- by Carol Standish
Skip Strong graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in the mid-1980s with the traditional third mate’s license. Serving primarily on oil tankers, he logged over 400,000 miles at sea over the next 10 years, working his way up through the hierarchy of command.
In 1994, Strong was promoted to the rank of captain, in command of the Cherry Valley, the 688-foot oil tanker on which he had been serving as chief mate. At 32 years old, Strong was “thrilled to be so entrusted.” In Peril (The Lyons Press, $22.95, 254pp) is Captain Strong’s own account (with Twain Braden) of his most extraordinary experience as the captain of a this enormous vessel.
On Strong’s second trip as captain of the Cherry Valley, his job was to supervise the loading of 237,000 barrels of heavy viscous Number 6 crude oil at two different ports on the Mississippi River and guide the fully loaded tanker down river, across the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida to the delivery port, Jacksonville, where the cargo was to be discharged.
It was a routine trip. Strong describes daily life at sea aboard the tanker in fascinating, often amusing detail. “The oil is maintained at a temperature between 120 and 130 degrees [liquid enough to pump]. A nice side benefit is that no ice builds up and our feet don’t freeze as we go about cargo operations.” (A detail poignantly appreciated by a captain from Maine.)
Had the trip continued to be routine, Strong’s account would be well worth reading because his life aboard is strange, even exotic to most of us. However, that particular voyage was anything but routine. The heart-thumping action of the book is the story of Strong’s successful rescue of a tug (and barge) with engine trouble and the five crew members.
On route from the gulf to Jacksonville the Cherry Valley happened to be the closest vessel in the vicinity of the disabled tug and Strong was requested by the Coast Guard to lend whatever assistance he could. In near hurricane conditions Strong maneuvered his massive vessel within one mile of Bethel Shoal (which would have grounded the laden tanker) in order to get tow lines aboard the stranded tug.
Early in the book the size and maneuverability of the Cherry Valley is vividly established. At 44,000 tons dead weight, she “has the shapeliness of a city block. Maneuvering a ship like this is like driving on ice; you always need to prepare for what might be happening ahead of you. When the ship is fully loaded it takes us eight and a half minutes and almost a mile to go from full ahead to dead in the water.” Her draft, loaded is 35 feet.
What the captain and crew of the Cherry Valley did not know when they decided to do what they could to rescue the tug and her crew was that the cargo on the barge was a 150-foot aluminum fuel cell for NASA worth upwards of 50 million dollars. As Captain Strong says, “When we started out on this adventure, we did so because five guys on a tug were having a very bad night in a tropical storm. We didn’t do it for money. We did it because we were the only ones around who could render assistance...”
But as soon as the tug was secured to the Cherry Valley and saved from surely wrecking on the beach, the lawyers begin to wrangle. The federal government (NASA) emphatically refused to pay salvage rights. The book quickly turns from a daring do or die sea adventure to a suspenseful courtroom drama.
Salvage law was developed from customs of the Phoenicians who wandered the watery world as early as 3000 B.C, predating the existence of sovereign states. Well-codified today, salvage is not considered payment or compensation, “but a reward given for perilous services, voluntarily rendered, and as an inducement to seamen and others to embark in such undertakings to save life and property.”
As a general rule of thumb the persons rendering assistance are entitled to one-fifth of the value of the property saved. Needless to say, the reader is rooting for the daring Captain Strong and his skillful and deserving crew.