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Stan Rogers said that when he was young, he saw a show, possibly the Grand Ol’ Opry, and at the end of the show Tennessee Ernie Ford was looking up into the blinding spotlights and singing with earnestness and large voice, a gospel hymn of great inspiration, of triumphing over all odds with the help of the Almighty. Stan decided then and there that he wanted to write a hymn of great inspiration, except without God in it. The song ends with an inspirational message to people "to whom adversity has dealt the final blow", never give up, and, "like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!"
And indeed, Stan’s song did literally save someone’s life.On February 12, 1983 the ship Marine Electric was carrying a load of coal from Norfolk, Virginia to a power station in Somerset, Massachusetts. The worst storm in forty years blew up that night, and the ship sank at about four o'clock in the morning on February 13. The ship's chief mate, 59-year-old Robert M. "Bob" Cusick, was trapped in the deckhouse as the ship went down. His snorkeling experience helped him avoid panic and swim to the surface, but he was left to spend the night alone on a partially deflated lifeboat he eventually reached, in water barely above freezing and air much colder. Huge seas washed over him, and each time he was not sure that he would ever reach the surface again to breathe. Battling hypothermia, he was tempted to allow himself to fall unconscious and be washed away. Just then he remembered the concluding stanzas of "The Mary Ellen Carter". As Cusick tells in One Warm Line, a documentary about Rogers, he started to sing it and soon was alternately shouting out "Rise again, rise again" and holding his breath as the seas washed over him. At seven o'clock that morning a Coast Guard helicopter spotted him and pulled him to safety. Only three men of the thirty-four who had been aboard survived the wreck. After his ordeal, Cusick wrote a letter to Stan Rogers telling him what had happened and crediting the song with saving his life. In response, Rogers invited Cusick to attend what turned out to be the second-to-last concert Rogers ever performed. Cusick lived another 30 years, and his testimony and activism in the aftermath of the accident spurred far-reaching maritime safety reforms.
The song has become a classic of the genre and many artists covered it, even before Rogers' death. Ian Robb , who lives in Ottawa, recorded it with the other members of Finest Kind on his album "From Different Angels". It was recorded by the seven piece Newfoundland band The Irish Descendants as part of the tribute album Remembering Stan Rogers: "An East Coast Tribute", performed by a large number of acts at Rogers' favorite venue in Halifax, Dalhousie University.