The Lyons Press, 2003. $22.95. 288 pages.

Rescue at sea and the salvage of foundered shipping are as old as sea travel itself. The book of Isaiah speaks of the “dragon that is in the sea.” Literature is full of references to the sea and its dangers, from Homer’s “wine-dark sea” to Melville’s Moby Dick.

When a ship is in danger from seas and storms, whoever is in the area must try to help, both because it is a universally accepted law and, as Skip Strong writes in this gripping story, “At sea, everyone is at risk at any given time; we simply take turns being on the receiving end of trouble….”

The call for help came to the ship CHERRY VALLEY on a night in November 1994, just as Tropical Storm Gordon, which had developed out of the Caribbean, was combining with a stationary high-pressure front from over the Carolinas. The result was 40-knot winds and seas of 15 to 25 feet.

A tug with barge in tow was in trouble about 10 miles off the Florida coast, near Jupiter Inlet and Cape Canaveral. No other shipping was near. The Coast Guard wanted to know if the CHERRY VALLEY could offer “any assistance possible.” Any number of us may have responded to similar calls in Maine waters. The difference here – and it’s a big one – is in the kinds of vessels involved.

The CHERRY VALLEY was a 44-deadweight-ton tanker, carrying 10 million gallons of oil from New Orleans to Jacksonville. Her single hull of three-quarter-inch steel was built in 1974, before the world had heard of the EXXON VALDEZ. So in addition to the question of whether he could render assistance to a powerless tug, the tanker’s 32-year-old captain (and Maine Maritime graduate) had to assess how much his ship could take – and be sure not to spill a drop.

It’s a page-turning, tension-building narrative. Strong describes how he and his crew maneuvered the 688-foot tanker through several passes until they could get towing lines aboard the tug J.A. ORGERON. When they started the rescue effort, in a driving tropical rain with nearly zero visibility, they were about three miles from Bethel Shoal, where charts say there’s 28 feet of water. By the time the tug was in tow, they were slightly more than half a mile from the shoal. Nerve-wracking work, especially if your ship draws 35 feet in calm water.

And, as if the weather conditions weren’t trying enough, all this took place in the dark. Only after dawn did the tanker see the tug and the barge POSEIDON, whose cargo Strong describes as looking “unlike anything I have seen before … a huge Quonset hut with a house on the forward end.”

His surprise was understandable. The thing on the barge was the liquid-fuel tank for the space shuttle, $50 million worth of aluminum and technology that would be used in flight for all of eight minutes. Because the tank was built near New Orleans but could not be transported by land, it had to be barged around the Florida peninsula to the Cape.

At that point, the lawyers got involved, and a fine adventure with a happy ending devolved into a years-long court battle that resulted in the government paying a salvage award almost the size of one it had refused in the first place. Go figure.

Still, this is a terrific story. There’s enough technical detail in the rescue operation to explain what’s happening but not to befuddle Sunday sailors like me. Along the way, readers can learn a good deal about the mechanics of how we move the oil to feed our ever-increasing appetite for petroleum. It also raises some questions, such as: Why does NASA build such an essential component so far from its intended point of use? Why is the transportation of something so valuable given to a subcontractor of the lowest bidder? Why, given how much the environment and lives are put at risk in transporting the stuff, aren’t we as a nation demanding greater oil efficiency?