by Leslie Armstrong


Cape Porpoise, Maine, August 1954

Howie probably should never have been a father, but he was mine. He was mid height, slightly barrel-chested with the beginnings of a gut, a head of curly, dark hair graying at the temples, sparkling green eyes, an aquiline nose, and a radiant smile. He was handsome and eccentric. But for our long faces and olive skin, we didn’t look much alike, but I had adored him in early childhood and felt very close to him when I was reunited with him two years before at the age of twelve. He wore a coonskin coat in winter and drove a series of American-made convertibles, the top down in all seasons. He recited Milton and Robert Service with equal gusto. He was a horrific snob and was generally certain that he was the smartest guy in any room that he entered—and he probably was. In response to his High Episcopal upbringing by teetotaling parents, he spewed forth streams of lewd limericks and combined curse words in kaleidoscopic cadences. He was catnip to women, drank too much, sometimes smoked a pipe, was proud of rarely bathing, and took pleasure in all bodily functions. Unlike my elegant, intellectual, and emotionally guarded mother, he was earthy, warm, funny, and even sexy despite his receding hairline and expanding gut.

* * *

Tuesday, 31 August was another gray morning on the coast of southern Maine. There was a gentle breeze, and the surface of the water rippled erratically. While we waited for the big Zenith to warm up and give us the latest marine weather broadcast about the progress of Hurricane Carol, Howie cranked up the Primus stove in preparation for breakfast. We soon heard that Carol had hit the Connecticut shore around 8:30 a.m., somewhere around New London. He then primed another burner and started to make batter for a giant batch of his extra-thin and super-delicious crepe-like pancakes.

“High tide is around noon today. Carol will be hitting the coast at high tide so she’ll bring flood waters. We’ll need a big breakfast. It might be our last chance to eat for a while.” This was inconceivable to me. We were always going below for hot soup or something solid to eat in even the roughest of weather. And today we weren’t even leaving the harbor. I felt a prickle of worry but I didn’t complain. I loved those pancakes and ate more than my share.

A fine rain had begun by the time we finished eating and cleaning up. We put on our oilskins and went on deck to make final preparations for the day. The wind had picked up quite a bit and was kicking up some chop in the harbor. Howie told me to get out a pair of lanyards, which we would use as lifelines. These lanyards were five-foot lengths of hemp with an eye splice at one end and a snap hook at the other. (I’d done all the splicing myself.) If you were on deck in a storm and had to go forward to trim a sail or clear a line, you would tie the line snugly around your chest and clip the snap hook onto a stay or stanchion so that you remained attached to the boat. The wind speed was increasing with every minute, and the rain was beginning to feel like nails driving into our faces and hands.

“This is getting nasty.” Howie had to yell to be heard over the wind. “We’ve got to set the Yachtsman now.” I went forward and hauled the big anchor out through the forward hatch and set its shaft and crossbar at ninety degrees to each other. Then I went in after the massive coil of line, which was tied in several places with marlin so its loops wouldn’t become tangled. I hauled its huge mass up on deck, untied the bits of marlin, slipped one end through the big ring on the anchor’s shaft and secured it with a bowline, then tied the far end of the huge coil around the main mast, as I’d done with the Danforth line the night before. I carried the anchor forward and out onto the bowsprit, braced myself against the head stay, and turned to face the stern, with the anchor in my right hand off the port bow, and watched for his hand signal to drop the hook. It came. As I let go of the anchor, the heavy line got caught on a forward cleat. I bent to clear the jam, but instead of the line slipping through the chock as we were being pushed back by the wind, the whole coil of rope pulled out of my hands and went overboard in a huge splash. Just as it sank below the surface, I saw one of the marlin ties still holding the loops of the line in a tight coil. I had blown it. Howie came forward to check the set, and when I told him what happened, he went white.

“We can’t set her if we don’t have tension on the line. We have to dig those flukes in and be sure they’re solid. With the marlin around the coil, we can’t get that tension.”

“It’s OK,” I shouted, “we still have the far end of the line around the mast; I’ll just pull the whole coil and the anchor up. You’ll drive her forward again. We’ll reset the anchor and then dig her in.” It was too late. Howie returned to the cockpit and threw the throttle to full speed ahead, but the wind and waves had become so powerful that we could make no headway through the water at all. The line to the Danforth was as taut as piano wire, the line to the Yachtsman as slack as knitting yarn.

Stone Horse Light was named for the lightship that once marked the end of the shoal off the elbow of Cape Cod. She was more beamy than sleek. Her decks and hull were steel, so she was relatively spacious below. She drew five feet. She was rock solid. However, the wind speed was close to forty miles per hour and higher in the gusts, and we were only at the beginning of this storm. Howie made sure I understood that thanks to my little mishap, all we had between us and the destruction of the boat and possible loss of our own lives were one thirty-pound Danforth anchor, fifteen feet of chain, and a diesel engine.

While I stood paralyzed by shame, self-pity, and fear, there appeared to starboard one of the fishing vessels from the inner harbor with a handsome, craggy-faced Yankee at the helm.

“Saw you out there,” he shouted over the howling wind. “Want to come in to shore? It’s going to get pretty bad out here.”

“Thanks, but got to stay with the boat,” Howie shouted back.

“How about the girl?” shouted the fisherman.

Howie turned to me. “Pooch, you go. Leave this to me. It’s not going to be any fun out here.” I thought about this for a second but not for more.

“No,” I bellowed in return, “I’m staying. He might need me,” and I put my arms around Howie’s belly, wet oilskin to wet oilskin, and pressed my face against his big, oilskinned chest.

“Up to you then. Good luck to you!” he shouted, shaking his head as he gunned his powerful engine and turned back to the inner harbor.

Conditions steadily worsened. The wind speed kept increasing, blowing the tops off the waves that were bearing down on us. There was no going below for shelter. Lashed by rain and sea spray, our eyes, stinging from salt, were peeled for anything that might break loose or crack and endanger the boat or us. We held on tight to the cockpit coaming or a nearby stanchion and to each other while Stone Horse, with her engine at full speed forward, bucked and reared against the onslaught of Carol’s fury. As we fought the storm, Howie kept an eye on the distant shoreline to be sure the Danforth was holding. But the shore was becoming harder and harder to identify as the height and frequency of the waves inside the harbor increased.

Then it was gone.

At high tide most of the sand and mud flats and meadows of kelp that define Cape Porpoise’s outer harbor are under water, and only the string of tiny islands is visible. The weather forecast had told us that Carol was a very compact and intense storm. She would strike at high tide, pushing ten to fifteen feet of tidal flooding ahead of her. So the eight little islands on which we counted for protection were now submerged, leaving the ocean free to batter us to bits.

My job was to keep the engine running. The propeller whined and whinnied with every wave that swamped our bow and kicked our stern out of the water. Howie cautiously crawled forward to check the anchor lines, snapping his lifeline to a different stay or stanchion as he progressed.

“What’s up?” I shouted when he returned.

“The line on the Danforth is still taut,” he yelled back. “But it would be even if we were dragging. I can’t tell. No land to gauge by. But at least it hasn’t snapped. And guess what, Poochwoman?” He grinned. “The line on the Yachtsman is also taut. Good work!” And I got a huge, wet hug. Phew! Somehow the marlin tie holding the line to the Yachtsman had broken. The Yachtsman was free to add its fifty pounds to the task at hand!

We endured another terrifying hour of merciless assault, and then, almost as quickly as the winds had risen, they subsided and then stopped altogether. So did the rain. The sky was a sickening yellow. The big ocean swells flattened out. The surface of the water seemed greasy. We were anchored, without any protection, in what was effectively the middle of the ocean but in relative peace and tranquility. Who cared about pus-colored skies? Our ordeal was over. I was ready to celebrate.

“We’re in the eye,” said Howie. “We’ve got the second half to get through, and it’ll be just as bad. So go get us some crackers, and I’ll check out the boat.” We looked aft and were pleased to see our dinghy was still with us. We’d left it to trail behind us on a fifty-foot line so it could respond to the waves in its own rhythm. And in the calm of the eye, we were able to pick out the high point of Trott Island to the east, the largest of the Cape Porpoise archipelago, and the only one not totally submerged.

I had just enough time to go below, grab the crackers, and put on a dry shirt and sweater under my oilskins before the whole show came on us again as quickly as it had subsided with what seemed even greater force and vengeance. Sheeting rain, screaming, shrieking winds gusting over one hundred miles an hour, the bow of our small boat completely submerged by each twelve-foot wave that smashed over us, and a cacophony of stays, halyards, sheets, and canvas vibrating, howling, and screeching, slapping, smacking, and flapping in protest to the assault. Powerless to resist the storm’s might and to mitigate my consuming terror, I hunkered down and whimpered shamelessly.

Then we started to heel to starboard. The main mast made a strange and alarming creaking sound. The jib had broken its stops. The strips of canvas with which it had been furled had come untied. The wind was filling the sail and driving it up the forestay, causing us to heel way over. The waves were filling the bottom of the sail with water. There was no way the mast could carry a sail driven by such wind. Nor could the anchor lines handle the additional stress. If the mast didn’t snap and kill us, the wind and water in the sail could capsize us.

Steel boats filled with water don’t float.

“I’ve got to go forward and cut her loose,” Howie shouted.

“No. Every wave puts the bowsprit underwater. You’ll be swept overboard and drown. I’ll go,” I cried. Terrified as I was, I was more terrified of losing him.

“No, you stay here.”

Howie grabbed some line and put his heavy-duty marine jackknife around his neck and began the crawl forward, clipping and unclipping his lifeline as he inched along. By the time he reached the main mast, I could hardly see him through the water breaking over the bow. He still had to make his way to the bow and then out onto the bowsprit, a bare, slender, five-foot length of painted oak that projected from the bow with no handrails, no guardrails, and no safety netting. I knew the routine well. I’d ridden the bowsprit many times in fair weather. Holding the forestay in one hand, he was going to have to step out onto the sprit, then reach forward five feet with the other hand to grab the head stay, then work his way along the sprit until he could secure his position while being alternately plunged under water, bucked into the air, and knocked about by the brute force of the flapping jib. Then he’d have to secure the jib or cut it free. I couldn’t watch any longer. I turned my eyes down to the cockpit floor and whimpered over the near certainty of my impending loss.

Then Stone Horse righted herself. I stood up and scanned the bow. The jib was no longer flapping, but there was no sign of Howie either. In a panic I attached my own lifeline to the guardrail and started to crawl forward. I soon saw him, drenched and on all fours, snapping the lifeline as he worked his way toward me.

“It’s done,” he shouted, “and we didn’t lose the sail!”

“Where were you? I couldn’t see you. I was terrified!” I spluttered.

“I was exhausted. I lay down on the forward deck. I had to rest.”

* * *

The storm moved on around 5:30 that afternoon. Although the flood waters remained, it was coming onto low tide, and the high points of several of our little islands had reappeared, affording us some shelter from the still-raging seas outside. This time when we looked aft, we saw that the dinghy was gone. We went over the boat from stem to stern to assess our other losses. There were none.

As the wind subsided and the water in the harbor settled down, our fisherman came out to check on us.

“You folks OK?”

“All we lost is the dinghy,” Howie said proudly. The fisherman looked impressed.

“That’s amazing. It’s sure a mess on shore. Boats smashed up, trees down, power out, flood damage, though I suppose it could have been worse. I’ll have a look round for your dinghy tomorrow morning. It may have washed up on one of the flats. In the meantime, either of you like to come ashore? There’s a phone line still working at the end of the town wharf.” We accepted his invitation and found conditions much as he described. While some fishing boats and pleasure boats had broken loose and ended up on the shore, most were still at their moorings, having suffered very little damage. Trees were down but not many more than after a nor’easter. As the fisherman said, it could have been worse. I phoned my mother, as I figured she might have heard about Carol and been worried. Howie phoned his father, my grandfather; I am sure he was glad to know we and Stone Horse had weathered the hurricane safely.

The fisherman ferried us back to Stone Horse. Seeing her at a distance, riding peacefully on her anchor line after such an ordeal, took me aback. She looked slightly disheveled with lines hanging from her booms and stanchions at odd angles but otherwise unscathed. My heart filled with gratitude and pride.

We gave the ocean a day to calm down, and ourselves a day of rest, before pulling up the anchors and setting off for Marblehead, Mass., our next port of call on the way to Martha’s Vineyard. There we knew we could use the Eastern Yacht Club launch to get ashore and would purchase a replacement dinghy. However, true to his word, our fisherman had searched for our dingy, found it washed up in the kelp off Trott Island, and towed it back to us. Howie offered him some remuneration for his trouble, but he accepted only our thanks.

Howie switched on the engine, and we powered forward over the Yachtsman to break her hold so I could haul her up. Her fifty pounds were dug in deep, and it took several passes at increasing engine speed to dislodge her. Her flukes were caked with mud as she finally broke the surface. But the lighter Danforth wouldn’t budge. She had held fast against a building sea and become too embedded to wrangle loose. After many tries, Howie gave the order to cut her loose.

Our only loss: a thirty-pound Danforth and fifteen feet of chain.

* * *

Marblehead may have been the only harbor on the East Coast that could, at that time, compete with Oyster Bay, Long Island, for the size of its fleet of cruising, racing, and motor yachts. Marblehead could boast of four yacht clubs, of which the Eastern Yacht Club was the most upscale and Howie’s favorite. Amongst its members were many friends and drinking buddies from my parents’ days in Boston. The harbor is a long, narrow rectangle that opens to the northeast, making it a rough anchorage for those boats closest to the mouth of the harbor in a nor’easter. We thought that Carol might have given the Marblehead fleet a bit of a thrashing. But we were completely unprepared for the devastation and destruction that met our eyes as we sailed between Fort Sewall and Lighthouse Point. The sleek hulls of eighty- and hundred-foot-long sailing yachts were smeared along the full length of both rocky shores like slabs of butter. Between, on top of, and beneath these behemoths lay the hulls of smaller boats in varying degrees of fragmentation. Everywhere we looked there were broken masts of all sizes and materials, held at odd angles by tangles of steel stays and rigging. Tatters of fabric that had once been sails looked like rolls of unfurled toilet paper caught in the branches of a forest. There were no signs of life on the water. Marblehead was a wasteland, a nautical cemetery.

By the grace of some God or a combination of good fortune, Howie’s good judgment, and the seaworthiness of Stone Horse Light, we had survived Carol’s rage unscathed, for which I felt once again grateful and humbled.

The next day we motored across Massachusetts Bay, then hugged the eastern shore, passing Scituate, Duxbury, and Plymouth as we headed for the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal. I had wanted to take the outside route to the Vineyard: around Cape Cod and past the lightship after which our boat was named. But Howie was bushed. We powered through the canal and out into Buzzards Bay. We waited for the slack tide so we would have an easy run east through Woods Hole. We passed West Chop, then East Chop, and headed south into Edgartown Harbor.

We were home.

Boats and shore properties in Edgartown had also been badly damaged by Carol. But Edgartown Harbor was better protected than Marblehead, so the damage was less, although everyone was making comparisons between Carol and the great hurricane of 1938, which may have been even more destructive.

Two days after we picked up our mooring in Edgartown, I flew back to New York and to my mother’s and my little apartment on East 62nd Street. Over the next four days, Howie readied Stone Horse for the winter and returned to Chicago. Eleven days later, on 11 September 1954, Hurricane Edna followed almost the same path as Carol, with winds and tidal surges as high, if not higher. Edna ravaged New England much as Carol had done. I was so numb from my exposure to Carol’s fury and so ashamed of my own cowardice and fear that I felt nothing but relief that Edna had passed me by.

* * *

Carol was then the costliest hurricane in US history. The name “Carol” was removed from the list of official names used to identify tropical storms because of the lives she had taken and the destruction she had wrought. Hers was the first name in Atlantic hurricane history to be so retired.

Comments are closed.