Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa (WMEC-166) deployed into a maelstrom of heavy seas and high winds to help vessels caught in the storm. Despite the conditions, she managed to complete her SAR mission and return to port but not without a fight.

"Perfect Storm"

Click on the map to read about the NOAA meteorologists who forecasted the "Perfect Storm" in October 1991.

Last weekend marked the nineteenth anniversary of the Perfect Storm, also known as the “Halloween Nor’easter.” By October 28, 1991, two large weather systems were on a collision course off the East Coast – Hurricane Grace was moving from the southeast toward an un-named extra-tropical cyclone. The two weather systems merged to spawn a much larger and more powerful storm. By October 30, NOAA offshore weather data buoys reported sustained winds of more than sixty miles per hour with gusts exceeding seventy miles per hour and wave heights as high as forty feet.

The “Tam” would find itself at the center of the Perfect Storm and the centerpiece of Sebastian Junger’s recounting of the events that took place that fateful weekend. Built for the U.S. Navy in 1943 as a seagoing tug for towing damaged World War II warships, the Tamaroa (ex-USS Zuni) had only a single screw, a relatively high freeboard of ten feet and was nick named the “Automatic Trough Finder” by her World War II crew. In 1946, the Coast Guard received the surplus navy vessel into the fleet and by the time of the storm she was celebrating almost fifty years of service. The 205-foot antiquated cutter presented far more challenges to her crew in a monstrous storm than would the more modern twin-screw 210-foot Coast Guard Cutters.

CGC TAMAROA

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct. 30)--The Tamaroa's rigid hull inflatable rescue boat is sent to help the sailing vessel Satori. Satori, with three people on board, needed help about 75 miles south of Nantucket Island after being caught in the storm. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO

Despite the challenges, Tamaroa and her crew would make several rescues in the midst of the powerful storm. One such case involved a New York Air National Guard HH-60 helicopter returning from its own storm-related mission. The aircraft was low on fuel, could not connect with its C-130 fuel tanker and had to ditch ninety miles south of Montauk, New York. When an HH-3F helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod attempted to hoist the downed aircrew but was unable to make the rescue due to winds blowing up to 100 miles per hour, the Tamaroa would prove the victims’ best chance for survival.

After a four-hour transit, Tamaroa arrived on scene but the sea state and winds had worsened. Commander Brudnicki, Tam’s captain, looked out from the bridge to see wave tops towering over the ship sweeping the deck and swamping the crew. The engine room crew worked feverishly to keep the fifty-year-old powerplant running. A breakdown during this critical point, especially with only one screw, would prove disastrous. With the aircrew fighting for their lives in mountainous seas, Brudnicki tried several times to position the cutter upsea of the survivors and drift down on them for the rescue. After two hours, the Tam succeeded in maneuvering next to the hypothermic aircrew. The deck gang dropped a scramble net over the ship’s side retrieving one airman before pulling up a group of three others. The downed H-60’s pararescueman, Rick Smith, was never found despite a massive search effort.

In recognition of Tamaroa’s heroic efforts to overcome technological and environmental obstacles and conduct her missions, 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 eighteen of Tam’s crew received the Coast Guard Medal, the largest group to receive this award in the history of that honor.

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  • Hope Wright

    The Tamaroa saved my life one time (mid-1970′s) in a raging storm in the Atlantic off a sailboat that was falling apart. I will never forget the struggle to get up their cargo net ladder pounded by wind and waves and the fabulous Coasties on deck saying “COME ON! YOU CAN DO IT!” and then grabbing me to hoist me onto the deck because I was so weak and tired! It was just like the scene in “The Perfect Storm”! That is the reason why I was a Docent at the old Lifesaving Museum of Virginia (Virginia Beach) and why I am proud to be in the US Coast Guard Auxiliary today! To pay them back for their bravery! THANK YOU!! Hope Wright, Division Staff Officer, Public Affairs, 1SR, 014-12-01, Sector NY. BRAVO ZULU!!!!!!!

  • Chuck Hill

    “The 205-foot antiquated cutter presented far more challenges to her crew in a monstrous storm than would the more modern twin-screw 210-foot Coast Guard Cutters.”

    I think the crew would argue that they were better off in the Tamaroa than they would have been in a 210. The 205 was actually almost twice the displacement of the 210s and had less sail area. They also were more stable. I think I recall the Tam’s CO making statements to that effect.

  • Carlos Johnson

    I was stationed on one of the Tamaroa’s sister ships – USCGC Ute in the early 80s, and did tours on three 210s in the following twenty years. The Cherokee class cutter rode like a Cadillac compared to the 210s. But…Once the the towing winch and seaplane cranes were removed from the 205s, they rode much differently, and not in a good way. The Tam had neither during the Perfect Storm. I can only imagine how bad the ride was.

  • http://www.uscg.mil Capt. Ron LaBrec

    Ms. Wright, It was great hearing the story of another one of the Tam’s satisfied customers. Thanks for helping to keep our maritime heritage alive in VA Beach and a special thank you for your service in the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The Coast Guard could not do all the things it does for the American people without our shipmates in the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

    Sincerely,

    Capt. Ron LaBrec
    Coast Guard Public Affairs

  • Bryan Fisher

    Those who have gone to sea in 210s (I am NOT among that number, but I have known many who have) were known to bemoan their lousy ride in even the mildest weather. Top heavy and with a lot of sail area (as has already been pointed out), these ships are relatively poor in a heavy seaway. I can’t imagine that going to sea in TAMAROA in 100-knot winds and 80-foot seas could have been any kind of picnic, but I have no doubt that a 210 would have been thrashed. My most dynamic heavy-seas experience was the 60-foot swells we encountered off the Balleney Islands when returning from Antarctica to Australia, but that was in a 400-foot, 13,000-ton icebreaker, so my hat is off to the brave crewmen of TAMAROA for braving such incredible conditions. SEMPER PARATUS!

  • Shawn Sullivan

    I have to say I agree with what Chuck Hill had to say. I was on board through those long and very demanding days and nights. After my time on the Tam I went on eventually to seeing Mother Nature once again flex her might in the Bearing Sea aboard a few 378′s and I can say none of them would have bounced back the way the Mighty Z did that night. I took more than two steps on the port side bulkhead that night looking down through the porthole into pitch black, no cutter should have taken that beating. A 210 or 378 would have been toast and I would more than likely not be sitting here typing this. Long live the Tam and all of her miraculous achievements.
    Shawn D Sullivan CGC Tamaroa 90-92

  • Roger

    What agreat resue and wondeful effort by all that day. I was on board the hu-25 falcon from airstation Cap cod and first on scene after the ditching by the helocoper crew.It was truely a great effort by all that night

  • Ray Philyaw

    Didn’t see any mention of the CGC Spencer who managed to recall enough of the crew to get underway from Boston. Rounded Cape Cod around 0200 with seas too large to measure. We spent the next 10 days searching for the missing PJ (God rest his brave soul)

  • Aaron Epstein

    I was lucky enough to be stationed on the Tamaroa and a 210. Hands down i would take a 205 any day of the week. The were heavy in the keel and rode the seas better than any Coast Guard i was ever on. Tam may be not in service but she lives on forever in the minds and hearts of every sailor lucky enough to be stationed on her.

  • John Forrer

    I was stationed on a 311 cutter and rode out a typhoon. Mighty rough. The Tamaroa is in Norfolk being restored at this time. She has been painted Navy Gray. The Foundation has done a whole lot of work trying to make her a floating/ operational kind of museum to be berthed on the Portsmouth, Va. water front for all to see and use. They have had to be towed from Little Creek to Norfolk due to a small hurricane that never happened and was berthed at Nauticus for almost 2 months. They have had to be towed somewhere else in the Norfolk area where she is now. They need much volunteer help as well as some financial help to offset the towing costs and insurance. Any help will be greatly appreciated to keep this great and historical lady afloat for all to see. Thanks John Forrer, USCG from 1965 to 1969

  • Captain Steve Weiden

    Back in 1972 my first cutter in the Coast Guard was DUANE (WHEC-33), a 327’ Secretary Class “Weather Cutter”. During a winter time Ocean Station Bravo patrol I saw sea heights I could not have imagined a ship could survive, but we did. Later in life I rode out Hurricane Floyd (the 1987 one) in UTE (WMEC-76) in the Straits of Florida. She rode better, if that’s possible, than DUANE did! Having served in 3 different 210s (COURAGEOUS, DILIGENCE, and a post MMA CONFIDENCE) I can definitely say the old USN ATFs were a better ride. The perfect MEC in my opinion, a great ride and no flight deck!

  • Jim Orrock

    The Tamaaroa lives on under her Navy name the Zuni. We are still in the Portsmouth/Norfolk area. We need volunteers, to keep this valiant workhorse alive. She was a veteran of Iwo Jima and the Stockhoml/Andra Doria collision. Please check us out on our websight Zuni Maritime Foundation. Captain Steve use to call a lifer aboard the Duane when he was an ET3, looks like he had things turn around abit….

  • Bill Doherty

    Folks, I was a crewmember way back in the 60′s and have been heavily involved in her restoration. Please visit our site. Become a member if you can, every dollar is well spent to keep her afloat as a memorial to both her Navy and Coast Guard service.

    One of my fondest memories of her was ironically not when I served on her, but 35 years later when I was sitting on the after gunwales resting during our first official work weekend. I will never forget as long as I live the feeling of excitement when her diesels sputtered, coughed and roared back to life. To hear them rumble after they had been asleep for 8 years was a great feeling………

    Thanks,
    Bill Doherty
    Tamaroa Deck Force 1967-1968

  • Gary-mary

    Captain Weiden,Could you possibly be the Steve Weiden that took me to visit your German grandparents during a cadet cruise to Europe while on the Duane back in the early 70′s? You were an enlisted ET and I was an RD – Gary Watson? You can reply to . I now live in Naples, Florida but still have family ties to the Boston area and Maine where I married and raised my family.

  • Pbskipper

    Jim drop me a note at . Glad to see your name!

    Steve

  • Herm Rawlings

    Was “Doc” Rawlings on the Tam and transferred off of her only about 2 months prior to the Perfect Storm. Loved the old girl, she always got us home no matter what kind of weather. Saw her at Little Creek before her most recent move. Hard to see her in Navy Grey but understand why that’s happened. May she float forever!

  • Rick Curtis

    Herm,
    I was there with you, SN Curtis. Good to see old shipmates still around.

  • Clint Scheel

    Having gone thru thru the perfect storm on the Tam I am glad she was the one I was riding on. I don’t think any other cutter would have made it back from the beating that she took and kept on going. No words can describe that storm or ever will. And to all of you jerks in my MK class at Virginia that made fun of the storm and what we did what do you say now???????