SEARSPORT, Maine — Nearly 20 years ago, Capt. Skip Strong responded to a distress call from an ocean-going tugboat that was in trouble off the coast of Florida during Tropical Storm Gordon.
As it turned out, his decision to help the five men aboard the distressed vessel had some big ramifications, made headlines and led to a major settlement in a court case.
Strong, who now lives in Southwest Harbor, will be speaking about the 1994 rescue at sea Thursday night at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport.
“If someone’s in trouble out on the water, you go out and see if you can give them a hand,” he said Wednesday. “We were going out there to see if we could help these five guys on a tugboat who seemed to be having a pretty bad night.”
Strong, who was 32 then and who had graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in Castine about 10 years earlier, was captain of the Cherry Valley, an oil tanker trying to outrun the tropical storm. But he couldn’t ignore the call for help from the tugboat, which had lost 75 percent of its engine power and was struggling in heavy winds and seas that were as tall as 25 feet.
“The barge they were towing had a lot of sail area. They were getting dragged to the coast of Florida, right by a shoal area,” said Strong, who today is one of four owners of Penobscot Bay and River Pilots.
Regardless, the crew of the Cherry Valley got to work right away, making passes around the tugboat in the middle of the stormy night to try to connect two old mooring lines to the vessel so they could keep it off the rocks.
“It took us three tries before we were finally successful,” Strong said. “We’re within half a mile of a 28-foot shoal. I’m only five ship lengths away from being not afloat. I like to say I was too scared to be terrified.”
Once they had the tugboat safely connected, Strong was able to ask about the barge, that looked unlike any one he’d ever seen before.
“What the hell do you have in there?” he said over the radio to the guys on the tugboat.
“I didn’t want to tell you before, but it’s the liquid fuel cell for the space shuttle,” came the response.
The Cape Canaveral, Fla.-bound cargo was valued at $54 million.
Strong’s radio operator scribbled a note on a scrap of paper, telling the captain that the cargo was valuable.
“We didn’t do this for the money. We did it to help five guys on a tug,” the captain said.
But after the rescue was finished, with the men, the tugboat, the barge and the fuel cell all safely brought to shore, the tugboat company wanted to give the crew of the Cherry Valley the standard salvage percentage, which in this case was worth $5 million.
That sounded good to Strong and the crew, but not to the U.S. Justice Department, which instead offered them $1 million.
“Well, thank you, but no thank you. We had what was arguably the best salvage case since the Second World War,” Strong recalled.
After a lengthy court case and trial, the judge issued a $6.5 million award to the rescue crew. But the federal government appealed, and a couple of years later, the appeals court awarded them $4.5 million instead. The money was split between the company that owned the tanker and the 25-person crew aboard during the rescue.
“My share ended up being around $300,000,” Strong said. “Out of that, I ended up with a very nice house in Southwest Harbor and I got to tell one hell of a sea story.”
Strong’s book about his experience, “In Peril: A Daring Decision, a Captain’s Resolve, and the Salvage that Made History,” was published in 2003.
His presentation, “Daring Rescue at Sea,” will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 25, at Penobscot Marine Museum’s Stephen Phillips Memorial Library on Church Street in Searsport.
For information or to purchase tickets, call 548-2529.