A daring sea rescue, a maritime court case, and the strange world of salvage rig : Planet Money At around 1 a.m. on the morning of November 15, 1994, Captain Prentice "Skip" Strong III woke to a distress call. Skip was the new captain of an oil tanker called the Cherry Valley. He and his crew had been making their way up the coast of Florida that evening when a tropical storm had descended. It had been a rough night of 15 foot waves and 50 mile per hour winds.

The distress call was coming from a tugboat whose engines were failing in the storm. Now adrift, the tugboat was on a dangerous collision course with the shore. The only ship close enough to mount a rescue was the Cherry Valley.

Skip faced a difficult decision. A fully loaded, 688-foot oil tanker is hardly anyone's first choice of a rescue vessel. It is as maneuverable as a school bus on ice. And the Cherry Valley was carrying ten million gallons of heavy fuel oil. A rescue attempt would put them in dangerously shallow water. One wrong move, and they would have an ecological disaster on the order of the Exxon Valdez.

What happened next that night would be dissected and debated for years to come. The actions of Skip and his crew would lead to a surprising discovery, a record-setting lawsuit, and one of the strangest legal battles in maritime history. At the center of it all, an impossible question: How do you put a price tag on doing the right thing?

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+
in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

Rescues at sea, and how to make a fortune

Rescues at sea, and how to make a fortune

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1197956698/1227281966" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

At around 1 a.m. on the morning of November 15, 1994, Captain Prentice "Skip" Strong III woke to a distress call. Skip was the new captain of an oil tanker called the Cherry Valley. He and his crew had been making their way up the coast of Florida that evening when a tropical storm had descended. It had been a rough night of 15 foot waves and 50 mile per hour winds.

Now, as Skip stumbled to the bridge, he found himself at the threshold of an unfolding disaster. The distress call was coming from a tugboat whose engines were failing in the storm. Now adrift, the tugboat was on a dangerous collision course with the shore. The only ship close enough to mount a rescue was the Cherry Valley.

Skip faced a difficult decision. A fully loaded, 688-foot oil tanker is hardly anyone's first choice of a rescue vessel. It is as maneuverable as a school bus on ice. And the Cherry Valley was carrying ten million gallons of heavy fuel oil. A rescue attempt would put them in dangerously shallow water. One wrong move, and they would have an ecological disaster on the order of the Exxon Valdez.

What happened next that night would be dissected and debated for years to come. The actions of Skip and his crew would lead to a surprising discovery, a record-setting lawsuit, and one of the strangest legal battles in maritime history.

At the center of it all, an impossible question: How do you put a price tag on doing the right thing?

This episode was hosted by Jeff Guo. It was produced by Emma Peaslee. It was edited by Jess Jiang, and engineered by Valentina Rodríguez Sánchez. It was fact checked with help from Willa Rubin. Alex Goldmark is Planet Money's executive producer.

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

Always free at these links: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, the NPR app or anywhere you get podcasts.

Find more Planet Money: Facebook / Instagram / TikTok / Our weekly Newsletter.

Music: NPR Source audio - "Trapped Like a Bird," "New Western," and "Outlaw Mystique"