Issue: October 2003
Dead Men Tapping: The End of the Heather Lynne II

Dead Men Tapping: The End of the Heather Lynne II - By Kate Yeomans, 400 pages, $24.95, International Marine/McGraw-Hill, Camden, Maine,

For anyone who has ever been offshore in a small boat, getting run down by a bigger boat - namely a tug or a ship - is among the greatest of fears. This book won’t do much to allay them. It’s the story of the 45-foot fishing boat Heather Lynne II, which, in September 1996, was run down and capsized by a barge off the Massachusetts coast. It’s the story of the fishermen who came to the Heather Lynne II’s aid and then waited, reassured by the Coast Guard that they would be arriving at any moment with divers who could rescue the three men trapped inside the capsized boat. They arrived too late. And it’s the story of those men inside banging and tapping to tell those outside that they were alive and scared and trapped, and how that sound will haunt the lives of everyone there that day. Because despite being surrounded by people who could help, and desperately wanted to, those were dead men tapping.

    Kate Yeomans has written for this magazine [see “New Day Dawning,” February 2003] and its sister publication Offshore for many years (she was an editor at the latter). This is her first book, and it’s a doozy. Yeomans brings her considerable skill as a patient and thorough reporter (she has worked on the book for six years), as well as her gift with language, to create a compelling and complex piece of work. She also brings her own burning desire to know more about what happened that morning and why; she grew up along the Massachusetts coast and worked in the fishing community of Newburyport, where the Heather Lynne II was based, and she opens the book with a firsthand account of almost being run down in the same area while she and her husband Rob tended to the anglers on their own 42-foot charter fishing boat. Her husband and his father were among those who raced to the scene of the Heather Lynne II accident that morning, while she listened on the VHF from home.

    Through her extensive interviews, Yeomans reconstructs the events and presents them as they happened, interspersing the action with the courtroom drama that followed (the victims’ families sued the Coast Guard for negligence). She also includes chapters on several other accidents that had a historical bearing on the Heather Lynne II. The result is a detailed but well paced story combining high seas and courtroom dramas. Though we know the mens’ fate, it’s still heartbreaking - and infuriating - to read it by the end of the book.

    For anyone interested in the inner workings of the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue process, this is a must read. “As of early summer 2003, much has changed since that September morning, and yet, in an unsettling way, much remains the same,” Yeomans writes. She doesn’t pass judgment; she simply asks, why and how did this happen? And she never really finds the answer. “This story is soaked in controversy, and just about the only fact anyone could agree on was that the Heather Lynne II had a green hull.”