Nov 9, 2008

November 6, 2008: Big Wind at Nantucket, A Hurricane Boat Wreck, Misadventures of 'Maverick'

By L.F. Hamp

I woke with a start as the boat snubbed-up taut to her mooring on a strong gust of wind.
A pink glow of early morning lit the cabin. The 'ship's cat' stared down at me balefully from his perch in a mesh hammock full of towels and T-shirts swinging gently above the bunk. (He kept a rough-weather nest there.) Nor'easterly winds carried a cacophony of 'ting-ting-a-ling-tunk-tunk-ting-a-ling's as running-rigging slapped a thousand metallic masts, booms, and yards.

I sat up- in my bunk and gazed through the spray-spattered windscreen. The harbor was choppy, the morning sky clear. Dark against the brightening sky a multitude of hulls and masts rocked, rolled, and swayed ceaselessly to and fro. I swung my feet over the side of my bunk and the cat jumped from the hammock, purring like a small engine for attention and breakfast. I turned on the FM radio and tuned to a station on the next island west, Martha's Vineyard then brewed a pot of coffee while I fed the cat and dressed.

I stepped out into the well deck with a strong cup of coffee and glanced around the harbor. In mid-August, Nantucket was crammed with visitors, many of them the 'yachting crowd'. Several hundred boats filled every available space at moorings and the town's many docks and piers. Some were tiny day-sailers, some as long as 80 feet. About 30 of them were, like mine, home to a small community of 'live-aboards' who owned moorings in the harbor for summer, rented space at commercial docks in winter. It was a cooperative community of tradesmen, artists, writers and vagabonds.

I bought my 30 foot wooden Pacemaker for $3500, then put hundreds of hours into making her as pretty an old boat as you'd see in the harbor. She was built in New Jersey in 1963, of good American oak, powered by a Barr Marine flat-head six-cylinder engine, with one cylinder sealed off. On five cylinders she ran smoothly and purred like a cat. I often cruised to Martha's, Wood's Hole, sometimes as far as Block Island, with never a minute's trouble.

Nantucket's shellfish warden had been her first owner. He'd scalloped and fished in her, taken good care of her. My improvements had all been cosmetic. I refinished the cabin woodwork, painted the hull black with a red waterline. Her decks were battleship gray, the cabin outside sky blue, with a white flying bridge. I always flew a Michigan flag, and national colors. For holidays I added a Revolutionary War pine tree and rattlesnake flag, with the motto “Don't tread on me” embroidered at bottom of the field. Her appearance was 'shipshape and Bristol fashion', a smart vessel in every respect.

It was August 19, 1986. Across harbor at the Coast Guard station a gale warning was displayed. The vineyard radio station warned of a strong storm creeping up the coast with high winds, high seas, and heavy rain. The cat entertained himself racing around the gun'ls (he often raced so fast he'd fly off into the harbor, then swim back to the boat and claw his way up to the deck). I walked around the boat, checked tension on the mooring cable, stowed everything loose in the cabin, then climbed down into the dinghy for a hundred yard pull to Town Pier.

A former Coast Guardsman with more than three years sea duty, I'd seen my share of terrific storms at sea. I served in Coast Guard ice-breaker “Westwind”, and ice-breaker/buoy-tender “Clover” in the North Atlantic, Denmark Straight, North Pacific, Bering and Barents Seas, Gulf of Alaska, and Arctic Ocean; as far north as Thule, Greenland in the eastern ocean, in the pacific to places well north of Point Hope, Alaska.

Approaching Town Pier, I stepped out onto the camel carrying my bow line, climbed a ladder to the pier, and secured the boat. I had some errands to run, and needed coffee, other staples. By 11 o'clock it was raining hard, blowing harder. At noon the Coast Guard hoisted a hurricane warning, and about one P.M., I headed back to secure the boat and settle in for the storm. Rowing back to the boat, though just a hundred yards away, was an adventure in itself. My dinghy was only eight feet long, flat-bottomed, and relatively fragile. Waves in the harbor were running 5-6 feet, spindrift and raindrops were blowing horizontally. I was wet and cold by the time I reached home.

I climbed over the gun'ls, and pulled the boat up after me. I flipped it ujpside-down in the well deck and secured it to ring bolts I'd installed earlier in the summer after losing a dinghy to a spring storm. Boats in the harbor were thrashing like frightened horses. I ran out another 12 or 15 feet of cable, which eased her bucking, then went inside for some warmth and dry clothing.

By evening the harbor was wild. Half-a-dozen boats, unmanned and broken from moorings, had already zipped past me, stern first, toward the beach. They moved faster than they'd ever moved forward under sail or power. I wasn't concerned about my mooring. I'd safely ridden-out 80 knot winds a month earlier on my 400 pound mushroom anchor. After the spring blow I'd chained a 300 pound cast iron radiator 15 feet from the anchor stock to keep it on its side. Nantucket harbor is notoriously poor holding ground in a North-East blow. When your boat is your home, you cannot be too safe.

I turned on the ship-to-shore and FM radios, grabbed the cat, wedged myself into the bunk with a thermos of coffee, and went to work on C.S. Forester novel (Payment Deferred) I was re-writing for a stage production.

By 10 P.M. I'd given up on Forester. The boat, inside, was a shambles, and wind gusts were well over 100 knots. The town was dark—the power plant knocked off-line. The hundred yards between me and Town Pier looked wide as the Atlantic. A tremendous gust of wind, the sound of splintering wood, and a loud crash brought me off my bunk and out into the well deck. Half my dinghy was trailing over the stern, held by a piece of 21 thread line. The other half was gone. One ring bolt had been ripped from the deck. I cut the line with my pocket knife and the wreckage disappeared. Soaking wet, and half-blinded by the stinging wind-driven rain, I returned to the cabin and my bunk.

The ship-to-shore radio crackled. Somewhere in the harbor a group of drunken yachtsmen were calling. “This is the yacht “Maverick”, does anyone want to party?” And, moments later, “It's hurricane party time on the yacht “Maverick” c'mon out'n join the fun.” It takes all kinds.

By midnight, when the Vineyard radio station went off the air, I'd been pitched from the bunk a couple of times. The deck was covered with odds and ends of daily life, and awash with water seeping in around the door and side windows. Books, cassette tapes, broken cups and plates, rolled, crunched, and rolled again. The howling wind, the darkened town, made me feel as alone as I'm ever going to feel.

Rising from the bunk, I stumbled to the radio and searched for a coastal radio station to keep up to date on the storm. As I turned the dial, AI glanced through the windscreen. A blank. I turned toward my bunk, then, quickly turned and looked again. “What's that,” I said to myself, and reached for the wiper switch. Raindrops the size of .38 bullets were driving horizontally, but a hundred yards out, and coming like a freight train, were a half-a-dozen tangled boats. Two of them were huge.

“Jesus!” I grabbed my axe. Out the door without a life jacket, up on the gun'l, I quickly moved forward. I was half-way to the anchor cable when they struck, and nearly went over the side. Recovering balance, and crawling forward, I cut the cable with one swing of the axe.

Back in the cabin I buckled into a life jacket, then turned and hit the ignition. Nothing. Looking around the cabin I noticed all the windows to starboard were gone. Six or eight inches of water swilled around the deck. Later, I realized the blow had heeled the boat so far to starboard the windows were blown-in. It has also flipped all three batteries from their box, breaking connection to the ignition. She wouldn't start, and now my only option was to ride her, wherever she took me. I felt sick. I loved my boat—the prettiest old boat in the harbor....yesterday.

Back out on the bow I was surrounded by a heaving, groaning mass of wood, fiberglass and aluminum. As I glanced down over the starboard bow, a 26 foot twin inboard/outboard aluminum boat flipped upside-down and disappeared under my keel. I heard her scraping the length of the boat. She never came out. A red 36 foot sloop, her whole port beam stove-in, rolled and ground against my bow. She was empty, but just beyond her a 40 foot power yacht pitched and rolled in a tangle of mooring cables and wreckage. A man on the flying bridge was trying to back her out, but getting nowhere. A woman and two screaming children were visible through the wildly swinging main cabin door. The children were crying as their frightened mother tried to comfort them. Their shouts cut through the howling wind.

A gray 32 foot sloop was pressed tightly against my port bow by a smaller sloop and a huge 50 footer. (Next day, the gray sloop's brass numbers, screws and all, were pressed nearly an inch into the oak planks of my hull. She hit me so hard the first seven oak frames were cracked or broken, and pushed inward more than a foot.) Half-a-dozen frightened people were huddled by the wheel, near the stern of the 50 footer. As she rolled and pitched, I saw her name in fancy script across the transom--”Maverick--Providence, R.I.” The partying drunks, and not a sailor in the lot.

As we drifted, too quickly for comfort, shoreward I had visions of hitting the beach and half-a-dozen big boats piling in on top of me. I got the attention of the man in the power yacht, and waved my axe in the air, then pointed toward the tangled mooring cables. A moment later he was crawling forward with an axe. As I skidded across a gourp of large rocks 50 feet from shore (trashing the bottom of my boat), we all drifted apart. With a shuddering crash I bounced off the poured concrete deck of a beach-front house.

Inside the house, a group of wide-eyed people gaped at me through thick glass French doors. BANG/CR-RACK. I smashed against the deck again, opening a hole in the port side you could pass a refrigerator through. The door opened, and a teenage boy came outside shouting,”Are you O.K. Sir?”

“Yes I am,” I answered, “but please stay there—I might need some help getting off.” Lord love the kid—he stayed. I ducked into the cabin, stuffed the cat into my life-jacket, and grabbed a pistol my uncle had brought back from Europe after WWII. I went back out, climbed up on the gun'l and, timing myself carefully, made a leap for the sun deck. The youngster grabbed me as I landed, then helped me push the boat around the corner. She floated in another 30 feet (so high was the tidal surge) before going hard aground 20 feet from the street.

As I looked back over the harbor, I watched the part boat “Maverick” back right through a friends anchored boat, which promptly went to the bottom. “Maverick” caused the entire mess when she began dragging anchor. Her 'crew', too frightened to get underway, had hoped the moorings of those she hit would hold her. Her insurers eventually paid tens of thousands of dollars in damages. One of her crew was badly roughed-up on the beach next morning, as stories of their frolic and radio transmissions circulated among locals.

Safe, and certain my boat wouldn't go anywhere, I walked a couple of blocks to a friends home. It was now nearly 1:30 AM. I asked if I could borrow his typewriter and a bed. I had a 7 A.M. Deadline, and a great first-person story for publisher and readers.

Next day I counted 18 boats ashore, and knew at least two had sunk. A 70 footer was driven so far up a creek a helicopter was called in to lift her out. I hired a bulldozer to dig a trench to re-float the boat. Back on the water, she leaked no more through the bottom than before storm and collision. I removed the engine and fuel tanks, then burned her at the boat yard in the fall.

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