OUT NOW: The Tragic Sinking of Gloucester’s Patriot

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Book cover of "The Tragic Sinking of Gloucester's Patriot"

After darkness on January 2, 2009, Gloucester fishermen Matt Russo and his father-in-law, John Orlando, left the iconic State Pier for the nearby Middle Bank fishing grounds in the trawler Patriot. Russo co-owned the Patriot with his pregnant wife, Josie, daughter of John Orlando.

“Matt Russo and John Orlando aboard the Patriot.” Image courtesy of Joey Ciaramatiro

“Matt Russo and John Orlando aboard the Patriot.” Image courtesy of Joey Ciaramatiro

Matt and John were due back to the State Pier at 10 a.m. the next morning.

But something went wrong. Early on January 3 rd, with a hefty haul of cod and other species suspended in a net waiting to be separated and put below, the Patriot suddenly sank. The vessel went down so quickly that there was no time for SOS calls, or for Matt and John to scramble into cold weather immersion suits, or to enter the life raft that automatically deployed. The only indication of trouble was a fire alarm that robotically signaled to an alarm company as water swallowed the boat. That company phoned Mrs. Russo, who in turn called Coast Guard Station Gloucester asking for help.

Unbeknownst to Mrs. Russo, the alarm company, or would-be Coast Guard rescuers, Matt and John had already perished. Still, inexperienced Coast Guard rescue watch standers struggled for two hours in the absence of traditional distress calls, despite frantic pleas by Josie, Matt’s wife, to formulate a rescue plan.

“The Russo and Orlando Families march to honor their lost loved ones in Gloucester’s Annual Parade in 2009.” Photo by Desi Smith, Used with permission of the Gloucester Daily Times.

“The Russo and Orlando Families march to honor their lost loved ones in Gloucester’s Annual Parade in 2009.” Photo by Desi Smith, Used with permission of the Gloucester Daily Times.

Award-winning maritime historian Captain Russ Webster, an experienced Coast Guard search and rescue commander, meticulously chronicles Patriot’s final journey, from the State Pier, to what is known about the sinking, and then through several official investigations and later rescue procedural changes. Using official documents, numerous interviews of Coast Guardsmen, including that of a former Commandant, family members, and media accounts, Captain Webster deftly explores what most likely happened aboard the Patriot in a book that should be read by every watch stander and mariner.

He also examines ‘normalcy bias,’ a psychological state that can lead rescuers to minimize a known or perceived threat—think ‘analysis paralysis’ where a watch stander over-deliberates and ends up doing nothing or delaying a response when every moment counts. And lastly, pivotal to unraveling the tragedy is Webster’s interpretation of Patriot’s engine and mechanical noises recorded by nearby right whale tracking buoys including sounds of the boat hitting the bottom. This book that hums with history, science, and a family’s grief, is a compelling read for anyone interested in contemporary maritime history.

For more on the Patriot sinking, please see Captain Webster’s interview with Jon Ronan on Ronan’s The Writer’s Block: Episode 398

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The fatal Charleston sailboat accident that changed Coast Guard search and rescue

The teen’s voice came over the radio at 2:17 a.m., a cry for help on a dark, moonless night. “May … Mayday,” a desperate plea shouted over the crackling static. “U.S. Coast Guard, come in.” The Morning Dew sailboat had crashed into one of the rocky jetties at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, and now the 34-foot sloop was struggling against the waves.

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Lost in Charleston’s Waves

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Lost in Charleston’s Waves is the pulse-pounding true story of mistakes by the Coast Guard that resulted in deaths in the early morning hours of December 29, 1997. Just after 2 a.m., Michael Cornett was at the helm of his 34’ motorized sailboat, the Morning Dew. His two sons, Paul and Daniel, and their cousin, Bobby Lee Hurd, Jr., were aboard and fast asleep. Cornett struck a stone jetty on the outer entrance to Charleston Harbor. It’s believed Cornett was incapacitated on impact and thrown overboard. The crash woke up the boys. For several agonizing hours, the “Three Amigos” as they were called, stayed with the vessel. They briefly radioed the coast guard. A coast guard watchstander heard the first part of the call but missed the word MAYDAY. He didn’t replay the tape to double-check. Later, the boys abandoned the sinking sail boat. They were floating in freezing waters. A crewman from a nearby Japanese car carrier heard the boys cry for help and called for help. A second coast guard watchstander failed to launch a comprehensive search and rescue mission. Instead, the guard asked a local pilot boat to check the area to see if anything was amiss. That effort was suspended before sunrise.

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