1930s flashback: A powerboat adventure in the throes of the Great Depression
Much has been written about the latest challenge facing humanity, but it’s hardly the first time the world has confronted a crisis and, ultimately, overcame it. For instance, the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression (August 1929–March 1933) took a heavy economic toll on people around the globe, causing widespread poverty and destroying countless businesses, including many auto manufacturers.
Since pleasure boats, much like luxury cars, were considered toys of the rich, it may be tough to feel sorry for folks who couldn’t enjoy their vessels while many families were just trying to keep food on the table. The story below—which we found in a tattered issue of Power Boating magazine from February 1932—speaks of boats anchored in the harbor, floating lonely and idle, with nowhere to go and no one to climb aboard and take them out to deeper waters.
Alas, as current-day owners know all-too well, boats can be expensive to use and maintain—the bigger, the costlier. Greater still in turbulent economic times like the early 1930s. However, in October 1931, a group of New Englanders, with little money between them and with only a meager supply of food, decided it was high time to throw caution to the wind and take a 53-foot cruiser named Seagoin’ II for an end-of-the-season voyage.
We hope you enjoy reading their perilous story, published as it was written by David O. Woodbury nearly nine decades ago. (Introduction and parenthetical notes by Jeff Peek.)
“A Depressed Cruise”
Complete disaster is narrowly averted on a three-days’ final fling at cruising into Buzzard’s Bay with a glorified Guinea fisherman.
We were all sitting dejectedly on the pier of the yacht club. It was a middle-October Sunday morning—windy and chilly; sea and sky full of the cold, hard colors that come with the fall. Out at the anchorage a good half of the fleet still rode at their moorings. People were so discouraged they had not even taken in their boats. Somehow they felt that though they never used them, it looked better to have their craft in the water.
“Now that packet of yours, Skipper,” Frank Brainerd said to me. “It’s a crime for her to be swinging there all summer and nobody aboard her but the birds. Why don’t you take one good cruise and call it a day?”
“On what?” I asked him. “Do you know what it costs to run that boat?”
“Plenty, I know,” he said. “Still, if you can’t afford it, I shouldn’t think you’d have her the water at all.”
“Just to help the rest of you fellows to keep up appearances,” I told him. “I’m going to put her away presently. As a matter of fact, though, Frank, I’m sore at this season—plenty. I haven’t got a blessed thing out of that boat since June, except bills for taxes and insurance. For half a dollar I would take a cruise.”
Brainerd took fifty cents out of his pocket and offered it.
“Here’s my fare, old man. When do we start?”
From small beginnings
More cruises than this one have grown out of as small a beginning. And so it turned out, on the following Friday morning, that five of us cast off from the yacht club in Seagoin’ II and set sail on a three-day Depression cruise into Buzzard’s Bay [located in Massachusetts, about 60 miles southeast of Boston]. Some of Power Boating’s readers may remember her—a 53-foot “glorified Guinea fisherman” with a diesel engine that is too small for her and an owner whose pocketbook is scarcely big enough. Because of the hard times, this jaunt was to be conducted on the lines of strictest economy—on shares, and here you have a good antidote for excessive owner expense. Your friends, as a rule, have never had much opportunity to go to sea, and a weekend on the briny looks good to them. If you figure food at a dollar a day apiece and then add 100 percent for wear and tear on the boat, and fuel, you come somewhere near breaking even. When I suggested that I would like contributions of six dollars apiece, my impoverished crew laughed at me. So I let them force me up to ten. I was almost making money. (Would have, except that nobody ever makes money with a pleasure boat—there are too many contingencies!)
Besides the fare, people brought their own blankets, and when the moment for assembly arrived, a surprising number of other articles came too.
“Here are a couple of dozen eggs,” said Ralph, who seemed to have access to a henyard somewhere. “They may help.”
Someone else had brought ten cakes of chocolate and, as an antidote, a case of cheap ginger ale. Frank’s wife had sent him along with two bottles of sweet pickles and some loaves of bread. I myself had plundered a dairy. We were all set in the seagoing land of plenty. Anybody who contemplates organizing a cruise of this kind will understand what the method is. If the imaginations of the guests are not allowed to run too wild, the commissary problem becomes easy.
A corking day to start
We had a corking [extremely fine] day for the start—one of those Indian summer paradoxes of which New England is so fond—the kind of a fall weekend that fills up the highways and the beaches and makes the automobile death rate take a fictitious spurt back into midsummer figures. But the October sea is clear and empty. Most people think that the ocean freezes over about Labor Day, evidently.
But they are wrong: there were not even ice cakes to be found anywhere as we swung out through the Gut and headed southeast around the bell off Boston light. In the distance the tapered gray shaft of Minot’s light could be seen protruding from the sea, and the blue line of the coast swung off down the south shore most invitingly. Everybody was good natured. What a way to forget the cares of modern existence, to slip the chains which the machine age is constantly forging around our necks! But you’re wrong if you think that you can escape the machine age by going to sea in a power boat. It is about the same as shutting yourself up in a trunk with a hungry lion and being shipped to Africa. You won’t get there and neither will the trunk. But the lion will, if nothing disagrees with him on the way.
Now, in planning even a short cruise it is necessary to contemplate going somewhere. Seagoin’ is capable of about 75 miles a day if the engine is willing, and so it seemed on this occasion that a little ride around the headwaters of Buzzard’s Bay might be interesting. We would be fairly protected from the tricky October weather, and if cruising became suddenly impossible, owing to the failure of the diesel cycle, we could land and take the train home. Thus, the itinerary was settled with satisfaction to all.
As to the crew, they were a picked lot, in a way. Ralph could cook, and would, so long as nobody interfered with him. I could steer and did. We had along also a general entertainer and scientific loafer in the person of Frank. At least one of them is essential to any cruise. He keeps down the spirit of hurry and contributes a measure of stoicism in adversity which is splendid for morale. We had three others: a mining engineer with a flair for radio, and an expert on internal combustion machinery from an important university, who came when I promised that he would get a real vacation, and a party by the name of Charles who was the all-American embodiment of Yankee ingenuity, as well as an experienced seaman. We seemed to be fitted for almost anything.
Charles’ inventive genius was immediately apparent. He had come aboard more or less unnoticed at the last minute and was now discovered on the after trunk, carefully oiling something.
“For Pete’s sake, what’s that, Charles?”
“This?” he said, looking up. “Oh, it’s the ship’s bicycle. I figured we might need it.” He went on oiling it, tenderly, and wiping it with a soft rag.
It was a fact. He had brought along a full-fledged bicycle.
“Well, that’s one on me,” I admitted. “I thought you were going with us.”
“I am, of course. But gosh, man, think how useful this may be in port. What if we land miles from a town and have to get supplies?”
Now you know, that wasn’t such a bad idea, either. Many’s the time I have had to hike for hours to get from anchorage to the town that went with it. A bike is a little clumsy, to be sure, but what is the little trouble it caused measured against its usefulness? Yet most yachtsmen do not include a ship’s bicycle in their equipment. I wonder why?
Just then Otto, the internal combustion man, hooked his chin over the engine hatch and spoke to the captain.
“Come on down here,” he said. “Things are beginning to smoke.”
“You get out of there,” I retorted. “This is your vacation. Things are supposed to smoke anyway.” But that just illustrates another curious thing about people—they don’t know how to leave their jobs behind them when they take a day off. Why, I discovered later Otto had come aboard with a suitcase of gauges and temperature indicators and pipettes and sample bottles and heaven-knows-what other scientific impediments. I also discovered that the reason why things smoked was that he had turned off the engine water to see what would happen to the temperature and then neglected to turn it on again.
When these two members of the crew as examples, I began to wonder what the rest had done behind my back, and, as coasting down the south shore is a simple matter of steering a straight compass course into the southeast, I left the wheel to Ralph and went to find out. Howard, the mining engineer, was deeply involved in the wayward radio set already, and Frank, my one standby in the cause of peace, had gone down aft and was laboriously laying some linoleum in the back hall.
Here again is a point for cruising enthusiasts: Lay in a crew of restless people whose lines might be useful aboard ship, and then tell ’em to take it easy, and see what happens. I think there is one more little point to add to that, though—work like the devil yourself.
Slow goin’ on Seagoin’
We had, of course, made a very late start, and Seagoin’ is a slow boat. The result was that it had turned afternoon before we were even off Gurnet Light, which is abreast of Plymouth. If we didn’t look out. We would not reach our objective, Woods Hole, till after dark. It is not a good place to reach that way. But what was the use of worrying yet? The cook had served us a swelling meal of beans and chocolate and pickles and ginger-ale, and we didn’t especially care whether school kept or not [an old saying meaning they didn’t give a damn]. As a matter of fact, it was lucky that school didn’t keep, for we were all nearly paralyzed by that extraordinary dietetic combination. One place to keep as barren as possible of new ideas on a cruise is a galley.
The afternoon wore on and the various stomach disorders set up by the pickles and chocolate wore off, and finally the breakwater at the eastern end of Cape Cod canal could be made out. As luck would have it, the tide was in our favor; we would get a free ride down into Buzzard’s Bay. A free ride through the canal, however, is not always the most comfortable experience, for the tide makes a maximum upwards of four knots, and as the channel is distinctly narrow, you are apt to get into close quarters rather rapidly. This is especially true of a good-sized boat like Seagoin’. Not that she amounts to anything beside the steamers and tankers that constantly use the canal, but still, barging down the tide at twelve or fourteen knots, with the eddies and swirls besetting you on either hand, and the clusters of piling and the lamp posts sweeping by none too far off—well, it is a special kind of navigating that most amateurs will thankfully leave behind. I have met the same sort of thing in the East River and in Richelieu up in Canada. You would like to slow right down and let the current do the work, but you can’t, for then you lose steerageway and this you have to keep at all costs. So you fix your speed at as little as you dare and then go ahead, hoping that nothing develops ahead.
Navigating the canal
In the canal, the excitement sometimes comes from the bridges, which I know now have 35 feet of clearance, but with a 26-foot mast on top of your craft it is hard to judge whether there is clearance or not, and if the bridge-tender happens to ignore your whistles, what are you going to do? You can’t stop; you can’t even slow down much; there’s nowhere you could possibly tie up; and there is no room to turn ’round. So there you are, swooping down on the bridges, wondering whether your mast will clear it or not, and when the devil the draw is going to begin to open.
“There she goes—I think,” says Charles, who has a better eye for mechanical details than anyone else on board. The rest of us see nothing at all except a bridge which may or may not be high enough to let us through. But before we get there the old fellow has done his stuff, and as we pass under, we find that there is in all probability room to burn for us even if he went to sleep and never opened the draw again. Later we look in the Coast Pilot [a nautical navigation book issued by the U.S. Coast Guard] and learn what the clearances really are. It’s simple, isn’t it? But you never think of it at the time.
There is another little excitement in the canal that we meet on this trip. By and by we begin to overtake a tug with a string of barges—good big fat ones, and empty, taking a good half of the whole channel and sticking plumb in the middle. They are moseying comfortably along at a few knots through the water, although they would seem to a person on shore to have Beelzebub himself after them. Well, the question is whether to try to pass them or not. We can’t possibly stay behind them and keep out of trouble. To pass by them seems safe enough but for the fact that the canal has several blind bends to it. Ordinarily it would be easy to judge how far away the curve is and do your passing before it is too late. But here things are all queer because of the extra four knots the tide has contributed. So we do have a worrisome moment, and just squeak by in time to skid around the turn and gaze into the pilot house of the old United States engineers’ dredger, which browses about the canal looking for stray banks. After that, the trip is comparatively uneventful. Of course, it isn’t a patch on the East River, although the wider sea room there somewhat counteracts the heavy traffic.
Darkness falls too soon
We were just coming out of the canal into that long avenue of red-and-white beacons that stretches out into the bay, when it came on to be dark.
“What’ll we have for chow, captain?” Ralph hollered up the companionway.
“I’m not concerned with eating so much as how we’ll get into Woods Hole after dark,” I retorted. “I don’t like it.”
“Isn’t there some other place we could go in?”
“Why not stay out and anchor in the bay?”
“Yes, or why not keep right on and go to New York or somewhere?”
“Now, if you guys will stop being idiots, we will get this thing decided,” I finished for them.
A decision did seem to be needed. Woods Hole, with its vivacious tide flowing at full tilt one way or the other all the time, is no place for a nervous yachtsman after sundown, unless he was born in it. Obviously, we had to stop somewhere, and anchoring out in the bay didn’t appeal, even though we could do it. No, we’ve got to find a haven of shelter nearer at hand.
“If we anchored out there and it breezed up,” said Charles to the advocate of this procedure, “you’d be bored to death with the waves.”
“Well, I tell you what you do,” the vanquished one retorted. “We’ll set you ashore with your bicycle and a lantern and you can go along till you find a harbor and then signal to us and we’ll come in.”
“Now what’s the matter with that plan?” brightly asked someone.
“Nothing—nothing except that if we set him ashore it would be in a place we could anchor, most likely.”
“Well, I see what we’ll have to do,” I said, taking my head out of the chart of the region. “It’s going to be that little hole at West Falmouth. That or nothing. And there isn’t a light in the place, so far as I can learn. Just a couple of spars.”
“That ought to be easy,” said Frank, cheerfully. “We’ve got a searchlight, haven’t we?”
“You just watch how easy it is. You can miss a spar ten feet off at night if you don’t have eyes like a cat. Well, anyway, we’ll have a try at it. I hope we win.”
“How ’bout chow then?” Ralph asked again.
“You hold grub till we’re safe on the hook. There may be work to do before then. We don’t want dishes and soup around under foot.”
Impromptu cruise, impromptu difficulties
An impromptu cruise often brings impromptu difficulties, you see. You have to be ready to duck in anywhere. On an exposed coastline it would be crazy to set out in the morning without knowing exactly where you were going to head in again at night. Down here in the bay, of course, even if we did have to drop the hook in fifty feet of water, we wouldn’t drown. But for anything like a comfortable night, it was necessary to get inside of something, and Falmouth looked like the only place. So I set about making as good a stab at it as possible.
The southern entrance to Cape Cod canal is marked by two flashes, red and white, and one of them a bell, directly off Wenaumet light. This makes a good point of departure. The run down to Falmouth from here is a trifle under five and a half miles. On the way, there are some rocks and shoals marked by two red spars. The magnetic course is S 1/4 W. We have the tide at our backs, but this Buzzard’s Bay is a queer place—the tide flows differently around the edges than it does in the middle. We can’t gage the current closely enough to reckon on it for this short run, as we leave it alone. The wind is on our starboard bow and will set us inshore, and we can allow for that. We had better make it S 1/2 W, to be on the safe side of those marked shoals.
Otto, who has really thrown up his vacation to come with us, has taken the engine revolutions, and from past experience we know that we are making about seven knots; we ought to be down there in 47 minutes, then. We note the time of departure carefully, because the time of the run is every blessed thing we have to go by, except the shore itself, which all looks alike at this hour. We have on our hands a very nice little problem. It is what makes cruising worthwhile—if you win.
We get out the portable searchlight, a dollar trouble lamp with a 50-candlepower bulb in it—there is none better. And now we are all set to do the best we can.
“Look for the red spars!”
To me, cruising at night is a rare treat if the strain is not too great. Particularly down there in Buzzard’s Bay, where the southwest breeze puts on a fancy little chop and the lights of New Bedford blink and bob on the horizon. Though the sky is totally dark and moonless, the sea is darker still. By some sixth sense you can tell the horizon to the south and the looming hills of the Cape to the east. The seas slash at Seagoin’s high bow and plop back, defeated. The charthouse is dark, and the crew stands around behind the steersman, wondering whether he has the faintest idea where he is going. The steersman, as a matter of fact, would hate to tell them just how faint that idea is just now.
“How long have we been from the bell?”
“Eighteen minutes,” someone answers, scrutinizing the clock with a match.
“Go look for those red spars!”
There is a long hunt with the searchlight, the operator lying on his belly on the forecastle. By and by there is a shout; they have picked one up, way off the port beam. It is a quarter of a mile away, at least. Well, that’s on the safe side, anyway, but it shows we have allowed too much for the wind. Better take off a quarter point.
There is no way I know of to come into a dark harbor like Falmouth except by the “feel” of it. That and the lead line, which I break out and put in the hands of Charles, who has used one before. It won’t be much use, for the danger is mainly from boulders on the bottom near shore. The chart shows plenty of them. We plug along for another twenty minutes, using S 1/4 W for a course. The shoreline to port is getting more distinct. There are a few lights but well scattered. We think we should see a cluster of them at the harbor entrance, but nothing appears.
“Well, we ought to be there about now,” guesses the captain. “Get your searchlight going. And you, Charles, mind the lead.”
Avoiding the shoals
For all we know we may be heading for shoals or a beach or something. It is one of the chances you take. So the engine is rung down to the barest headway and we proceed inshore with all the eyes strained and ears set for the faintest gurgle that will tell of rocks awash. The black spar north of the entrance is our immediate objective.
Charles begins his work. “No bottom at five,” he calls, and again, “No bottom at five.” Then, a little later, “Four and a half fathoms!” “A good four!” and so on. The captain studies the chart. That sounding checks pretty well.
“See anything of that black spar yet, Frank?”
“Don’t seem to.”
So we go on a bit further, while the darkness envelopes us and the waves, abeam now, slap our sides lustily.
“Three!” yells Charles. “Three fathoms!”
Shoaling up, all right. Wonder where that black spar is!
“Plenty of lobster pot buoys around here,” Frank sings out. “Do you care?”
Well, that helps a little. They usually cluster on the shallow side of a buoy. So I put the wheel down and bring her offshore into the south a little. Probably we have turned in too soon.
“Four fathoms,” calls Charles.
“That checks,” I mutter, looking again at the chart with the shaded high-voltage bulb that gives only a low, red glow on our 32-volt circuit.
“Hey!” yells Frank suddenly. “There’s a spar of some kind on the starboard bow close aboard.”
I pop out of the chart house and have a look. Probably the black one. I give the wheel a twist and come around. We want to leave it to port, emphatically.
“Get the number on it when we go by,” are my orders.
“One,” calls out somebody.
“Fine! That’s the stuff.” It is the black one then, and we’re on our way. The red spar is much further in. I slide the protractor over the chart and get a course between the two, judge our speed, and estimate overtaking it in ten minutes. Another wait, then. Almost to the dot the searchlight crew picks it up, dead ahead. There is nothing to this, you see.
But we aren’t there yet. We have no detailed chart of the harbor. Our big one shows a little stub of a breakwater and one two-foot sounding inside that. Not very encouraging. Still, we know that good-sized yachts lie in the shelter. There must be a basin in there somewhere. The searchlight is playing all the time. It picks up the dark shoreline and something that might be a breakwater. The harbor mouth seems very wide, but I mistrust it.
“Two fathoms,” says Charles, swinging the lead again.
Better stick close to the breakwater.
It is a nervous moment. Everything on shore shows a dead black. The breakwater is nothing but a ragged row of piles, with the outer ones struggling off by themselves. Don’t cut it too close …
“High! Put your wheel to port!” yells someone outside. The wheel goes to port on the instant, no questions asked. Ask them later. I take a quick look to starboard as we swing over. We have just missed the outermost pile, broken off close to the water. It would have been a mean thing to run into. But we glide by safely enough, and a moment later are in quiet water. The dull white shapes of boats loom ahead. That must be the anchorage.
Everybody is relaxed and at ease now. They stand around on the forecastle head waiting to help with the anchor, but they are thinking the fun is over and soon they will be at chow. But the fun is never over in a boat—not until it’s laid up for the winter, anyway. We get the hook down in the twelve feet of water and on just as short a rope as we dare. The harbor is only a pocket-size affair and is already full of craft. We don’t want to scrape the paint off anybody.
“Grub’s up!” yells Ralph presently, and we all turn to and devour his concoctions as if we hadn’t eaten for a week.
No rest for the weary
But in the night the wind freshens, and we drag and go around on a mud flat at low water. I know that because I am awakened by the sudden quitting of the boat’s slight motion. I go out on deck, freezing in my pajamas, but I can’t do anything. She will float off again by daylight.
We were up bright and early next morning. Nobody knew that we’d been on the bottom but me, and it didn’t strike me as very important news. After breakfast we were quickly ready to get underway again. We wanted to make Cuttyhawk Harbor by sundown. But fate thought differently. Otto, who had gone down to start the engine, presently popped up again.
“The temperature is awful high,” he reported. “What do you want to do about it?”
I went below to see what he had turned off this time, but he was blameless. It was true enough, though; the cylinders were already scorching hot, in spite of the short time the machine had been running.
“Water,” I said briefly.
“I haven’t touched it,” he defended himself.
“I know. But there’s no water, anyway. Shut her down.”
I had this kind of thing before. You can’t run an engine without cooling water. Before the engine came to rest, I looked over the side of the overflow. There was nothing coming out but a little stream. That settled it. When we ran on the mud in the night, we plugged the strainer.
“Keep your shirts on for a while,” I called up the hatch. “We’ve got a little job down here.” Charles let himself into the engine room, and he and Otto and I went to work on the water system. We shut off the seacock and disconnected the line to the engine jacket. When the cock was opened again, it only trickled.
“There’s your trouble,” the internal combustion man said.
“Naturally. But the strainer is on the outside. How would you suggest clearing it out?”
They didn’t know, neither of them. Nobody knows. It’s a fool custom, putting strainers out there where you can’t get at them. A wire poked through from the inside will do something, but not much. The strainer ought to be on the inside, where you can reach it.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Charles, the inventor. “Blow it out with compressed air, why not?”
That wasn’t such a bad idea, either. We got a hose line rigged from the whistle tank and blew 60 pounds of air down into the water. It cleared the strainer out perfectly.
“Now let’s get going,” I said.
Weather, waves, and seasickness
But when we got outside that breakwater, things were happening to the weather. There was a regular southwest gale on the way, and the seas were already white. Now, Seagoin’ is a good boat, but she moves about in rough water like any other yacht. We headed down for Woods Hole, and in five minutes the dishes began to clatter in the galley and suitcases and personal belongings of all kinds were adrift in all parts of the ship. The crew began to look a little green.
“What about it?” I said, not feeling too fancy myself.
“Well, is there anywhere we can go? Provincetown, for instance?”
“This isn’t going to get any better beyond Woods Hole,” I admitted. “If you fellows would rather …”
“We might try something else,” said Frank.
Just then a good big one hit us and put some green water on the forecastle.
“This was intended for a pleasure cruise, wasn’t it?” someone asked bitterly.
“I’m coming about now,” I said.
When we got in the trough, she rolled her rails under, but nobody was thrown overboard. They were all lying flat by this time. Seasickness is a swift worker. Headed back for the canal, things were easier. Seagoin’ takes to following the sea without a murmur. The temper of the crew—and the captain—improved rapidly.
“Provincetown is just as good anyway,” we all said in chorus.
We struck the canal just at the wrong time. All the tide there had lined up against us. It seemed as if the current must be going at least ten miles an hour. And added to that, the engine wasn’t as healthy as it had been. It was beginning to skip some.
“It’s a diesel, of course,” someone remarked cuttingly.
“No, that isn’t it,” I returned. “It’s the kind of diesel it is that’s the matter. I’ve had experience.”
We entered the canal and got by the railroad bridge at Buzzard’s Bay. Being now where we could not turn back, the engine seemed to think it had us where it wanted us, and another cylinder gave up.
“Gosh, this is going to be interesting,” Howard remarked.
“Maybe. Otto, drop down and see what you can do. Some of the injectors are stuck, probably.” Otto did as ordered, but the engine did not respond. We were barely able to breast the current now.
“What happens if we can’t keep on going ahead,” Frank asked, mildly.
“Oh, we go stern, I suppose. We can’t anchor, and I’d hate to tie it up to any of those piles. Look at the swirl the current makes around ’em. Besides, there’s not much of any water under them.”
Otto came back to the charthouse. “I think I could loosen the injectors up if we could shut her down for a few minutes.”
“You’ll have to wait,” I said, rather shortly. “There are no drydocks around here that I know of.”
There is one thing about a diesel—it always runs; at least some of it does. We got along for a while on four of the six cylinders and managed to make a knot or two against the current. Then another of the cylinders became weak, and after that we just about broke even. In fact, we definitely stayed in one place for nearly an hour and a half. To the spectators on shore, if there had been any, this must have furnished an amusing sight—a good-sized yacht, steaming along apparently at full speed but moving not at all. So we sat down to wait. We would have to let the current wear itself out. And I discovered later that we would not have held our own at all if Otto had not poured lubricating oil and gasoline and anything he could locate into the air intakes of the dead cylinders, a procedure which made them fire occasionally and keep up the general average of power while the emergency lasted.
There were none more thankful than we for the fact that the tide is a periodic phenomenon. It did eventually change, and our ailing engine finally got us to the other end of the canal. We had cruised about 25 miles to get through that six-mile cut!
A change in plans
“Now then, Provincetown.”
“I’m not so sure,” I objected. “I don’t want to break up the party, but when you fellows joined up you agreed that it was a bad year even on the water, I think we’d better head for home. We may get there by tomorrow night.”
“I think so too,” the technical man agreed. “If you will give me 15 minutes, I may be able to make her go again.”
We gave him nearly an hour, and when he came on deck, he was saturated with fuel oil and as black as a chimney sweep. But he said she would go. And she did, for a while. As we bowled along—imagine “bowling along” in a 50-foot tub at six miles an hour—I began to regret that we had changed our plans again. But Charles dispelled that regret.
“Looks like some easterly weather,” he remarked, pointing to a low-lying fog bank off to sea. “That most generally means something of the sort.”
Nobody else would believe him, and the crew wanted to change and go to Provincetown after all. But I held out for a return home. It is a privilege the captain has.
“If we did get to Provincetown, we’d be marooned there for three days,” I prophesied. “And you wouldn’t like that, I’ll bet.”
“Charles could ride home on his bicycle,” said Frank.
“Sure,” Charles agreed. “It’s only 160 miles by land.”
And thus it was a depressed argosy [a now-uncommon term for a large merchant ship] that floundered back into the home port late that night, oil-soaked and weary, but under the impression that it had been off on a pleasure cruise, nevertheless. It was so late that we tied up to the yacht club pier and turned in without a murmur. First thing in the morning we would get the dunnage [informal, dated term for a person’s belongings brought onboard] ashore and call it quits.
But the weather had another idea. At daylight, the easterly had commenced. By eight o’clock the bay was white—and we were on the weather side of the pier. Otto and I went down to the engine with the idea of getting it started and taking her out to the mooring as soon as possible. But the engine refused to function. It had had enough the day before.
“I’m going to have another look at those injectors,” Otto said. “I guess I about wore them out yesterday, cleaning them.”
On deck, things didn’t look so bright. It had begun to rain, and the wind was blowing half a gale already. There was another craft—a nice houseboat—alongside the pier beyond us. It looked as if the two of us were in for a rough time of it, unless we could get out of there soon.
I have never seen a blow work itself up so fast. By the time Otto, who was working frenziedly below, had made the engine speak to him, it was too late. We were being driven against the pier so hard that no amount of power could have swung us windward of it, and before we could have gotten clear of its northern end, we should have been driven to leeward onto a small pebble beach and seawall there. Astern of the pier was the anchorage, full of small craft. But we couldn’t go there either. The houseboat was in the way.
I had the crew ashore in a few minutes, for things were getting pretty lively aboard. The seas were dead on her starboard bow and each one took her off and slammed her back against the piling with a blow that shook her to her deadwood. Presently the ship’s bell was hurled screaming into the water. A little later the mast snapped its shrouds and came over onto the deck. A sidelight followed. We stood in the gale and rain and looked on helplessly. Some life preservers we had put between the boat and the dock were ground to fine powder. The seas were beginning to pile up over the pier itself; the club would soon be awash.
I got hold of the captain of the houseboat and begged him to slip astern of the pier and let me follow, judging that we could both anchor and at least try to ride out the trouble. But the captain was a young fellow and didn’t seem to see the danger. So there we were, both of us, being stove to pieces by the most extraordinary blow the weather had ever put on. It was a pitiful sight to watch Seagoin’, so lately our home, hauling off on the crest of each wave, and then slamming herself back against the cap log of the pier. The short piles that stuck up all along soon got into the game with the rising tide, and all at once she came down and punched a yawning hole through her side. I had thought she was strong—what with those heavy oak frames and inch-and-a-half planking—but she crumpled up like a matchbox under a big man’s foot.
The captain of the houseboat was getting worried too. He would have been glad to go, but he didn’t know how. After a deal of argument and expostulation, he finally agreed to let her tail off the pier end on the best line he had, but when the time came, he forgot (or refused) to go aboard. The wind and sea caught the superstructure of the houseboat and bore her to leeward, snapping the single line he had to the pier like thread. Once free, she rolled off down the harbor, unmanned, and went ashore on an island. In ten minutes, she was stove clean through and sank.
A last-gasp effort to save Seagoin’
It was a long chance that we had to take then. But we were fortunate, for Ralph’s father had come upon the scene—an old Maine seafaring man who knew boats like a book. The things that happened next were so quick that I do not even now remember them clearly. Old Tom was aboard, somehow—alone. Seagoin’ was cast off and began to slide rapidly to leeward along the pier. As she went, every pile took its toll, and the last one swiped the port anchor over like a watch charm.
As soon as he was clear, Tom got the 200-pounder over the side, but the chain jammed in the locker below and the hook swung awash. Swiftly he disappeared down forward; the anchor hung, and then it let go and disappeared. But the boat drifted on, following the other toward the rocks. At that minute the hatch cover blew shut on the chain locker, and Tom was down there in the dark, fighting the chain alone.
How he did it, I don’t know, but it shows how little time one has to save a ship sometimes. At any rate, he did it, for she stopped, the chain tightened, and she rode at anchor in the midst of a clutter of little craft, most of which were long-since scuttled.
We organized a rescue party and went out after him in a rowboat. But we couldn’t get back. We would have had to swim. So the depressed and waterlogged crew reassembled there in the charthouse and began to look for damage. And there was plenty of it. Down below, cabin bulkheads had been pushed in, ceiling splintered, doors cracked and thrown out of place. Over the side, there were 11 planks that had been smashed or pulled clean apart. Fortunately, all of them were above the waterline. The deckhouse was cocked over several inches. The galley and the engine room weren’t fit to be mentioned.
We rowed ashore in the late afternoon at low water, hungry and tired and wet. Seagoin’ was safe, but she would be a winter’s work for somebody—if the insurance company was kind. On the dock we separated, going our different ways in taxis and automobiles. All but Charles. As the gray twilight weakened and the streetlamps glowed out again, he hopped onto his ship’s bicycle and headed for Boston.
“For gosh sakes, have you still got that thing? I thought it was at the bottom of the harbor by now. Is it all still in one piece?”
“Well, it isn’t what it used to be, but it still works,” he called back cheerfully and pedaled off down the street.
Imagine riding home on a bicycle after an experience like that!