They Had to Go Out

by Gary J. Hudson

Cover image

Publisher: Xlibris
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 1-4363-8132-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 165

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They Had to Go Out, as noted on the cover, is the story of the tragedy of the Triumph and the Mermaid, a marine incident that occurred off the Oregon coast of the United States near the mouth of the Columbia River on January 12, 1961. But it's also much more than that. It's a detailed and thoroughly-researched account of a Coast Guard rescue operation, starting with background on the two coastal lifeboat stations and the types of ships involved. It covers everything from crew backgrounds to equipment issues to the general shape of the subsequent inquiry, and in the process provides a wealth of detailed information about the nature of Coast Guard rescue operations and the technology and equipment available at the time.

But, beyond that, it's a gripping story, in part because of the authenticity of the authorial voice. Gary Hudson spent twenty years in the Coast Guard, ten on coastal lifeboat stations like the ones in this book, and was assigned to Point Adams (the primary station involved in this story) until 12 days before the incident, when he transferred to a light station for unrelated reasons. The writing is rough, the paragraphs are not always well-organized, the punctuation doesn't always end up in the right place, and it could have used an editor (Xlibris is a printing service company for self-publishing). But he understands the subject matter completely, and he clearly spent years of effort putting together all the details of the story. The first few chapters, where he establishes the necessary background and tells a few related stories, feel quite rough, but once he gets into the heart of the story, the rough prose stops mattering.

Obviously, one of the things that makes this story so appealing is that it's a gripping human story, with the unconstructed and unexpected twists and turns of reality rather than a plot. Hudson has lived the life of the people he's writing about and can put many of their fears and thoughts into words. He captures some of what it would feel like to be out on the water in the middle of the worst seas that most of them had ever seen. And reality is unpredictable. I'm avoiding giving the exact details of what happened and I would recommend not researching the incident on Google if you plan to read this book; there's a lot of drama here, and spoilers are possible. Hudson's factual, detailed narrative style gives the reader a lot of material with which to build mental pictures, and he preserves the drama and the human impact of the story by telling it in straight chronological order. The writing is rough, but he shows a talent for pacing and perspective in the way he weaves together the viewpoints of multiple Coast Guard stations and ship crews.

This is also a case study and an accident report, put together with extensive research and scope, but made approachable for the average reader. Hudson takes out the dryness and technical language and weaves the events into a narrative, but he doesn't lose much of the detail. You can know nothing at all about ships or Coast Guard operations and come away from this book with strong opinions about self-righting capabilities (and, more to the point, accurate communication to crews of the capabilities of their vessels). And, by showing a full day of Coast Guard operations (admittedly, a very unusual and difficult day), Hudson also provides the previously unfamiliar reader with a great "day in the life" picture of what Coast Guard lifesaving operations at their most dangerous look like (or at least looked like; one also gets a sense of just how much has improved, and how important the improvements are, in the final chapters).

Finally, unlike most accident reports, Hudson carries the story through to the immediate family impact (which may well bring you to tears) and then, given forty years of hindsight, some of the subsequent effects on the people involved. I really liked this. One of the aspects of stories like this that often gets short shrift is that the people involved carry the incident with them for the rest of their lives, often with profound impact. Unlike a movie, where the movie ends and the characters disappear as soon as the primary action is complete, real life has messy and lingering endings, and I think Hudson manages to capture some of that feeling.

Some of the best non-fiction books are not written by professional writers. Instead, they're written by people who have both expertise and passion for a particular topic and who know or teach themselves enough about telling a story to manage to get that expertise and passion out on paper. Hudson puts every aspect of this day into the book, from the people to the family impact, from the questionable decisions to the equipment failures and shortages, from the initial conditions through the inquiry and up to the subsequent impact on the lives of the people involved (including, sadly, the Coast Guard's lack of understanding of how to help people with traumatic stress). Some of the paragraphs clunk, some of the sentence construction is awkward, and some of the short biographies are a bit lost in details, but Hudson's desire to tell the complete truth as he was able to reconstruct it, and his deep empathy and understanding of how it felt to the people involved, shine through and carry this book.

This is great stuff, and worth seeking out. Recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-12-21

Last modified and spun 2015-09-20