Progress is elusive. Every time we think that we have entered a new era, we find out how right William Faulkner was when he observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Sometimes that discovery comes painfully.
Technology changes, of course, and certain skills improve, but much remains constant. That includes our relationship with what was once called "the deeps." When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley hailed the West Wind as "destroyer and preserver," he could have been speaking of the sea and our ambivalent experience with it.
I was reflecting on such matters in late May during the 185-mile Block Island Race, sponsored by the Storm Trysail Club and running east from Stamford, Connecticut, down Long Island Sound to that island, then around it and back to Stamford. For many years, before we became too busy to take off the Friday before Memorial Day, home base was several (usually slow) miles to the west at Larchmont, New York. This was the race’s 55th annual running, and I’ve sailed in about a third of them. I’ve been in boats that have won the race, and I was once in a boat that took three days to complete the course. This year I enjoyed the mixed blessing of beating all the way out to the island aboard a 50-foot ketch in a 15 to 25-knot rainy easterly, big swells, and a nasty chop on top. Because the predicted southeasterly went somewhere else, there was the subsequent mixed blessing of running all the way back in the same easterly to finish in about 31 hours. At least the wind was steady—though sometimes a bit too much.
The time was ripe for reflections. One took the form of a story that had already been on my mind for several months because of some writing I’ve been doing for a new book about storms and their consequences. It is the story of Hamrah.
In 1935 a trans-Atlantic race was held from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bergen, Norway. For some reason, the start was on June 8, extremely early in the sailing season and exposing the fleet to ice and hard gales. Seven boats entered, but only six started after the Norwegian entry was pitchpoled on her way west and lost a man. None of the six boats hit ice, but there were close calls with it and with steamships, plus other misfortunes. None of these were suffered by the winner, which was the wonderful 54-foot Sparkman & Stephens yawl Stormy Weather,
commanded by Rod Stephens, then still a young man. (Stormy,
by the way, is still sailing in Italy.)
One entry was a 54-foot gaff-rigged ketch, Hamrah, out of Boston and Castine, Maine. Her captain and owner was Robert Ames, and in her crew were his two sons, Dick and Harry, and their college friends Charles Tillinghast, Sheldon Ware, and Roger Weed—all five between 19 and 24 years of age. The Ames family’s dream vessel, the ketch was used mainly for coastal cruising Down East, and if her weatherliness and speed did not approach the standard of Stormy Weather, the Ameses did not mind.
On the eleventh day out in the middle of the Atlantic, a gale is blowing, and Hamrah reaches east on port tack under severely shortened sail, her mizzen furled. Charles Tillinghast, at the helm, believes that some crests tower as high as Hamrah’s fifty-foot mast. Robert Ames, his watchmate, pulls on layers of wool sweaters and socks, comes on deck, and sits on the bottom of the upturned dinghy lashed down near the cockpit on the port side. As always, he declines to tie himself on with a lifeline or safety harness.
Out of the corner of an eye Robert Ames spies a white wall advancing from astern, and he cries out — too late, and the wave plunges down and six feet of water sweeps forward from stern to bow, covering the deck. Barely hanging onto the wheel’s spokes, wiping the stinging salt from his eyes, Charlie Tillinghast looks around to find the boat whole, her rigging standing, her cockpit full but draining. But Robert Ames is no longer on the dinghy. The wave has thrown him the full width of the boat, over the leeward lifelines, and into the ocean, where he is now barely afloat as Hamrah
Tillinghast simultaneously yells for help and turns the wheel hard to starboard to bring the boat off the wind and jibe back toward the struggling man. An experienced offshore sailor, he prefers o tack (as we are taught today) but believes the bluff-bowed ketch will never get through the eye of the wind in these waves. From this moment on, Hamrah will struggle to climb upwind through this great seaway to get to her lost captain.
Dick Ames, in his underwear, leaps up the companionway, spots his father, and with hardly a pause grabs a line tied to the boat and dives overboard. He is only a few feet from his father when the boat pulls the line from his grasp. He swims on and embraces his father as Hamrah jibes and swings back toward them. The other crewmembers throw a life preserver, which offers enough buoyancy to support the two men as Dick holds his father’s head up. Harry Ames, the 19-year-old younger brother, is frantic to dive in after them. The others persuade him to stay: they require his help in order to get to them.
|"As the reefed mainsail bangs across in the jibe, the boom and gaff jaws both break, leaving the sail billowing uselessly."|
As the reefed mainsail bangs across in the second jibe, the boom and gaff jaws both break, leaving the sail billowing uselessly. Many yards downwind of the Ameses with only a small jib set, Tillinghast, Ware, and Weed pause to set the mizzen, which is almost the size of the mainsail. Harry, meanwhile, is untying the dinghy and sliding it into the water. Charlie Tillinghast begs him to stay with the ship, but Harry pushes the boat over the side and leaps in, and applies his powerful wrestler’s shoulders to the oars.
With a hatchet and a hacksaw the three survivors cut away the mainsail, boom, and gaff until they can heave the entire mess overboard, trim the mizzen, and slowly beat toward the Ameses, by now barely visible a quarter mile and five or six breaking seas upwind. The last they see of any of the three, the two brothers are side by side on the bottom of the upturned dinghy, waving. A wave breaks, and they are gone.
The three stunned survivors search unsuccessfully for many hours, until they have no option but to save themselves and head for land. Ten days later they sail the crippled ketch into Sydney, Nova Scotia, and after they tell their story it is front-page news across the country.
Then and now, any response to the Hamrah story must pay tribute both to the Ames boys’ nobility of spirit and also to the practicalities. Herbert L. Stone, the Editor of Yachting—who had inspected Hamrah before the race—wrote that the quality of the Ames boys’ heroism and devotion was beyond dispute, and that "their act rises above eulogy." But he also suggested that had the man in the water not been their father, the Ames boys’ response might well have been to remain on board to help sail the ketch to his rescue. No doubt Stone silently added, "Would that the boat have been able to sail to windward in such conditions."
Some hyper-sensitive promoters who seemed obsessed by what is now called "growing the sport" claimed that going to sea was not dangerous at all. More sensible heads disagreed. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune identified the core issue: accidents will happen in any worthwhile enterprise in which humans strive with nature: "It is this very circumstance—this pitting of small human skills and fabrics against the treacherous enormity of the sea—which brings entries into ocean races. Blue-water racing is not extra hazardous. But neither is it completely safe. That is why there are blue-water races; and, as in mountain climbing, the rare tragedy is the price that must be paid for a kind of adventuring that is itself humanly worth while."
Living a careful life is one thing, but a life of absolute comfort and safety is no life at all. Sometimes a reminder of that truth can be brutal.
Lessons from a Sailing Disaster by John Rousmaniere
Man Overboard (Intentionally) by John Kretschmer
Crew Overboard Gear by Tom Wood
Buying Guide: Personal Flotation Devices