Saving the boats that saved us

“I hope that draws enough people to learn about the biggest small boat rescue in history that this model performed, and that people learn about the heroics of the Coast Guard,” he said.
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By Scott Atkinson 

Jeff Shook has a thing for rescuers. In fact, he’s a rescuer himself, a firefighter in his hometown of Fenton, Michigan — but there’s another kind of rescuing he does, one that pays homage to the brave men and women of the United States Coast Guard who have battled waves and storms to bring people to safety. He rescues their boats. Shook owns eight Coast Guard craft that he’s saved from the elements. 

“A lot of the stories were nice to tell and were good, heroic stories, but were just in newspapers and old documents. But to have an old boat … helps tell the story,” Shook said. 

Like the 36-foot motor lifeboat — oh, does it ever have a story — one that two researchers turned into a book, “The Finest Hours,” which caught the eye of Disney. In 2016 it was turned into a feature film of the same name. 

Shook owns the same model, a close sister to the boat that went on what looked like a suicide mission in 1952, out into the Atlantic where it saved more lives than any boat its size in history.  There were once about 100 of these 36-footers scattered throughout the country. Now, Shook said, there are only about 30, and his alone is seaworthy.

It’s easy to see why Shook has taken such an interest in the boat. You could hardly ask for a sturdier vessel—it has a 2,300-pound bronze keel to keep it upright in heavy surf and comes equipped with self-bailing scuppers to drain water that washes aboard. Those things are there for a reason. To step onto that boat was to welcome catastrophe.

In the case of the famous rescue, that meant handling 60-foot swells and winds reaching 70 knots off the New England Coast before bringing back 32 survivors from the stricken 503-foot tank vessel, the Pendleton.

The Finest Hours Behind The Scenes
“The Finest Hours” Filming Behind The Scenes

It was because of that history that the boat — and Shook — went on an adventure. He was planning to donate the boat to the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, but one day he got a call from Disney saying they wanted to use his boat. He called Patti Montgomery, the museum’s executive director, and apologized for having to delay the loan. 

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is huge. We can wait. The boat is going to be even more interesting,’” Montgomery said.  

Boat restoration can be a lonely pursuit. There aren’t many who do it, fewer yet who specialize in old Coast Guard boats. Most of Shook’s fellow enthusiasts live in other parts of the country. But he suddenly found himself on a movie set, working as a technical consultant and teaching actors such as Chris Pine how to drive his boat. 

On July 9, the boat made its way to the Michigan Maritime Museum, where it is on an indefinite loan while it tells its story to everyone who comes to the museum and rides it over the (safe) waves of Lake Michigan.  

Since the film came out in May on DVD, Montgomery said she can’t keep copies on the shelves, they sell so fast. For someone like Shook, that’s more than good news — it’s vindication. 

“I hope that draws enough people to learn about the biggest small boat rescue in history that this model performed, and that people learn about the heroics of the Coast Guard,” he said.

Scott Atkinson lives in Grand Blanc and teaches writing and journalism at The University of Michigan-Flint.

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