Bravely going to sea has long been part of the region's culture

Is the ability to give your own life, in rescuing someone else, a gift or a curse?

This startling question came Tuesday from a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, where, evidently, this is a part of the career zeitgeist some students may feel compelled to contemplate.   

The question makes more sense in context.

It was posed to Michael Tougias, co-author of the book "The Finest Hours" — soon to also be released as a Disney movie — which tells the story of Coast Guard bravery in the February 1952 rescues of crew from two oil tankers that had, improbably, both broken in half off the coast of Cape Cod, during a raging nor'easter.

The book and movie tell the story of a crew that set out from the Chatham lifesaving station in a small lifeboat on what seemed, for all the world, like a suicide mission.

They returned hours later, after a remarkable rescue that, well, will soon be the stuff of Hollywood. The returning lifeboat was met by Chatham townspeople who watched, mesmerized, as 32 survivors emerged through the little boat's hatch, like clowns unloading from a circus car, Tougias told the cadets.

In answer to the question about risking life being a gift or curse, Tougias said he had no good answer.

The exchange reminded me of the long relationship eastern Connecticut has had with the sea, from the whaling ships that used to call New London homeport, to the submarines that leave from here today on world undersea voyages. The academy trains young men and women to become leaders at sea.

And there are plenty of reminders of the great risk taking that has been involved in so many of those passages that began or ended in Connecticut.

Tougias also wrote a book about the Bounty, which left New London ahead of Hurricane Sandy, sinking off the Coast of North Carolina, but not before a heroic Coast Guard rescue. Only the captain and one crew member did not make it home from the hurricane, thanks to Coast Guard rescuers who risked their lives.

The Disney movie on the Chatham rescue is due out in January. In December, Ron Howard's new movie, "In the Heart of the Sea," based on Nathaniel Philbrick's National Book Award winner, will give an account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, in 1820.

Wednesday, Mystic Seaport will honor Philbrick with the 2015 America and the Sea Award during a fundraising gala in New York City.

Howard toured the Seaport's whaler Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving wooden whaleship, at the outset of planning for his whaling movie. Philbrick joined the Morgan last summer, when it visited the whaling grounds off Cape Cod, on its celebrated 38th Voyage.

"In the Heart of the Sea" tells the story of the sinking of the Essex by an enormous sperm whale, leaving its crew shipwrecked and forced finally to resort to cannibalism.

That story puts the cadet's question to Tougias in New London Tuesday in an even different light.

A reader recently sent me a curious news story from The Day from 1890, under the headline: Four Days in a Whaleboat.

It told of the "miraculous escape" of six crew members from the Charles W. Morgan, who were stranded at sea in their whaleboat after becoming separated from the ship after a whale chase.

The crew in the whaleboat, after harpooning a whale, were taken on a long "dead run." They stayed with it until after dark, when the line to the whale and harpoon were lost. They also lost sight of the Morgan.

The Morgan returned to San Francisco, thinking the crew had drowned. Instead, the crew members, who drifted at sea for four days, before landing on the Siberian coast, were finally rescued, and the news made it home. The men followed on various ships, via Russia and Hong Kong.

There are many more harrowing sea stories with connections to eastern Connecticut. Not all of them will make it to the big screen.

Even today, the young men and women being trained in New London to go to sea know you may give your life, a gift or a curse.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

Twitter: @DavidCollinsct

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