On November first, we added an impromptu raffle to our Sing Shanties Song Circle in order to benefit the sailors injured and displaced when HMS Bounty sank in Hurricane Sandy. During break several people ask me for more information about the loss of the historic replica: why she sailed out into the storm’s path, where the sinking had occurred, could she be re-floated, and could we ever know the whole truth? All the questions were good ones, but difficult to answer in simple terms. I attempted to make a few analogies, but felt that they were insufficient in conveying the whole of what the tall ship community was experiencing, both in coming to terms with Captain Walbridge’s decision to sail in such weather and the terrible loss now that so much had gone wrong. The following account is a detailed attempt to improve on my of-the-cuff remarks.You may want to put on the teakettle and settle in. There is no way to distill something like this, to boil it down into a cute post on Facebook, held by kittens.
Frigyes Karinthy has been regarded as the originator of the notion of six degrees of separation. His ideas influenced the early development of social networks, just as the original live posts from the decks of both military and sail training vessels inspired the modern concept of blogs. Mr. Karinthy had obviously never sailed aboard a sail training vessel or his thought experiment would have yielded an even more surprising result. Within America’s fleet of tall ships there is a separation of exactly one. We are one family. And when one is lost we all loose a brother, sister, child, father, or mother. We lost two of our family when Hurricane Sandy combined forces with a nor’easter during the full moon’s high tide, creating a perfect storm and walloping the eastern seaboard.
There has been much useless, misinformed talk pertaining to the foundering of the HMS Bounty, and it will not be truly known just what events occurred to bring about her loss until a full investigation is complete, but since I was ask well-intentioned questions, I will attempt to summarize what we do know -
Wood floats. Sometimes people forget that. But then shipwrights get the silly notion to fashion it into a boat, adding ballast, rigging, systems, furniture, and soon that hole we have created in the sea becomes vulnerable and should she ever inadvertently fill with water, she will sink. So, instead, we fill her with money, experienced sailors, time, effort, and lots of love to keep her afloat. Bounty had all of these qualities in great abundance when she foundered. So what could have occurred that suddenly tipped the scales so badly against her? First of all, please understand that it wasn’t sudden. These things almost never are. What happened was the result of a great many decisions made in combination, coupled with a great many unforeseen circumstances. Since we don’t yet know (with certainty) what all of those decisions were, let me draw a comparison to something far closer to home - and here I’m going to open the door wide and let you into my home.
Please, come in and meet my family.
A Separation of One
In two thousand and four, Lady Washington was visiting Port Townsend for the Wooden Boat Festival - and since the venerable old Virginia V was out on the Maritime Center’s new deep-water dock, the Lady’s crew had nosed the brig into shore, about halfway onto City Dock, near the police station. She had her fat stern hanging out past the hardstand in order to keep her bluff bow from touching bottom during low tide. This Victorian Seaport was to be the last stop on the Salish Sea before the Lady sailed south, following the sea birds as they migrated down the coast. We were to be changing crews in Port Townsend. That simple fact would nearly prove our downfall.
With the overlapping crews and plenty of local Port Townsend volunteers aboard to pick up any slack, the core crew actually had some time to see the show. Our first mate, Mindy, drew up a four-hour schedule and many sailors happily headed ashore, dispersing into the throngs.
Heidi was just handing down one of John’s excellent lattes from the back of the Java Gypsy classic van when autumn’s first real gust sent litter skittering across Water Street. By the time my shipmate, Robert, had paid for his drink all the vendors along Madison were scrambling to secure their tents. Bob and I shared a look and hoofed it to higher ground. The sky to the south was a fair depiction of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor.
“Think it will miss us?” Bob had his best fake saccharine grin on.
“And the last time you won the lottery was..?” I growled over the rising wind. We quickened our pace, heading back towards the boat.
Mindy was up on the quarter deck, frowning at the sky as if it were a personal affront. Bypassing the gangplank by scrambling over the main chains to avoid the crowd of tourists on deck, Bob and I buttonholed Mindy in our usual subtle way. “You gonna cancel the sail?”
She glanced up at us, while somehow appearing to look down her nose, and drawled cooly, “Why? Forgot where you stowed your foulies?”
Seeing that the mate was in a mood, we slouched off to harass someone else. Below in the main hold, the Lady was beginning to talk to herself. With the southerly steadily rising outside, so did the chop, and the brig began tugging at her moorings, coming alive. Word from the crew giving tours down below was that NOAA had just issued an all-points bulletin. That sour taste in my mouth wasn’t the bite of one too many coffees. It was my internal barometer, saying what the weatherman had just confirmed: Something nasty was on its way and expected to break within the hour. We could expect a full-on gale by nightfall. Bob and I exchanged “the look” again and went to find Evil, our most seasoned captain.
Being true celebrities, Captain “Evil” Ryan Meyer and his wife Ann weren’t big fans of cell phones. Consequently, it took far longer than I would have liked to track them down in the recently-doubled population of Port Townsend. Still, crew is family and we are all on the same wavelength. It helped that the rising wind was drawing the Lady’s sailors closer to her. The brig’s people jealously guarded their hard-earned shore leave, but still spiraled in, moving in ever-tighter orbits. We bumped into Evil and Ann up by Memorial Field and I gave the captain my report in short, concise sentences. He repeated it back to me, making it somehow clearer in just one statement and then issued a single order, “Let Mason handle it.” As usual Evil had seen to the core of the issue. If he swooped aboard now and started throwing his weight around, that single action would undermine Captain Mason Marsh's first tour of command. His action could later cause a fatal hesitation as the crew tried to sort out who they should be responding to if calamity struck. “Chain of command” is not just a pretty term spoken to make movies feel edgy, it is a time tested, evolved structure that has brought vessels home more often than not.
By the time Bob and I had wound our way through the rapidly-thinning throngs on our way back to the waterfront, it was blowing in the twenties and things were starting to get interesting out on the bay. There were still hours to go until our scheduled departure for the public three-hour sailing and my stomach now vacillated between excitement at the prospect of showing my home town just how the Lady was meant to be sailed in real weather and the growing dread of knowing that we were going out there with a crew that hadn't sailed the Lady as a team in extreme conditions. Now, don’t misunderstand - Mindy and Mason were not at all new to the game. Mason's rank exceeded mine and Mindy had the “east coast schooner” feather in her cap that none of us aboard could match. The problem was that the command team hadn't be faced with this scenario before and they lacked my forty-plus years of local weather knowledge to understand just how bad Port Townsend Bay could get. With that in mind, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go sailing today.
The year before, Lady Washington had collided with two anchored boats while we were trying to thread our way out through the tightly-packed festival anchorage. A foolhardy mariner had built his ground tackle from floating line and it had snagged our keel as we passed over, drawing his sloop into us and deflecting the Lady into another boat. Our (then) Captain Stugard had pulled off one miracle after another at the helm as we tossed fenders over the side, trying to minimize damage. It could have been worse - far worse. If our propeller has been spinning when it happened and sucked that line (and attached sloop) under our stern…
Still, the top two officers had missed the shanty sing that evening - spending the time up at Jefferson ER, peeing in a cup. I didn’t plan on missing the circle again this year.
Today there would be no sailing off the dock as we did last year. We would have to back out, make a “T” turn and then firewall the throttle to gain sea room. Tracing that path through the water in my mind’s eye, I encountered no fewer than three boats in the way. “They promised to leave us a hole this time,” I groused. Bob made a vulgar comment about broken promises and diverted our course into the show grounds.
“Let’s find Brian,” he suggested more helpfully.
Brian McGinn was the festival boat wrangler that year - and once we had him paged, found, cornered, and had explained the situation in tall ship shorthand, (Brian was previous Lady crew), Mr. McGinn was in his zodiac and blasting out through the gap in the Point Hudson breakwall before we could say, “please, thanks, and remember to keep the rubber side down”.
“That ain’t right,” I nudged Bob as we again approached the Lady, jerking a thumb in the direction of a fishing boat who was coming in hot, her skipper making a bee-line for the opposite face of city dock.
Bob shrugged it off. “Any port in a storm. “ We hurried to catch her lines.
By the time we had the longliner secure and had checked back in with Mindy, it was really starting to howl overhead. The sky had taken on that garish, brassy glow that makes me want to drive inland about five hundred miles, build a house of stone, and never go outside again. Out on the bay, boats were starting to drag anchor. And right out there among them, Brian was zipping to and fro, trying to hail anyone aboard, asking the occupants to move their boats and open up a lane so that we could take our brig-load of passengers out on what was fast becoming the voyage of a lifetime. I was up near the helm, trying to get a sense of Mindy’s thought process when my eyes paused in tracking Brian’s antics and locked on something they did not want to see.
“Vessel Adrift.” I said it without hesitation and said it loud, my hand pointing. Everyone in earshot moved as one - everyone to their assigned position: Some climbed up for a better view, others moved tourists out of our lanes of travel. The mate’s question was loud and clear,
“Is anyone in the water?”
Word came from above, “No, M’am. Looks like she lost her anchor clean.”
Bob and I were edging towards the rail. Mindy glared at us, “All right, go, but stay out of the water.” We hit the dock running. “Report right back!” she called after.
By the time we arrived people had already run down between the buildings to where it appeared the sloop would be coming ashore. At first blush it looked like hers was going to be the luckiest grounding ever - directly onto the narrow strip of clean sand between the buildings. But still a groan ran through the crowd when she struck bottom - lifting up high on the crest of a wave and then leaving her natural element with a jarring, grinding crunch as she slammed down and rolled onto her side. A few folks tried to move forward, perhaps thinking that they could ease her up onto the sand, but we held them back, knowing how easily she could crush a limb.
“I’m thinking we’re going to need to evacuate the building,” I muttered to Bob.
“No worries, the tide’s almost high, she won’t get up under the pilings,” he reassured me with a toothy smile.
I shook my head and pointed skyward, not wanting to say the word aloud. Bob’s eyes swiftly traveled up the wildly-careening mast, to where the metal shrouds and stays were almost brushing the three legs of electrical service wire connected to the roof of the building - his mouth forming one word, “fire”.
We stayed at the stricken vessel’s side until she was firmly aground, keeping people back and monitoring the movement of her mast until it had quieted, then made double time back to the brig. The situation had changed radically in our absence: A line had formed at the top of the ramp and their the Lady’s purser was going over a list of names. “They’re all here to cancel?” I ask quietly in her ear.
Looking bemused, she whispered back, “They’re all asking if we want to load early.”
Bob’s teeth flashed in the dying light. “Not your usual bunch of land lubbers.”
My internal GPS suddenly caught up with the situation. “Duh,” I thought, “it’s Port Townsend.” (If a full-on cyclone should ever hit the town I guarantee you that all of the shops will sell out of kites in five minutes.)
Our bodies automatically assumed the drunken sailor waltz as we hurried down the ramp and stepped onto the floating dock. The wooden planks were now pitching like the deck of a ship at sea. Quickly reassessing the evolving situation, I was surprised to see the public still milling about aboard the Lady, for she was beginning to buck as well. The wheeled ramp extending down from her forward chains rolled back and forth across the dock as it strove to keep up with the two warring surfaces. Timing our steps - like we were boarding a manic escalator - Bob and I tackled the slope. “Somebody is going to break their ankle,” Bob glowered, his permanently-sunny disposition suddenly snapping. Like those serving in the military, it’s the sailor’s right to bitch and moan. We just shouldn’t do it up or down the chain of command and never to the public. But, for all practical purposes, Bob and I were of equal rank. We were just two of the “old guys” on a boat full of teens and twenty-something crew, and as such we had both “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, worn it, worn it out, and then used it to clean up the mess”.
A fine mess was brewing now. Caught in the confused, reflecting chop from shore Lady Washington was straining and jerking at her moorings. Anyone aboard unfamiliar with her might misstep and injure themselves. It was past time to close the boat to the public, and yet still Mindy skulked up on the quarter deck, standing watch, hunched in her boiled-wool greatcoat, leaning against the still-rising southerly. We formed a human windbreak that she gratefully sank into as Bob tried to be politic. “Don’t think this is going to let up. Do you think it’s worth keeping to the schedule?”
“It only a half hour ’til main course. We can hold things together that long,” Mindy’s voice was expressionless. Pointing east she continued, “Besides, it’s not us I’m worried about. It’s them.” The three of us glanced over at the Maritime Center’s dock, where the last dame of the mosquito fleet, Virginia V, was moored - her high starboard flank exposed to the wind and waves - the southerly playing her violently, like a cheap violin. Looking at the old wooden steamboat, pounded like driftwood against the shore, I heard my mouth say,
“Let’s get out of here while we still can.”
Mindy regarded me like I was several sails short in my locker. “Where would we go? I am not trying to dock in Boat Haven in this slop.”
“Hadlock...” I blurted, making it up as I went along. “... Get off this lee shore and anchor off the breakwall at the Alcohol Plant. I can drive down… and launch my Cat’spaw at the Boat School and row out to you... so the crew wouldn’t be stranded.”
“You’d be nuts to row in this,” the mate declared, forgetting for a moment the difference Hadlock’s weather shore would make. “Besides, people have been leaving for awhile. It’s probably packed down there.”
“He hasn’t!” Bob interjected brightly - aiming for helpful and hitting annoying. We looked to where he was pointing. A good-sized yacht rode less than a cable’s length to windward, yawing hard as the wind swung her about.
“Hang on…” I thought, “… boats held firmly by their bow don’t yaw. She’s dragging,” I snapped out aloud, tracing her heading downwind to… us. “Mindy, we have to move. NOW.” I headed for the ship’s bell to sound the alarm. Bob moved like a bear, large and fast, calling for roving fenders.
“Wait,” she commanded firmly. “There’s someone aboard her.” Returning to the mate’s side with binoculars, I focused them. Indeed there was. His movements were frantic, almost panicked, but he was getting the anchor up. I checked for exhaust.
“He’s going to have to throttle up cold,” I warned, seeing no smoke, “we should at least evacuate the public.” Mindy hesitated. (In my book, the first mate is never allowed to hesitate.) My mouth opened. Bob shot me a look. I shut it and watched the disaster unfold. With her anchor free of the bottom, the yacht sped towards the Lady’s unprotected stern.
And here I must digress with one small aside: It has only been on the Lady’s darkest days that I have assumed command. I am not proud of those occasions. There are now men and women far more capable in that role than I. What part I do play well is in keeping both the memory and collective conscious of the crew alive. I am also, ultimately, and only in greatest need, the “plan b” guy - the person who you smash the glass and reach for when everything else fails. True professionals don’t require me on a regular basis - if ever.
I do not pull rank.
My mind screamed at that useless idiot to leave his windlass and get to the cockpit once he had the anchor clear of the bottom, but he fussed with the damn thing, eating up precious yards of sea room until he had everything secure. Then he… “Oh my God, DON’T RUN!” Bob yelled as the fool sprinted for the controls. Horrified, we could only watch him take the inevitable tumble. It knocked the breath from the three of us as he fell hard.
“Get up,“ Mindy moaned. The yacht was now less than one hundred yards out. Our collective exhalation was snatched by the wind and flung over our shoulders as we saw him rise. Somehow he got to the throttles, fired her up, and got that tub moving forward. To our absolute amazement, the idiot stood off the beach back to his original distance and dropped the hook again.
“At least he’ll hit somebody else next time,” Bob pointed out brightly, indicating the slight shift in the yacht’s position in the anchorage.
Mindy took a long, slow breath and started issuing orders, “Okay, let’s shut her down. I want two at the bottom of the ramp to help people disembark, then sweep the main hold. Make sure nobody’s in the heads and call all hands to start doubling up dock lines. Clear the floating dock as soon as the boat is empty and put a sign at the top of the ramp. No public down here until we load to sail.”
As Bob and I moved off to relay orders, I had a moment to reflect on Mindy’s command style. With so many crew now ashore we were understaffed for what was had just transpired. The truth was that getting everyone off safely was going to take ten minutes or more. The Mate had understood that the rapidly-evolving situation with the yacht wasn’t going to give her that grace, so she hadn’t pulled her small staff away from where they might be eventually needed to deal with an imminent collision in order to position them where they could do (at best) a halfway job of getting people ashore in timely fashion. Instead she had waited for more data before committing herself to any action. I, on the other hand, would have cleared the boat when my stomach first warned me of the approaching gale - and by doing so played it safe. Mindy’s way had allowed the vessel to go on earning her keep an hour or so longer than mine - and due to her decision, many folks who had traveled far to see the Lady were not turned away. It had been a gutsy call, but I couldn’t help but wonder how long the Mate’s stomach lining was going to last before an ulcer ate through it.
Eight bells had rung on the Lady’s chronometer before we finished doubling-up her moorings and securing from tours. Captain Marsh was in the process of relieving Mindy’s watch on the quarterdeck when Bob and I joined them, relaying to the pair that chow would be ready in one hour. “Should be quite a floor show until then,” Mason commented dryly as he rose from where he had been listening intently to the NOAA forecast. We were giving the captain a blow-by-blow account of the previous watch when Bob silently pulled out his camera and started shooting from the hip.
Following his steady aim with her eyes, Mindy’s only comment was, “Nice flag,” as a battered sloop made her way into full view. The snapping, writhing “flag” that our mate spoke of was streaming from the vessel’s masthead. It had once served as a headsail, but now was reduced to nothing more than a very expensive weathervane.
“Muster the crew,” Mason said evenly. We assembled everyone currently aboard in order to plan our strategy. Concern was growing over conditions down on the floating dock. The wooden planks had grown slippery with wind-driven spray and the recently-added docklines now posed a trip hazard. Overheard VHF chatter along the waterfront was reporting wind aloft with thirty knots gusts. Force 10 was now howling out at Cape Flattery and at Westport - which meant we could expect conditions to deteriorate further. What Port Townsend was experiencing was a sudden and unexpected September moderate gale - something we aboard Lady Washington termed a “topsail breeze”. We were very different from that damaged sloop we now watched, fighting her way to windward. To this ninety ton brig the current conditions simply meant we could finally go fast - and that it might be a good time to review the finer points of reefing with newer members of the crew, in case it decided to blow.
It decided to blow.
Over the next ten minutes the wind clocked a few more degrees to the southwest and our rig began to take voice, flapping and thrumming. An every-growing number of the Lady’s crew watched the little drama unfolding out on the bay as the little sloop circled, attempting to wrap her errant headsail around her mast in order to lessen the chance of it dragging her over. It took us all awhile to realize why she was remaining out in those conditions - and when we finally did the two men aboard her suddenly gained a cheering section.
“They’re trying to board that ketch,” Eric ‘The Beard’ Bott cried in amazement, raising his video camera to capture the moment - and damned if he wasn’t right. A pretty double ender was riding poorly, far out beyond the eel grass. Her headsail had blown loose of its furl and was now creeping up the forestay. This increased windage was putting an incredible strain on her ground tackle and ruining the sail. Something had to be done - of that there was no question - but what, and more importantly, how? For some odd reason, the ketch still had her tender trailing from her stern. And just when I thought a brig-full of tall ship sailors couldn’t be impressed by anyone in a plastic boat, one of the men in the sloop leapt out of the cockpit - just like Spider-man - and landed, splat, in the rowboat. In two shakes he had pulled himself hand-over-hand up to the ketch and neatly boarded the wildly-pitching craft - all to the chorus of our shouted encouragement. We all gave Spiderman three cheers. Hearing our sheer volume, Captain Marsh looked around, making a headcount. He nodded in satisfaction at his final number. Drawn aboard by their concern, the Lady’s family had all come home. We were now at full strength.
“Are we all set to fire her up?” Mason asked our engineer. When he had been assured the Detroit 8V-71 was ready to rumble, the captain twisted the key and pressed the button, prodding “The D-Sail” to life. Mason had Mindy send us to mooring stations as “Screaming Jenny” warmed. Once the crew was stationed where we could monitor the strain on the lines, Mason clutched in the Lady’s three hundred and twelve horses - gradually running the RPMs up to full astern. The results of his experiment caused a ripple of dismay: He could bring no tension into the foreword-leading spring lines, meaning that we could make no sternway at all. Part of the problem was the shortness of the period of waves advancing on our stern. Conditions were causing the propeller to literally spin into the air, drawing bubbles down with it into the wave’s trough and giving the triple bronze blades nothing firm to thrust against (cavitation). Added to that problem was the fact that we were trying to back up, (not the most efficient way to use a fixed-pitch prop), and it just wasn’t enough oomph to fight the wind that was tearing at the rig above. Mason stepped away from the throttle, frowning down the rudder-well at the all but useless propeller. That gave captain Evil a chance to try some of his tricks at the engine controls without appearing to be elbowing in. It was no use, we were stuck fast, pinned down on a lee shore, just as the original Lady Washington had been during her final days - when she had been battered to bits.
I don't think I have ever seen Bob Kennedy look more worried.
I don't think I have ever seen Bob Kennedy look more worried.
“Stand down the sunset sail,” Mindy called out after Mason had shut down the main and given her his orders. “I want every available line on that dock - we are now securing to the hardstand and will be standing storm watch over our moorings. All hands lay to. The neap tide is in our favor,” she reminded us. “There will be no low water tonight and we will stay off the bottom… IF WE DO NOT SHIFT ON OUR MOORINGS.” We all got busy constructing a cat’s cradle of line between pilings and brig, to ensure that Lady Washington II would never have to be built.
I don’t know why I saw her. I guess it’s because I am the guy who’s job it is to look for trouble. I was passing a line through the quarter hawse and happened to glance down the waterfront as my eyes cleared the bulwarks. The movement of her masts were… wrong, somehow. I couldn’t pin it down, but intuition is not to be ignored when it comes on to blow. Pointing, I called down to Bob, “What am I seeing?” He paused in coiling his waste line and followed my finger.
That’s when we saw the rowboat…
No oars out…
She looked over in annoyance, “Now what?”
“Looks like we have another vessel dragging and a possible MOB.”
She moved quickly to the rail, looking hard at the empty rowboat that was rapidly being blown into the chaos of buildings lining the waterfront.
“Not safe,” she muttered, then called loudly, “I’m sure they’ve got it handled. We have our own problems to deal with, gentlemen.” Bob and I raised our hands high, Robert bouncing on his toes like he needed to pee. The mate rolled her eyes. “I SAID you were stood down,” she reminded us and then proceeded to look the other way. Bob grabbed my arm and we were off at a dead run.
Down the dock, along the shore, past the driftwood collector that some had the audacity to call a tide sculpture, and across Quincy to the riprap behind the Boiler Room we raced. Several people were already on the rocks making a half-hearted effort to climb down into the crashing surf in order to reach the wildly-bobbing rowboat. Looking at those slick rocks I began to form a plan. It was obvious from the folks waving to us from the cockpit of a mid-sized sailboat that they were in distress. It must be their tender that was adrift and about to be beaten to pieces on the rocks. Perhaps they had been trying to launch the boat in order to kedge out, or set a second anchor, when she had gotten away from them. But why not just give it up as a lost cause and motor off to find safe harbor? I squinted against the spray with a critical eye. Yes, it was now that bad out there. They were right to stay put if at all possible and they needed a second boat to help them safely do so.
My half-formed plan quickly evolved into running back to the Lady, gathering life jackets and line while Bob organized people here to act as a human anchor so they could safely lower me to where I could snag the skiffs bow painter with the brig’s boat hook and then drag her fifty yards to the west, where the skiff could be pulled up high on the sand near Nifty Fifties restaurant. Then we could see about radioing Brian and ask him to bring the zodiac out again…
Bob handed me his phone.
"Right," I thought, "call the Lady instead. Save me time running back there. Have the line sent over and then I can…"
Bob took two long steps and jumped.
He jumped just like Spider-man.
He jumped right into the rowboat.
“You don’t have a lifejacket!” I hollered. He stuck out his tongue; he stuck out the oars; he ignored me; paying attention instead to trying to remain alive.
For the first few seconds it looked as if he might even succeed, but then one oar became tangled in the bow painter and when crazy Bob paused to free it, the skiff twisted, presenting her low-slung beam to the cresting waves. Not waiting for the inevitable capsize, I started scrambling down to the surf-line.
I suppose that I should mention here that Robert Kennedy is Haida, a native people from a group of islands situated midway between Washington and Alaska. Long ago the Haida got bored of remaining on their lonely archipelago and decided to teach the trees to become canoes. They paddled these canoes into the open ocean and far down the coast. Some say they voyaged as far as California.
Crazy Haida Bob did not capsize and I got my trousers wet for nothing.
Once he had rowed out to the stricken sailboat, Bob gave them a hand putting her to rights and then, not to be outdone, the man aboard rowed him ashore through the surf to the sandy beach at the foot of Adams street. I helped my battered shipmate out of the little boat.
“That was fun,” Bob commented brightly over the howling wind.
“You’re soaked,” I growled. “Let’s report in and then I’m taking you home. It’s time for a hot shower.”
There was no sense trying to navigate the floating dock on foot when we returned to the Lady. It was now fully awash. A crowd had gathered up on the hardstand and we joined the gawkers, yelling our report over to the brig.
“I saw it,” Mindy called back, waving her binoculars accusingly at Bob. “You. Sir. Are. Nuts.”
Confirming that she had our contact numbers close at hand, we sloshed off to find my truck… and had not made it any further than the foot of the dock before Bob had spotted the next problem. A well-dressed couple was doing their best to rescue a very pretty little project boat from being dragged back out to sea. The small scow yawl was already well on her way, half submerged, her gear strewn about in the churning water.
“That’s not any way to treat perfectly good boots,” Bob drawled, sucking in his gut as we trotted up to a lovely young woman, who was bravely trying to assist her boyfriend in the rescue. She grimaced at her man’s polished cowboy boots, now stained with mud and pulled harder on the painter he had tossed her. Glancing down at the sodden hem of her frilly victorian dress and over at Bob’s bedraggled form I realized that it was my turn. Digging the phone out of the pocket of my oilskin greatcoat, I handed it to Bob. “NO. You are NOT going there,” he began, but in a moment found himself making demands to my rapidly-filling footprints in the wet sand.
I learned that afternoon just how heavy the combination of linen, hemp, leather, boiled wool, and waxed cotton is when totally immersed. I don’t float in period-proper costume. Of that I am certain. I didn’t test the theory beyond going in chest deep as I flailed about, rounding up oars and spars. Soon I was so exhausted and cold that I was happy to just hang on to the wallowing craft, letting the three on shore pull us back in. We rolled her up on beam ends while she was still in the surf, getting most of the water out. Once she was finally light enough to drag up to Water Street, we lashed her firmly to the biggest log we could find. I wonder to this day what the owners thought when they returned.
“About that shower,” Bob muttered as we staggered, dripping, up the street. “Rock, paper, scissors for who gets it first, or do you want to wash my back?”
It was a different world up at Treehouse. Well protected from southwesterlies, my neighborhood had no idea what was happening just ten minutes away, down on the water. Brooks, (my wife) had been warned of our imminent arrival by phone and had hot food ready. Rachel had brought over goodies from next door - and while Bob was warming up in the shower I scared up a change of cloths for the both of us and updated the Lady Washington Home Page to reflect our change in schedule.
Half-an-hour later we were no longer period proper, but we were warm, fed, and clothed in such a way that we could stand watch off shore, on deck, all night… in a blizzard. Checking the charge on my handheld VHF I told Brooks not to expect me back that night and then Bob and I hit the road.
Parking was easy this time, but walking south was like swimming up a waterfall. Lady Washington was now in full “This is NOT a drill” mode: All hands on deck, foul-weather gear mandatory, both radio scanning emergency frequencies, watch bill posted. Eleven lines harnessing the brig to the dock as she surged and reared like an angry rhinoceros, wallowing in the gray and green foam.
“Think it’ll hold together,” Bob breathed in awe.
“Yeah,” I reassured him, not too sure myself. “She’s a stout old girl.”
“I’m talking about the dock,” he muttered darkly, dead serious. I shared his mood, having to dig deep in my memory for the last time I had heard the sound that now tumbled down the wind and washed over us.
It had been back in ninety seven, out on San Francisco Bay that I had witnessed it last. Lady Washington had ducked behind Angel Island during a mock battle and there used the land’s wind shadow to reload her guns and set more sail. We had been caught unprepared when we came out of the island’s lee into the full power the westerly gale funneling under the Golden Gate. I remember clearly to this day how Andy made that leap for the flogging whisker when it burst its lashing and came unshipped. How the heavy oak spar had become a club, dragging him from the deck and tossing the burly sailor about like a rag doll. The sound that had accompanied that moment was present now. The Lady was softly moaning, her six miles of rigging continuously thrumming like a harp. I didn’t need access to the data from the courthouse weather station to know that the wind had now strengthened to a fresh gale and it was gusting well into the forties aloft.
We boarded at the forward chains, as the dock seaward was now completely inundated, and immediately migrated to the quarterdeck to be up out of the spray.
“You missed all the fun.” Edgar gave his small Edgar grin as we came up. “The ferry came in"...
... "To stay,” Beard finished for him.
As we listened to the replay of the old steel electric’s harrowing landing I wondered if Captain "M" was driving her this evening. Marilyn had the distinction of being the first female master of Lady Washington and had been co-captain when I served my first two weeks aboard - back in ninety six. Now she worked for the ferries - “herding busses” as she was fond of saying.
“Anyone else go aground?” I ask.
“Heard a few mayday relays from out on the straits, but here, no,” Beard assured me. “I think everybody’s finally hunkered down.”
“And here comes the cavalry,” the captain commented without expression. We all followed his gaze. Nearly invisible in the rapidly-dying light was the pale form of an Island Class USCG cutter, just making her turn into the bay from Admiralty Inlet. I switched on my handheld and dialed in the emergence frequency.
“Got him here,” I informed Mason and got a quick nod in reply. We spent the next few minuted speculating what could have brought the big guns to this little bay until Edgar silenced us by pointing southeast.
“You have Got to be kidding,” Bob shook his head in disbelief. We all stared, too amazed by the stupidity of what we were witnessing to speak. There, running fast before the gale was a sloop. She was just rounding Marrowstone Point and sailing under bare poles - all of which was well and good.
What made no sense at all was her heading.
“My dad owns a marina!” Bob shouted.
“His steering isn’t out or he’d be broaching,” Mason muttered. “Why in hell make for the lee shore?”
I nodded in bemusement. “Yeah, hug the islands, stay in the lee - and head for Hadlock.”
“Maybe the coasties will warn him off,” someone said hopefully. But they didn’t and onward she rushed. It was like every nightmare I’d ever had - filled overfull with anxiety and dread, yet I was powerless to do anything but watch the slow motion train wreck unfold. The coast guard was in no position to help. Within minutes the sailboat had come too far inshore for the cutter to follow and take her in tow. She was a fast patrol boat sure - thirty knots when maxed out, but one hundred and ten feet long. Not something to be playing around in a crowded anchorage with. We all knew the coasties procedure would be to launch a rigid-hull inflatable, much like the one Brian had been running around in earlier, but they couldn’t even begin to scramble their rescue crew until a mayday call was received.
All extraneous talk ceased as we bent to the radios, listening, wanting to do something - anything.
Lady Washington is a precious resource when she is in harbor. A crack crew lives aboard, well trained in rescuing others in distress. But that day we were pinned down by wind and waves, unable to cast our lines and gain sea room. Mason could only bite back his orders as the sloop, rolling and pitching hard, crossed the anchorage, making for the ferry landing.
“Keep going,” Mindy growled. Her fair face fixed in a scowl, as if by sheer force of will she could propel that stupid skipper onward to the safety of Boat Haven. But like every B-grade horror film I’ve watched, this was a man who just had to open that door, while everyone in the theater was screaming for him to do anything else but open that door.
Calamity finally struck. The fool turned toward the beach and tried to anchor.
Peering through my binoculars I saw him round up, drop the hook, and then back down into a cluster of diehard sailboats - the few left who were just barely holding on in the manic chop out off of Swains. It was like a physical blow to the crew, sending us all back a step when we saw one of the other boats cease her regular motion and suddenly pitch forward. “He’s crossed her up,” Mason grimaced. “Come ON you idiot! Cut loose and get clear!”
But it was far too late. The two boats, their anchor cables now hopelessly tangled, began their final voyage towards the rocky shore.
Bob started to move. Mason's hand stopped him as the ferry’s spotlight punched a hole in the gloom, illuminating the impending wreck. “No, not this time, Mr. Kennedy.” The captain’s smile was grim. “Remember where we are. I’m sure 911 has been flooded with calls already. Besides, we have a Lady to attend to.”
Bob’s weathered face was unreadable, and as he turned away I thought I overheard him whisper, “Yeah… right… we’re not heroes, we're professionals.”
A Family Bound by Wood, Wind, and Water
I penned this piece after I grew tired of listening to the inordinate amount of useless and counterproductive speculation on the subject of Bounty’s loss. I hope that by showing step-by-step how we make decisions on a working tall ship the reader might gain real insight into how a series of good decisions can lead to less than an optimum outcome. I want you all to think hard about how easily this story could have turned out differently.
First of all, if you are a Port Townsend local, then there is a good chance that you have no idea what transpired that windy day, back in 2004. I know for a fact that you didn’t read about it in the paper. The Leader did run a story. But, seriously, how could they have got the story right? Their reporters were not there. They don’t have the training to decipher what they see on the water. Consequently, the story that did run was so full of misinformation that it took months for us to sort out the details of what other events were happening around us that day. The paper reported that the USCG ignored a mayday plea from a vessel in distress, causing it run aground. The paper said that three local boats had been casualties of the storm - needing rescue in some way, when Lady Washington’s log records five (as does my story). It was reported that the crews aboard Volunteer risk life and limb, sailing into harm’s way to execute a dangerous and harrowing rescue of the last two vessels to drag ashore, when in fact, Pete Langley fairly exploded with indignation over the insinuation that he would operate his rescue craft in an unsafe way - and wrote letter after letter to the paper, explaining his decisions in excruciating detail. With all the misinformation surrounding the Wooden Boat Festival gale, I think it is safe to assume that what we have read about the wreck of Bounty should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. The news media isn’t on site and doesn’t have the experience to interpret the data they receive. Add to that the fact that it is in the media’s self interest to sell news. It then behoves them to produce whatever sells the most - not what is accurate.
What troubled me the most about what was reported by our local press is what was overlooked entirely: Virginia V did actually sustain damage - and that the harm to the historic vessel was actually mitigated by a group of sailors who spent the night aboard, replacing fenders as they blew, tending chafed lines, and watching for leaks. Those sailors were Virginia's own stout crew and volunteers from Lady Washington.
When the EMTs arrived at the scene of the two vessels grounding over by Swains, they found the public already in active rescue mode - saving lives. Those people had been organized and led by a passer-by, a charismatic leader who was too damn busy at that moment to talk to reporters. That man was a retired captain of Lady Washington. His efforts, coupled with the work of Pet Langley’s professional waterborne crew were what made the successful rescue possible. All of this was lit from above, from the bridge of the ferry, operated by another retired captain of our state’s tall ship.
So you see there really is only a separation of one. We are all one family, bound together by a vessel of wood, line, and sailcloth.
She is part of a bigger family of tall ships. A few of those crewing aboard the Lady that stormy night would later go on to sail Hawaiian Chieftain back from the east coast, bringing the square topsail ketch back to the Grays Harbor fleet to act as Lady Washington’s consort. A sailor by the name of Adam Prokosch would later call the Chieftain his home and learn the Lady’s creed against silly heroics from her crew.
Later still, Adam would go on to sail aboard HMS Bounty…
And be the first hoisted into the USCG rescue helicopter the day she sank…
Yes, we are hurting. We lost something very big. We lost friends. We lost family. We lost a ship.
So the next time you hear someone playing armchair sailor on this subject, please remind then of what would have happened if the dock hadn’t held together that night; if low tide had occurred during that gale; if Crazy Bob hadn’t been a Haida - a thousands “ifs”.
Tell them, “there but for the grace of God…
… it could have been us - the crew who decided to remain in port.”
p.s. While Lee was editing this work she came across a song that she forwarded on to me. It seemed so appropriate to the story that I couldn't pass up the opportunity of digging into the archive and pulling out photos of the Port Townsend area taken before, during, and after storms.
Here is Into the Storm, by Robert W Smith. Photos by Creative Enterprise.
By Mark Olson, The Longwinded Shantyman