(Author’s note: This true story was originally written on Aug. 20, 1986, less than 24 hours after the event occurred. Every word is fact.)
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 my bunk. (He kept a rough weather nest there.) Nor’easterly winds carried a cacophony of ‘ting-ting-a-ling-tunk-tunk-ting-a-lings 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 his nest, purring like a small engine for food and attention. I tuned my FM radio to the Martha’s Vineyard station, then brewed a pot of coffee and rolled a cigarette while water slowly became coffee.
I stepped out into the well deck with a strong cup of Joe and glanced around the harbor. In mid-August, Nantucket Harbor 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 in summer, and 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 find 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 welded shut. On five cylinders she ran smoothly and purred like the cat. I often cruised to Martha’s, Wood’s Hole, sometimes as far as Block Island, with never a minute’s trouble.
The Island’s shellfish warden had been her first owner. He’d used her for scallop fishing, and kept her in solid shape. 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 outside of the cabin light blue, with a white flying-bridge. I flew a Michigan flag, and national colors. For holidays I added a Revolutionary War pine tree and rattlesnake ensign, with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” embroidered at bottom of the field. Her appearance (and condition) was “shipshape and Bristol fashion,” a smart vessel in every respect.
It was Aug. 19, 1986. Across harbor at the Brant Point Coast Guard station, gale warning flags were displayed. The Martha’s Vineyard radio station warned of a strong storm creeping north along the coast with high winds, high seas, and heavy rain. The cat entertained himself racing around the gun’ls (he often ran so fast he’d fly off into the harbor, then swim back to the boat and claw his way up on to the deck). I walked around the boat, checked tension on the mooring cable, stowed everything loose in the cabin, then climbed down into my dinghy for the 100-yard pull into 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 CG ice-breaker Westwind in the North Atlantic (circumnavigated Greenland twice) for more than a year, and in buoy-tender/ice-breaker Clover in the Bering Sea, North Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Alaska, and Arctic Ocean for nearly two years. I loved the Atlantic, in particular.
Approaching Town Pier, I stepped out of the eight-foot dinghy onto a camel carrying my bow line, climbed a ladder up onto the dock, and secured the boat. I had some errands to run, needed more coffee and rolling tobacco, and some staples. By 11 o’clock it was raining hard, blowing harder. At noon the Coast Guard raised the Hurricane warning, and near 1 p.m., I pulled back to secure the boat and settle in for the storm. Rowing back to the boat, though only 100 yards or so, was an adventure in itself. The eight-foot dinghy was flat bottomed, and relatively fragile. Waves in the harbor were running 5-6 feet high, spindrift and big raindrops were blowing horizontally. I was soaked and very cold by the time I reached home.
I climbed up over the gun’ls, and pulled the dinghy up after me. I flipped it over in the well deck, and secured it to ring bolts I’d installed at convenient spots on the deck after losing another to a spring storm a few months before. Boats in the harbor were thrashing like frightened horses. I ran out another 12-14 feet of cable, which eased her bucking, then went inside for dry clothing and some hot coffee.
By evening the harbor was a wild scene. Half-a-dozen boats, unmanned and broken from moorings, had already zipped past me stern-first toward the shore. They were moving 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 help keep it properly in position under conceivable conditions. Nantucket harbor is notoriously poor holding ground in a Nor’easter. When your boat is your home, you cannot be too careful.
I turned on the ship-to-shore and FM radios, grabbed the cat, and wedged myself into the bunk with a thermos of hot coffee, and went to work on a 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. It would soon be worse. The town was dark — the local power plant knocked off-line. The hundred yards between me and the Town Pier looked wide as the Atlantic. A tremendous gust of wind, the sound of splintering wood, and a loud crash brought me out of the bunk — cat leaping for his hammock — and out into the well deck. Half of my dinghy was trailing over the stern, held only by a piece of 21 thread line — the other half was gone. One ring bolt had been ripped out of the deck. I cut the line with my pocket knife (a good sailor always has one with him), and the wrecked dinghy was quickly blown out of sight. Soaking wet (again), and blinded by the stinging, wind-driven rain, I returned to the cabin and security of the bunk.
The ship-to-shore crackled. Somewhere in the harbor a group of drunken yachtsmen were calling, ‘This is the yacht Maverick, does anybody 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 FM 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, plates, and bowls, rolled, crunched, rolled again. The howling wind, the darkened town, made me feel alone as I’m ever going to feel.
Rising from the bunk, I stumbled to the FM set and searched for a coastal radio station to keep up-to-date on the storm. As I turned the dial, I glanced out through the wind screen. A blank. I turned toward the bunk, then, quickly, turned and looked again. “What the hell is 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 at me like an express train, were 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 my balance, and, somehow still holding onto the axe, I crawled forward, and cut the cable with one swing.
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 side windows to starboard were gone. Six or eight inches of water swilled around the decks in main cabin and cuddy forward. Later I realized the blow had heeled the boat so far to starboard the windows were blown in. It had also flipped all three batteries out of their box, breaking the ignition connection. 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 (sans axe) I was surrounded by a heaving, groaning, splintering mass of wood, fiberglass, and aluminum. As I glanced to starboard, a 25-foot twin inboard/outboard cruiser flipped upside-down, and disappeared under my bow and keel. I heard her scraping the length of the boat. She never came up. A red 36-foot sloop, her whole port side beam stove-in, rolled and ground against my port bow. She was empty, but just beyond her, a 40-foot powered yacht pitched and rolled in a tangle of mooring cables and wreckage. A man on the flying bridge was trying to back her out of the mess, but getting nowhere. A woman, and two small children, were visible through a wildly swinging door to the main cabin. The children were screaming loud enough to be heard above the screeching wind.
A gray 32 foot sloop was pressed closely against my bow by a smaller sloop and a large 50-footer, (next day, the gray sloop’s brass bow numbers, screws and all, were pressed an inch or more into the oak plank of my boat’s port side. 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 together near the stern of the 50 footer. As she rolled, and pitched, and crashed against other boats, I saw her name in fancy script across the transom — “Maverick, Providence, R.I/’Tho. partying drunks, and not a sailor among them.
As we drifted, too quickly for comfort, shoreward, I had visions of hitting the beach, and having half-a-dozen big boats piling in atop me. I got the attention of the man in the power yacht with wife and kids, waved my axe in the air, and pointed toward the tangled moorings. A moment later, he was working his way forward – with an axe, then successfully cut the lines, and backed out of the mess. As I skidded across a large group of rocks near the shoreline (trashing the bottom of my once fine boat) we all drifted apart. With a bone-jarring CRRRACK, I bounced off the poured concrete deck of a beach-front house near the boatyard.
Inside the large glass French doors of the house, a group of wide-eyed people gaped at me through the glass. BANG! CRASH! CRACK! I smashed into the deck with every 8-10 foot wave. One of the blows opened a hole in my port side you could pass a refrigerator through. The door opened, and a teen-age boy emerged, shouting, “Are you O.K., sir?”
“Yes, I am,” I answered, “But please stay there – I might need some help getting off.” A brave kid, he stayed. I ducked into the cabin, stuffed the cat into my life jacket, and grabbed a .45 pistol my uncle had brought back from “the good war” in Europe. I went back outside, climbed up on the gun’l, and timing it carefully, leapt for the deck. The youngster grabbed me as I landed, then helped me push the boat around the corner of the house. She floated in another 30 or 40 feet (so high was the tidal surge) before going hard aground 20 feet from the street.
As I looked back out across the harbor, I watched the party-boat Maverick, her auxiliary engine now running, back completely through a friend’s classic Chris Craft yacht, which, cut in half, went quickly to the bottom. Maverick caused the entire wreck when her drunken crew panicked over a dragging mooring. Her “crew,” too frightened to get her under way, hoped the moorings of boats she struck would hold her. Her insurers eventually paid tens of thousands of dollars in damages. One of the crew was badly roughed up on the beach next morning, when he threw an empty beer can into one of the boats they’d wrecked, and as stories of their drunken frolic got around among locals.
Safe, and certain my boat was going nowhere, I walked to a friend’s house two blocks away. It was about 1:30 a.m. when I knocked on his door, and asked if I could borrow his typewriter, and a bed. I had a 7:a.m. deadline, and a hell of a tale to tell.
Next day I counted 18 large boats ashore, and knew at least two had gone down to Davey Jones Locker. A huge 70-footer was driven so far up a (usually) small creek near the boatyard, a huge banana helicopter was flown in to lift her out. I hired a bulldozer to dig a ditch at low tide, drifted my boat off on the next high tide. But she was doomed — hurt too badly to be helped. They burned her at the bone yard a couple of months later.