The Chatham Historical Society missed an opportunity 38 years ago when it declined the Cape Cod National Seashore's offer of the historic motor lifeboat CG36500. The vessel used in the rescue of the crew trapped on the stern section of the Pendleton on Feb. 18, 1952 – still considered the Coast Guard's greatest small-boat rescue ever – instead went to the Orleans Historical Society, which continues to own, maintain and display the 36-foot wooden rescue boat.
In hindsight, that turned out to be the best solution for preserving the CG36500. There was no place to safely berth the boat in Chatham; in Orleans, it has served as a floating museum in the calm waters of Rock Harbor for years now, providing visitors with the opportunity to climb aboard and imagine how Bernie Webber and crew ever crammed 32 tired and waterlogged men onto a boat designed for no more than 12 people.
Last week we learned that the future of the CG36500 is in question. “The Finest Hours” co-author Casey Sherman raised the alarm after an exploratory phone call with Orleans Historical Society board members who inquired about his connections with the Coast Guard. Jay Stradal, the society's spokesman, said the goal is to preserve the 72-year-old vessel long-term. A considerable amount of money and volunteer labor have been put into keeping the boat ship-shape and seaworthy over the years. But as with any wooden boat, it needs constant attention and the core group of volunteers who take care of it are “not getting any younger,” he said.
The possibility of the Coast Guard or a Coast Guard-affiliated museum acquiring the CG36500 and moving it out of town to be put on display sparked an immediate backlash. There was speculation that the Society was looking to sell the vessel to offset the cost of its recent purchase of the Captain Linnell House. Officials downplayed the link but were open about the need to explore the future of the boat.
No one wants to see the CG36500 leave the Lower Cape. As the late photographer and author Bill Quinn told The Chronicle in 1982, “The Orleans Historical Society is guardian of the craft, but she belongs to the people of Cape Cod.” Clearly, a long-term plan and financial arrangement is needed. This is a perfect opportunity for the Orleans and Chatham historical societies to work together; Orleans has the boat and Chatham, not to put too fine a point on it, has access to financial resources. A fundraising campaign to establish an endowment to ensure future maintenance and docking – including winter storage – would, we believe, be a success. Community Preservation Act funding from both communities should also be explored. As Sherman noted, little has been done to “monetize” this internationally famous piece of history. Together, the boards of the two organizations are more than capable of making this happen, and we have no doubt they would receive considerable support from Cape Codders near and far, creating another “finest hour” in the storied history of the famous vessel.