Since 1907 Chelsea Clock has been the trusted time-keeper of the Navy. But once our clocks leave our factory door, we never know what adventures await. It wasn’t until after the release of Disney’s The Finest Hours that we found out that one of our Naval clocks had been aboard the shipwrecked SS Pendleton (the story of the crew’s heroic rescue by the Chatham Coastguard unfolds in the film). What’s more, it had practically been in our own backyard — at the Orleans Historical Society Museum — for the past 34 years. Also maintained by the Society & Museum is the rescue boat featured in the film — which successfully carried out “the greatest small-boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard” — the 12-man CG36500. This summer the society welcomes guests to tour the boat that defied all odds and safely brought 32 Pendleton survivors to shore in one of the worst storms in Coast Guard history.
We caught up with the Orleans Historical Society board of directors to chat about the clock’s storied past and what’s in store for the little rescue boat that could.
Chelsea Clock: What can you tell us about the Pendleton’s clock and how it was secured?
Richard Ryder: The clock is a WWII Navy deck clock that came from the stern of the tanker. It keeps perfect time. It was taken off the ship a few days later after the rescue — once the sea subsided — by some Chatham men, who became known as “the Chatham Pirates.” They went out to the stern with my dad on his fishing boat, called “Alice and Nancy.” The Jacob’s ladder was still hanging off the Pendleton and they used it to get onto the ship to see what they could capture. Other items retrieved were a typewriter, a bilge pump from one of the ship’s lifeboats, the red jib from the lifeboat, as well as a lifeboat’s mast and some oars. The ship was abandoned so it was fair game. Everybody would have loved to have a clock like that, they were very well known — waterproof — they must have carried it down the Jacob’s ladder.
Jay Scradel: Because it was the ship’s clock it was such an important item to Bernie [Webber, chief rescuer and main character in The Finest Hours]. He wanted to go aboard the Pendleton to see what might have been there but since he was in the Coast Guard, he could have been court marshaled had he gone back. When it was given to him he was very honored by it and he talks about this in the epilogue in his book, Chatham: The Lifeboat Men.
RR: Let me give you an idea of how important this clock might have been: In 1917 my grandfather bought his first clock — a pocket watch — and it was fairly expensive for him to do that. When I graduated high school in 1957, that was the first time I got a clock. A ships clock of this magnitude? That was really something special. Ships of this type didn’t come ashore on the Cape. This deck clock, you could dunk it in the water!
CC: In 1982 Bernie Webber presented the Orleans Historical Society with the clock in order to commemorate your restoration of the CG36500, the boat that Webber and his crew used to rescue the Pendleton survivors — right?
RR: Yes. He made a tape to the president of the Historical Society and his speech has been printed in the pages of his book, Chatham: The Lifeboat Men.
CC: What does it take to maintain a rescue boat like this?
JS: Because it’s a wooden boat it needs constant care and attention. She’s 70 years old this year and needs constant maintenance to keep her pristine and afloat. It’s a never-ending effort for us. With the release of the movie and additional publicity we’ve garnered based on the history of the boat, we’re expecting a pretty good summer season. Visitors will come out to see the boat, take some short cruises perhaps — all that requires time and attention and so the boat needs to be in perfect order.
RR: After this past summer we had $18 thousand in repair work done on the upper stern of the hull, and we know that there will be things down the road that will need to be repaired. The hull itself is pretty much original. The engine was built in 1948, who knows how long it’s gonna last — there will always something.
To see the SS Pendleton Chelsea Clock and the restored CG36500, visit the Orleans Historical Society during hours of operation.
To make a donation to support the ongoing maintenance of the CG36500, please visit the Orleans Historical Society website and click “Donate.”
Read more about Chelsea Clock’s history aboard Naval ships here, and stay tuned for a conversation with Matt Fitzgerald, grandson ofJohn J. Fitzgerald, the Captain of the SS Pendleton.