In 1952, the T2 oil tanker SS Pendleton breaks in two during a winter nor'easter off the coast of New England. When word reaches the Chatham Coast Guard station, the commander dispatches Bernie Webber along with three others in a tiny motor boat to find the stricken ship and rescue the crew, come hell or high water.
This film contains examples of:
- Abandon Ship: Mr. Sybert refuses to abandon the ship, as the seas are too rough for the lifeboats and he believes their best chance is to keep the stern afloat as long as they can until someone can reach them. Only then do they evacuate.
- Burning the Ships: Sybert cuts the sole remaining lifeboat down, which is then splintered by the waves, leaving the men no other choice but to help him keep the ship afloat awhile longer.
- Epic Tracking Shot: The camera sticks with the lifeboat underwater as it ploughs straight through some of the giant waves. And late in the movie is an unusual but very distinctive tracking P.O.V. Cam shot in the third person following a character falling from a rope ladder into the water.
- Happily Married: As the epilogue shows, Bernie and Miriam were married for 58 years until he died in 2009.
- Hero of Another Story: In the original book, while still focusing on Webber's crew, also details the other boats' rescue attempts at the Pendleton's bow and stern, and the two halves of the SS Mercer, as well as recalling other historic lifeboat missions of the area. Ironically, it also carries on with the story to include Bernie Webber's discomfort with being singled out as a hero when other boats also had perilous missions.
- It's All About Me: Subverted with Miriam. Her repeated, forceful demands that the rescue effort be called off to keep Bernie out of danger are refused by Officer Cluff and she gets kicked out of the Coast Guard station over it. On the way home, she hits a snowbank and is bailed out by a housewife whose husband is trapped on the Pendleton. This gives Miriam a much-needed reality check that she's not the only woman out there who's worried for her man, and that as risky as Bernie's mission is, a lot of other ladies would definitely become widows if he didn't make the attempt.
- Jumped at the Call: Ervin is just a low-ranking seaman who'd come to the station house to get out of the cold, but he volunteers to go on the rescue mission with Bernie even as a lot of more experienced sailors keep their silence.Ervin: Well someone has to go out and save those guys, right? That's why I signed up. Guess now's my chance. ... Seaman Ervin Maske, Stonehorse lightship.
- Love Theme: Meeting Miriam for when Bernie meets the girl he eventually marries.
- The Navigator: Bernie is able to find the Pendleton stern and then find his way back to port, most of it after his compass was lost, just from his knowledge of the currents in the area and figuring where the ocean was taking them.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Bernie refuses to head back to port until everyone is off the Pendleton.
- Pintsized Powerhouse: Lifeboat CG-36500 is thirty-six feet long, or a little larger than a semi-truck.
- Sinking Ship Scenario: The crew of the Pendleton find themselves in one after a welding seam breaks under stress, and the ship breaks in two.