Articles > People & Politics
MAY DAY! MAY DAY!
AS HURRICANE CONNIE MOVED UP THE ATLANTIC COAST, 27 PEOPLE SET SAIL FROM ANNAPOLIS ON A CRUISE THAT PROMISED MOONLIT ROMANCE, SHIPBOARD FUN, AND GREAT CRABCAKES. IT WAS TO BE A DREAM VACATION.
HE HAS ONLY A FEW MEMORIES OF THE HOURS AFTER HE WAS pulled from the water. The hot crab soup that cut the chill of his body shivering under hospital blankets. The police car at the hospital entrance; the drive to the morgue to identify the dead. Men gripping his arms to keep him up, carrying him from one body to the next. Sheets pulled back from the faces.
He remembers more about the Coast Guard hearing to investigate the wreck. It opened August 22, 1955, ten days after the ship went down. He wore a light-colored suit and tie. The jacket sleeve covered a tattoo on his right forearm, the Coast Guard's crossed-anchors insignia, a memento from his four years in the service. He had helped protect his country from Hitler's navy, tending engines and shoveling coal on ships in East Coast ports. But that counted for nothing in the hearing; he had been an enlisted man, and the four men presiding over the hearing were officers, their uniform shoulders studded with stars and stripes.
He knew one of them, the captain of the Baltimore port, a short man with a barrel chest. The two had argued a year ago after the man briefly shut down his cruise operation. Loud voices had bounced off the walls of the Coast Guard offices. "You're a son of a bitch," he had told the captain.
He remembers the newspaper stories. The wreck of the Levin J. Marvel—one of the worst disasters in the history of the Chesapeake Bay—made the front pages of papers from Miami to New York. SKIPPER BLAMED IN 14 DEATHS read a front-page headline in the Washington Post.
His ship, a turn-of-the-century schooner built from oak timbers by carpenters making 15 cents an hour, had been the biggest in the Annapolis harbor. Her masts had climbed more than ten stories high. The first time he had sailed her into Baltimore, fireboats had sent streams of water arcing through the air in salute. "Captain John," everyone called him.
Now, the Marvel lay on the bottom of the bay near the village of Fairhaven, about 30 miles from Washington. The stern was torn from the hull, and the deck was ripped off.
They will try to hang me for this, he remembers thinking.
John Henry Meckling saw his first big body of water when he was a teenager. His family lived in Gary, Indiana, where his father worked as a master mechanic in a steel mill. On a family picnic at the Indiana Dunes State Park, he topped a mountain of sand to find Lake Michigan stretched out to the horizon. He stared, mystified. How could there be that much water?
A girl about his own age was on the lake in a small sailboat. She was trying to steer to shore, tacking back and forth, but couldn't catch the wind.
Meckling, who had never donned a swimsuit, waded into the water chest-high and grabbed the boat. "I think I can do that for you," he said. He climbed in, took the rudder, and put the boat's bow into the sand.
After that, Meckling couldn't get enough of the water. While finishing high school, he worked as a deckhand on boats cruising the Great Lakes. In 1942, as Germany occupied Europe, he signed on with the Coast Guard and went to sea.
He was likely to drown in anything deeper than a bathtub. To pass his boot-camp swimming requirement, he was ordered to the top of a platform 15 feet above a pool. He stood at the edge and stared into the water. A few men below held long bamboo poles to fish him out.
"Get those damn poles ready," he yelled.
"Jump, you idiot," they said.
The recruit took three steps back, ran off the platform, and pulled himself into a ball. The instant he hit the water he snatched a pole stretched out to him. "See, I can swim," he shouted.
After his discharge in 1946 and a few months as a steward at a yacht club near Gary, Meckling moved to central Pennsylvania, where he was born. Earning an associate's degree in electronics, he opened a television-and-radio repair shop in the town of Altoona. It was a tough business—the closest TV transmitter was more than 100 miles away, with mountains in between, so few people owned sets.
In 1950 Meckling stumbled upon a new business venture on a trip to the Eastern Shore. Driving one day, he saw three masts rising from behind nearby buildings. Keeping an eye on the giant sticks in the sky, he steered this way and that until he pulled up to a dock where an old schooner was tied up.
He climbed aboard and walked the deck. He had sailed on yachts in the Great Lakes that had been nearly 90 feet, but this was 219 feet bowsprit to stern. Down the gangway, he found the hold carved into 17 staterooms, each with a bunk bed and porthole. The rooms opened to a long corridor that ran almost the length of the boat. It led to a dining room in the bow and up a few steps in the stern to a lounge.
Lettering on the sides of the bow read LEVIN J. MARVEL. Wouldn't it be a trick to put canvas on and sail her, Meckling thought.
He tracked down the owner, Herman Knust, a retired Baltimore & Ohio Railroad executive. Knust had bought the Marvel in 1944 after she had spent a half century hauling timber, coal, and fertilizer. He had gutted the boat and added the staterooms (each with running water and electric lights), dining room, and lounge as well as two heads, portholes, and a gas stove in the deckhouse galley.
When Knust took passengers on a trip that summer, the "dude cruise" industry was born on the Chesapeake. Like dude ranches out West, he marketed to city slickers, promising they'd live, work, and eat like watermen—raising the sails, taking a turn at the wheel, and navigating by the stars.
Passengers from as far as California signed on for one-week cruises on the Marvel and two-week trips on the Edwin and Maud, the Marvel's sister ship, which Knust later bought. In 1946, the Marvel landed in Life magazine when she sailed from Baltimore to Miami via rivers, canals, and bays—the biggest ship to travel the 1,300 miles of intracoastal waterways.
The captain's $18,000 investment in the Marvel paid off. Knust had to book only eight passengers per trip to clear a profit, and the Marvel regularly sailed with more than 30.
After a few years, Knust married and bought a big farm in Virginia.
When Meckling met Knust, the captain invited him on a cruise. The Marvel was not a pretty boat—her straight-sided hull made her the ugly stepsister to the schooners that cut the water with elegant curves. Nor was she fast.
But Meckling loved her. Taking a turn at the wheel, he could tell she was a natural. He didn't have to fight the rudder; he could set it and she'd stay true to course.
In 1954 Meckling approached Knust about buying the boat. The captain had put the Marvel out of service and up for sale more than a year earlier, apparently so he could spend more time on his farm. He agreed to sell for $7,500. Meckling borrowed money from an Altoona acquaintance and sunk another $7,000 into repairs. The boat was in rough shape: Its bilge held three feet of water, the cabin floors had rotted out, and paint was peeling.
Meckling gave her a new paint job and bought new rigging, mattresses, and linen. Hiring a carpenter crew, he put in new flooring below deck.
The Marvel, he decided, was ready to sail again.
The Coast Guard hearing convened on a muggy Monday morning at 9 o'clock in a small room in the Customs House in downtown Baltimore. The four-man panel assigned to investigate the wreck of the Marvel arrived in dark uniforms but soon stripped to shirtsleeves.
Newspaper reports after the wreck had made it clear that Meckling was to be the probe's target. In his first season on the bay, the papers said, the Marvel had taken water at the seams and beached on a mudbank on the Wicomico River. Soon after, the boat reportedly ran aground near the mouth of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore to avoid foundering. She was stranded until a Coast Guard buoy tender pulled her free.
Elias Bartholow, owner of a Baltimore shipyard and one of the hearing's first witnesses, added to the picture of what reporters were calling the "hard luck" ship. Bartholow testified that Meckling had dry-docked the Marvel for hull repairs in July 1954, a year before the wreck.
According to Bartholow, Meckling had authorized repairs from the keel to one plank above the water line, but no further. The captain, he said, was short of money and faced a time crunch. He had canceled one cruise already, and another was scheduled soon.
Bartholow called the repairs a "temporary job" to get the boat through the 1954 season. But Meckling never returned for additional work.
Asked if he would have gone on a Marvel cruise, Bartholow said no: "I don't believe she was seaworthy."
Meckling denied Bartholow's account and claimed he had given the boatyard carte blanche. But more damning testimony came from Samuel Finkelstein, a Manhattan attorney. Finkelstein had booked a cruise on the Marvel the year before. He told the hearing that he and his wife and four relatives boarded the ship and found it filthy and "completely decrepit."
"The wood was not just unpainted or peeled off," he said. "It was actually rotting away on the steps and rear of the ship and around portholes—wherever you could observe it. The portholes were rusted—like the interior of a rusty can—and would not seal."
Finkelstein and his party left the ship two hours before it sailed: "We felt that it was unseaworthy, unsafe, and unsanitary."
On the morning of August 7, 1955, 16-year-old John Ferguson and his father, John Sr., boarded the 8:45 morning train from New York's Penn Station for Washington and what should have been a wonderful vacation. Arriving in DC, they checked into the Mayflower Hotel and booked a Gray Line Cadillac limousine for a tour of the city—Georgetown, the White House, Arlington National Cemetery. The next morning, they caught a bus for Annapolis.
John had taken a fancy to boats years earlier, wrapping himself in the romance and history of the sea. Model ships and books about seafaring lined the shelves of his room in the family apartment in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
John Sr., a 63-year-old inspector with Bendix Aviation, encouraged his son's passion. During family vacations to the shore, he took John fishing on a converted World War II minesweeper. When John proposed a cruise, he agreed.
John initially booked reservations on a schooner cruise in Maine but canceled after he saw an ad for the Marvel, which sounded bigger and more grand. Meckling was advertising in East Coast newspapers and through travel agencies, and his copy painted an alluring picture.
"Beneath billowing sail," read one brochure, "the clear moonlight making a phosphorescent wake which gleams like a ribbon of diamonds, your sailing cruise will be an event long remembered. Witness the beautiful sunrise and sunset on the Chesapeake. Storybook adventure, the nostalgia and romance of a sailing vessel awaits you."
Bert and Frances Roberts booked a berth on the Marvel after they saw an ad in the New York Times. They had hoped to vacation at an inn on Cape Cod. But the possibility that a polio outbreak in Boston would make its way to the beaches scuttled those plans.
Bert, 34, was a psychiatrist and rising star on the Yale medical-school faculty. He had tackled seminal research in the fledgling field of social psychiatry, and he and a colleague were polishing a book manuscript on the role of social class and birth order in mental illness.
Bert and Frances were nearing their third wedding anniversary. They had met in Hartford, where Bert did his residency and Frances taught the deaf and emotionally disturbed. The two had much in common, but love took a few years. At six-foot-three, Bert, a native of Toronto, was a handsome former officer in the Canadian Royal Air Force. Frances, 31, was pretty, with dark hair and a warm smile.
Frances liked Bert's smarts and good looks, but his formal, reserved air—a product of his hometown's British influence—kept her at arm's length.
At his birthday party once, she watched as he pulled on a new sport shirt and buttoned it up to the neck. He's not for me, she thought.
They dated off and on, and as Bert's warmth and sense of humor emerged, she fell in love. He proposed before he took a trip to Europe, and she told him they would talk when he returned. But even before he stepped on the plane, she knew her answer.
The trip on the Marvel was the couple's first vacation away from their two daughters, who were seven months and 20 months old. They boarded on Sunday, the day before the ship sailed. They met the captain, John Meckling, a tall man with twinkling blue eyes and a face vaguely reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, then one of Hollywood's glamour boys. Meckling inspired confidence: He seemed everything a captain was supposed to be.
As the Roberts stowed their luggage, they met other passengers and chatted. Their shipmates were educated people, which pleased Bert, who was something of an intellectual snob. Several were doctors, including a Brooklyn dentist with his wife and two children, ages nine and 13. One was an executive of a children's nonprofit organization in New York. Two women worked in advertising; another was a buyer for Lane Bryant clothing stores.
The boat was a disappointment. Frances thought it seedy, and the staterooms were cramped. Bert's feet hung over the edge of the bunk beds, which, they noted, were not ideal for romance.
The couple left the ship to buy rain slickers and talk. "What do you think?" Bert said. "Should we get our luggage and go to a resort?"
The couple decided to return to the ship. The people on board tipped the scale—they would be interesting traveling companions.
John Ferguson, too, was surprised at the Marvel's shabby appearance when he and his father pulled up to the dock in a cab. He had expected a majestic boat with dark-wood timbers and elegant trim. Instead, it was painted silver—an aluminum protective finish, he figured, and the stern sagged, a sign that the boat was "hogged" with a hump in its keel.
But John hardly gave it a thought—he was going to sea! On his bunk that night, listening to water slap the hull, he pretended he was in Tahiti. This was going to be a great adventure.
Meckling testified three times at the hearing. The Coast Guard investigators threw questions at him, landing soft jabs as well as big blows that seemed meant to topple him.
Meckling stayed on his feet, deflecting the tough questions with answers that were at times obtuse. An exasperated officer demanded: "When a question is asked, will you please listen to the question and answer it without making a two-page explanation of what you mean?"
Meckling thought the investigators were trying to run him into a rathole. In his mind, they had hounded him since his first sail on the Marvel. Now they were twisting his words.
Bad feelings between Meckling and the Coast Guard had been building for more than a year. There had been talk in its offices that the Marvel was not fit to carry passengers. Yet authorities could do nothing: At 183 tons, the boat did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard, which by law inspected ships of 700 tons or more.
Alfred W. Kabernagel, captain of the Baltimore port, eventually found the means to get jurisdiction over the Marvel. In September 1954, a few months after Meckling began his cruise business, Kabernagel sent him a letter. Because the ship occasionally used a yawl boat, or motorboat, for propulsion, the officer wrote, it was a passenger barge, not a sailing vessel. As such, it was subject to federal oversight. Discontinue operations and apply for inspection, he ordered Meckling.
Meckling was furious and went to see Kabernagel. The two argued heatedly, according to Meckling, and the Marvel captain cursed the officer.
Meckling appealed the captain's ruling to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, where officials ruled in mid-October that if the Marvel did not use the yawl boat for propulsion, it would be considered a sailing vessel not subject to inspection.
The flap cost Meckling five weeks of business. But not long into the 1955 season, he was again using the yawl boat to dock the Marvel and maneuver in tight quarters. To get around the Coast Guard ruling, he collected fares from passengers only after the ship had left Annapolis, which meant no paying customers were aboard when the yawl boat was used.
He considered use of the yawl boat only a technical violation. He did it, he told Kabernagel at the hearing, to ensure the safety of his passengers.
The Marvel hoisted anchor on Monday afternoon about 2 o'clock under a gray sky and drizzle. Meckling had a crew of three: deck hand Steve Morton, a 17-year-old Annapolis boy who had sailed extensively on his family's boats; cook Elry Pinkney, a 30-year Navy veteran who claimed to have served as President Franklin Roosevelt's chef; and 29-year-old steward Charles Savoy, who had sailed with the Marvel many times.
Another deck hand was scheduled to work the cruise but showed up drunk. Meckling searched a couple of hours for a replacement, with no luck. The Marvel, which frequently sailed with three or four deck hands, entered the bay with only one.
The only wind was a light breeze the first few days, forcing Meckling to set the itinerary based on where he could find a fast-running tide. The Marvel hopscotched down the Eastern Shore, anchoring the first night off Poplar Island, about ten miles southeast of Annapolis; the next day farther south in the fishing village of Oxford, on the Tred Avon River; and Wednesday in the town of Cambridge on the Choptank River.
Young John Ferguson loved his first taste of life at sea. After the boat left Annapolis, he sat on the aft deckhouse roof. The Marvel poked along at about two knots, but even the slight wind and spray made it seem fast and lively. He watched Meckling and Steve Morton work, thrilled to see sailors in action after reading about them for so long.
The food—fresh fish and melon, pork chops, turkey—was delicious. The Dutch door to the galley deckhouse was always open—except when cook Pinkney was mixing the secret ingredients for his delicious crabcakes.
There was plenty to do. Tuesday night in Oxford, many of the ship's company descended on the Robert Morris Inn and watched Dragnet and The $64,000 Question on the lobby television. The next day they took a ferry to Bellevue, where John bought an antique ship in a bottle.
He was having such a good time that his father said he could stay on board for the next trip. Another week at sea!
Frances Roberts was not so thrilled. She and Bert enjoyed their shipmates; people gathered in the dining room for "night watch" snacks and bull sessions that stretched into the early morning. Frances became fond of Debbie Killip, a trim 26-year-old from Rochester who worked for an advertising agency. Debbie was single, a skier, and had a sense of adventure. She was fun, Frances thought.
Still, the weather was gloomy, and she grew tired of the bunk-bed accommodations. Enough of this, she thought. While the boat was docked at Cambridge, she wondered if she and Bert shouldn't slip away and return to Annapolis.
Her spirits lifted on Thursday, which dawned sunny and warm. When the passengers woke up, the water outside their portholes danced with light. After lunch, Meckling took the boat out on the Choptank for a swimming party. Some of the passengers plunged off the ship's gunwales and bowsprit; others paddled on inflatable rafts.
Late in the afternoon, they set sail down the Choptank to the bay and headed north. After dinner, passengers gathered on deck to stargaze, sprawled on their backs under the black, moonless sky.
This was the kind of day Frances had expected when she booked on the Marvel. John Ferguson was thrilled. Near midnight, he lay in his bunk writing in his journal and listening to laughter spilling down the corridor from the dining hall. "Wow," he wrote, "what a day."
The Coast Guard entered as evidence in the hearing about 30 pages of bulletins issued by the US Weather Bureau during the cruise. On Monday, when the Marvel had sailed from Annapolis, Hurricane Connie had been building about 500 miles east of Florida.
Connie moved northeast, heading toward the Carolinas. At 1 PM Tuesday, the weather service in Baltimore issued a hurricane alert: Winds of 73 miles per hour or more might reach the bay.
Meckling tracked Connie via radio broadcasts. At Cambridge on Wednesday, he and Steve Morton battened down for the blow, doubling the mooring lines and adding steel cable.
But the storm's track was hard to forecast. In language almost poetic for meteorologists, one report said it "continues to lumber slowly toward the North Carolina coast like a wheel that is off center."
Thursday's sunny morning was followed by the cancellation of the hurricane alert: Connie was going to make landfall at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and move inland, its force diminishing. Northeast storm warnings that had been posted Tuesday remained in effect, but forecasters were predicting winds of 30 miles an hour at most on the upper part of the bay.
Hearing the report on the lounge radio, the passengers cheered. "Let's go," they told Meckling. The captain agreed, and they left Cambridge for their swimming party.
Under questioning by the Coast Guard investigators, Meckling would say he couldn't remember whether he carried a barometer on board. Nor could he recall seeing the red storm-warning flags flying at the Cambridge yacht club. "I depended solely on my radio," he said.
Radio broadcasts Thursday night continued to downplay the hurricane's threat. As Meckling's passengers lay on the deck stargazing, the Miami weather bureau reported that Connie "continues to wallow around in the Atlantic," about 75 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Around midnight, Meckling switched off the radio. Many of the passengers had turned in for the night. He didn't want to disturb them.
John Ferguson woke up around 6 o'clock Friday morning to find his father mopping the floor. A wave had crashed through the open porthole.
The weather had turned ugly about 3 AM. A drizzle had set in, and by daylight winds were gusting up to 40 miles an hour. Pillars of clouds were building in the east.
The teenager went back to sleep and woke an hour later when Charles Savoy, the steward, rang the bell for breakfast. Ferguson pulled on his Bloomfield High sweatshirt, tidied the cabin, and made his way down the corridor to the dining hall. Others were already eating Elry Pinkney's breakfast: pancakes, scrambled eggs, and cereal.
As they ate, they saw through a knothole that the water in the bilge had climbed to within an inch of the boards. And it was still rising. As the boat rocked, the floor became damp, then wet.
Someone called for the captain. Meckling came down the gangway to inspect, then returned to the deck and turned on the forward bilge pump. The water receded.
A few minutes later, a voice rolled down the companionway: "All hands on deck, all hands on deck."
John and his father raced up the steps. One sail lay in a jumble on the deck, while another trailed over the starboard side. Meckling had been taking in the canvas, and a gust of wind had caught it.
John, his father, and several other men helped the captain and Steve Morton furl the sails. The captain ordered Morton into the yawl boat; with his masts bare, Meckling had no means of navigating. But Morton found that water had filled the boat and covered the transmission. The clutch was too wet to grip.
As the Marvel drifted, Meckling had to make a decision. The boat sat just northwest of Poplar Island, near where Meckling had anchored the first night of the cruise. Continuing north into the teeth of the wind was impossible; the rain and water off the sea made it seem like they were sailing into a white wall.
He considered crossing the bay and riding out the storm in the South River or the West River. Both lay northwest of Poplar Island, just south of Annapolis. But the winds were too gusty, he thought. He worried that tacking against them would be dangerous; a big blow might catch the Marvel broadside and flip her, dumping passengers into the water far from land.
Meckling decided his best option was to run with the wind and head southwest across the bay. Around the village of Fairhaven, the western shore turned in on itself to form Herring Bay. There was a bar in part of that bay, an underwater piece of land. Tuck the Marvel in behind that bar, he thought, and it would knock down the high seas rolling in from the northeast.
He raised one sail on the forward mast, and the boat turned and raced off across the bay. The passengers, used to the Marvel's plodding pace, thrilled at the speed. They put on raincoats and came up on deck. "Boy, we're really flying," one said.
The boat reached Herring Bay around 10 o'clock. With the anchor dropped, she sat behind the bar, bow pointed into the wind and the seas, ready to ride out the storm.
Passengers passed time playing board games in the lounge. The radio was tuned to an Annapolis station, and the DJ played "Garden in the Rain," a jazz standard from the 1920s remade by the pop group Four Aces:
I recall a summer day
When you and I had strolled away
And suddenly a storm drew nigh.
Pinkney's crabcakes were on the menu for lunch, but the ship's rocking had torn loose the stove's gas tanks, so cookies and fruit were served.
About noon, someone noticed that the ship was taking on water again in the bow. The captain ordered Morton to turn on the forward bilge pump again, but in the rain and spray the boy couldn't get a spark to start the engine. An auxiliary hand pump was brought up, and the men took turns working its seesaw-like handles.
The captain asked the passengers to put on life jackets, though he assured them it was not an emergency.
No one panicked. This was not the open sea; land felt so close that you could almost reach out and touch it. John Ferguson laughed as he put on his life jacket. "Don't laugh," his father told him. "It's gettingserious."
The winds and seas grew worse. Waves rolled over the bow and cracked on deck, washing gear away. Sometime during the morning, the yawl boat was lost.
Around 1 o'clock, a swell lifted the bow of the boat. The anchor dragged loose, and the boat turned broadside to the wind, taking the full force of the heavy seas. Meckling threw over a second anchor. It held and slowly pulled the head of the boat back into the wind.
Below deck, water was rising. At some point, the men detached the aft pump from the deck and took it to the dining room, putting the discharge hose out a porthole window.
John Ferguson, his father, and Debbie Killip tried to close the portholes throughout the ship. But many of the frames were warped, and some of the wing bolts that secured the windows were frozen onto the nuts; others were missing. The captain told John's father to get spares from the engine room next to the galley, but there were not enough. The Fergusons and Killip stuffed pillows and blankets in the portholes to try to keep the water back.
Sometime after 1 o'clock, Meckling went to the lounge to radio for help. "This is William Charley calling Norfolk—this is a mayday message." Two men on the ship-to-ship channel seemed to hear him, but they couldn't make out his words through the static.
Meckling gave the radio to Charles Greenwald, an electronics engineer, and told him to keep trying. Greenwald and Perry Schwartz, another electronics expert, tinkered with the radio and decided it was broken.
Over the next hour, more water settled into the bow of the boat. The men manning the pumps in the dining room were almost waist-deep in it.
On deck, Meckling could see that his ship was laboring to stay afloat. Like a dolphin, the bow would go under a wave, stay submerged for several more waves, then surface again.
Around 2 o'clock, the captain decided to abandon ship. Suitcases floated in the corridor. Water in the dining room topped the table's edge, and a heavy icebox was loose. "I guess we have to go," Meckling told the men on the pump. "Come on."
Assembling everyone in the lounge, the captain explained that they would jump from the ship's stern. They would stay together, he said. "Nobody's going to be lost."
Nancy Madden, an advertising copywriter from DC, went to her cabin to get her hat—a yellow southwester, the better to be seen in the water, she figured. Another passenger, the wife of a physician and a veteran of Red Cross relief work, told everyone to shed their shoes, bulky clothes, and raincoats. She cut off her husband's trousers at the knee.
The captain ordered Bert Roberts to string a rope through everyone's life jacket. The passengers lined the perimeter of the lounge, and the psychiatrist tied the rope first to the 35-year-old Madden. Then he slipped the line through the jacket loops of John Ferguson and his dad.
On deck, Steve Morton yelled down, "Hurry up."
John said to Madden, "Get going," and they started up the steps.
"Gi ve me an answer—and don't talk in circles." It was the third and last day of testimony. Coast Guard inquisitors asked Meckling to answer for his missteps: He had sailed without enough crew and ignored storm warnings, they charged. His boat was decaying, and he was such a sloppy captain that he didn't even use a barometer.
Meckling refused to acknowledge any mistakes. These schooners didn't need a big crew, he said. "Two people have sailed these ships since they were built," he said.
Earlier, the head of the Baltimore weather bureau had testified that at the height of the Marvel's danger, the eye of the hurricane was hundreds of miles to the south. The boat had faced the storm's advance winds, which gusted to only 60 miles per hour—about what'd you expect from a summer squall, he said.
Meckling, not the storm, the officers suggested, was to blame for the wreck.
The wave that dealt the knockout blow to the Marvel hit about the time John Ferguson was leaving the lounge. The anchors apparently dragged free, and the boat swung broadside to the seas. She lurched first to port, then rolled to starboard, and lay on her side, unable to right herself.
As John Ferguson came out of the lounge at the stern, he looked down the length of the ship to the bow. The deck slanted to starboard; the port rails were high in the air. The masts pointed at an angle over the sea.
Without warning the ship slid out from under him, and he plunged into the water. When he surfaced, he grabbed a metal hook on the port side where the skiff usually rested. The line through his life jacket was tangled around him and pulling him under. Then, almost magically, he was clear of the line; his father must have freed it, he thought.
He could see Meckling in the water holding Nancy Madden. His father clung to the ship, but something was wrong. He didn't respond to John's calls. Then a wave washed over. John hung on, but his father was gone.
The waves seemed enormous. Each time one approached, John turned away, too frightened to look. Frances Roberts, who was nearby, comforted him: "Don't worry, John, it'll be all right." Then she, too, disappeared.
As the boat broke apart, the passengers became separated. After one wave, John saw Debbie Killip only a few feet away. The top of the deckhouse floated behind her. "Debbie," he yelled, "swim to that." She didn't answer. When he surfaced after the next wave, she was gone, but the deckhouse was next to him.
John climbed onto it and held on to the hatch. For the next hour, he grabbed wreckage and stuffed it under the roof to make it buoyant—pillows, suitcases, wood, books.
Waves twice tossed him from his makeshift raft. Once, as he swam back to it, he saw a cluster of bodies, maybe five. Later, nine-year-old Hilary Nevin, daughter of the Brooklyn dentist, floated by. He grabbed her, but she was dead.
Meckling had been standing on the deck at the top of the lounge stairs when the boat capsized. Washed into the sea, he came to the surface under a sail, his life jacket trapping him against the canvas. He clawed his way to the edge and gasped for air.
Meckling could see people on the Marvel's port side; others were swimming away from the boat. A woman in front of him struggled to stay above water. He grabbed her hair and pulled her head up. It was Nancy Madden, the copywriter from DC. He pulled her to the boat's stern, then paddled out to find others. One woman floated by, her head nearly submerged. He grabbed her by the life jacket and took her to Madden.
In a few minutes he had collected Madden, Frances Roberts, and Meryle Hutchinson, a nurse from New York. A wave washed Steve Morton by, and Roberts pulled him in.
The five were hanging on to the port side when a wave tore them from the boat, churning them end over end in the water. Again Meckling collected them into a tight circle, stretching his arms through the life jacket loops of two of them and gripping the other two with his hands.
Together they fought the waves. Meckling set the pace for breathing. As a wave neared, he yelled, "Hold it." As soon as he surfaced again, he ordered, "Breathe."
They held on for hours. The wind and tide seemed to be carrying them south, parallel to the shore. Frances Roberts had studied maps before the trip and knew the contour of the land. They were going to be swept past Herring Bay's southern point of land and into the Chesapeake.
One day during the trip, she had sat on deck reading a New Yorker story by Doris Lessing about an English boy vacationing on the Mediterranean. One day he watched boys from a nearby town dive off cliffs into a bay and swim through an underwater tunnel. Teased by the boys, he tried to repeat their feat and nearly drowned. "He felt like he was dying… . An immense swelling pain filled his head, and then the darkness cracked with an explosion of green light."
Frances had been in the lounge when the wave hit. Water had poured in as if the walls had burst. It was over her head almost instantly. She struggled to find a way out; just as she was about to give up, she kicked her feet and struck an opening.
She had not seen Bert since the ship capsized. Could both of them have been lucky enough to escape?
After John Ferguson was washed off the deckhouse a second time, he wedged himself into the companionway, his feet propped on the sill. The roof was so low in the water that waves rolled right over him.
He floated for hours. He thought he saw treetops, but the rain and fog closed in. The wind blew harder than ever.
Then he saw land. It looked like an island, and he worried that he would drift past it. But it was the shore, a few miles south of Fairhaven. The deckhouse scraped bottom, and he got out and walked toward the beach.
Two men met him. It was about 5:30. Half an hour earlier, Debbie Killip had been pulled from the water, having floated close to shore on a piece of the boat. Her rescuers had called the fire department, and the alarm had spread. Help was on the way.
Meckling's group caught glimpses of the shore. They spied houses on a point of land. But as they neared the point, the captain saw a breakwater throwing spray two or three stories high. Fearing they'd be pounded on the rocks, he steered them away from it.
Soon they saw in the distance something that looked like a tree house on stilts. It was a duck blind. Holding hands and paddling with their free arms, they swam toward it. As they drew near, a voice inside hailed them: Perry Schwartz, one of the electronics engineers, had found the blind a few minutes earlier.
A short wooden ladder extended from the blind to the water. But after almost four hours in the water, they were nearly too weak to climb. When Madden got on the ladder, a wave tossed her off. The captain swam after her, returned her to the ladder, and hoisted her up.
Inside the blind they wrapped themselves in insulation paper ripped from the walls. There was no roof. The heavy seas pounded the blind and shook its thin pilings.
Meckling and Morton lay on the floor exhausted; they had not slept in more than 24 hours. In the water they had battled cramps in their legs and arms.
The blind was several hundred yards from shore, and occasionally someone stood to look for help. For more than an hour, they saw only the headlights of a few cars. Then one of the women saw people on the beach. Schwartz grabbed Nancy Madden's yellow hat and waved.
After Debbie Killip's rescue, residents and emergency crews had gone to the beaches to look for survivors. Firemen from as far as Montgomery and Prince George's counties patrolled the shore. Coast Guard cutters searched the waters along with a Navy amphibious plane.
Two men on shore, Billy MacWilliams and George Kellam, decided they had to do save the people in the duck blind. They borrowed a 14-foot plywood boat with an outboard motor and, to the cheers of the 70 people now on shore, pushed into the surf.
MacWilliams, a 32-year-old volunteer fireman and Navy veteran, manned the outboard; Kellam, a 29-year-old construction worker and former Marine, bailed water as waves and spray filled the boat. They followed a zigzag course to dodge the waves.
At the blind, Kellam, a big man at more than six feet and 200 pounds, grabbed a piling with one hand and pulled Meryle Hutchinson into the boat with the other; Steve Morton followed, and MacWilliams turned for shore. A few yards from the beach, people waded in to collect the two survivors.
MacWilliams made the trip to the blind twice more, getting Madden and Roberts next, then Schwartz and Meckling. The captain watched the tiny craft fighting the waves and thought it would be smashed. When it was his turn, he fell into the boat.
On shore, ambulance crews cut the life jackets from the survivors and wrapped them in blankets. Minutes after Meckling and Schwartz left the duck blind, it blew down.
In the record of its investigation, the Coast Guard noted the names, ages, and addresses of the 14 dead. Among them were the Brooklyn dentist and his wife and two children; the North Carolina physician and his wife, the Red Cross disaster-relief worker; and the head of the children's nonprofit.
John Ferguson and Frances Roberts were the only surviving passengers to lose family. John's father apparently was hit in the head by the ship's boom and drowned. John never saw him after the boat sank.
Stories after the wreck had Bert Roberts reaching shore, only to drown when he returned to the surf to rescue others. But the reports were never substantiated, and most evidence suggests that he drowned in the lounge. The medical examiner reported that he had a severe gash on his head.
Five months after the wreck, Alfred Richmond, commandant of the Coast Guard, declared Meckling at fault. Based on the hearing and investigation, he concluded that the disaster was due to the Marvel's "unseaworthiness coupled with poor judgment by the master." He asked the Justice Department to prosecute Meckling on criminal charges.
A grand jury returned a two-count indictment against the captain in February 1956. Prosecutors contended that his negligence and misconduct had endangered the lives of his passengers and caused their deaths. The second count was equivalent to manslaughter—the first time a ship captain had ever been prosecuted for such a crime. If convicted, Meckling faced up to 11 years in jail.
The trial opened April 18 in the Baltimore courtroom of Federal District Judge Dorsey Watkins. Meckling won a motion asking that Watkins hand down the verdict—press accounts from the Coast Guard hearing would prejudice a jury, his lawyers said.
During more than two weeks of testimony, prosecutors argued that Meckling sailed with an inadequate crew and ignored weather forecasts. Samuel Finkelstein and Elias Bartholow—witnesses from the Coast Guard hearing—testified again to the condition of the ship. In his closing argument, the lead prosecutor argued that the defendant had contradicted himself time and again: "The government submits that Captain Meckling in all probability lied to this court."
Meckling's lawyers answered the charges. A Brooklyn College professor who had sailed earlier with Meckling testified that the Marvel was shipshape and showed no sign of decay. When summer squalls brought heavy seas, she rolled easily in the waves, he said. The hull didn't even creak.
Nancy Madden testified to the skipper's courage and "superhuman strength." A surprise witness, a 21-year-old plumber's helper who lived near Herring Bay, said that he heard Meckling's mayday calls—contradicting the prosecution's claim that the radio was poorly maintained and didn't transmit.
Meckling's lawyers argued that weather reports before the wreck were confusing. The weather service had posted a warning throughout the week of a northeast storm with dangerous winds. But local forecasts on Thursday, when the Marvel left Cambridge, predicted winds in the upper bay of 15 to 30 miles an hour—perfect for sailing.
Watkins spent about two weeks reviewing testimony before issuing his verdict. It was not clear, he concluded, how water had poured into the Marvel; the government had not proved that the ship's hull was leaking.
Watkins appeared most influenced by the testimony of Richmond, the commandant of the Coast Guard. Meckling's lawyers had seized upon comments he had made to a congressional hearing after the wreck. Even a boat with a powerful engine, he had suggested, might have sunk in that weather.
On the stand in Watkins's courtroom, Richmond confirmed that statement, saying, "It is entirely possible that the most seaworthy vessel would have foundered."
In his verdict, Watkins ruled that Meckling was guilty of negligence that put his passengers in harm's way. He should have sailed with a bigger crew, the judge said, and he failed to recognize signs of danger early enough.
But he acquitted the captain of manslaughter. He could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Meckling's negligence had caused the deaths of his passengers.
Watkins gave the captain a year's suspended sentence and a year's probation. Meckling, the judge wrote, was penniless—he had no insurance on the boat—and had already been punished severely. "A person would have to be devoid of normal feelings and sensibilities not to have suffered" from the experience and the deaths of people entrusted to his care, the judge said. "I think he has really suffered.
No one calls him Captain John anymore. He lives on a farm near the Louisiana town of Bogalusa, about 70 miles north of New Orleans. As is customary in Southern towns, everyone calls him Mr. John.
He's in his eighties. Old age long ago bent his tall, lean body. He's had several bypass surgeries—enough to make him cut back on the Pall Mall cigarettes he smokes—but his blue eyes still sparkle.
He arrived in Louisiana more than 30 years ago. After the trial, he had left Annapolis. Everywhere he went in town, people seemed to be whispering. He and his wife divorced; he asked her not to tell anyone his whereabouts.
He found work with a defense contractor in Baltimore helping to design a "Red October" silent-propulsion submarine engine using magnets that induced motion in fluid. The project didn't pan out, but it led him to design and patent other uses for magnets. A job with a New Orleans chemical company that wanted to use magnets to distill water led him to start his own company. Today he runs the business from a converted car dealership. He has customers in dozens of countries. Years ago he remarried, and his wife, Helga, helps run the company.
His memory of the wreck differs in places from the record. He swears that when the ship capsized, all the portholes were closed and all the passengers were on deck. The Coast Guard, he contends, made him a scapegoat.
"I want to say one thing for the record," he says. "I was a damn good captain."
For years after the wreck, he had nightmares. Some replayed the cruise and the wreck. In others, there was just the sound of water and wind bearing down on him like a train.
At times he dreamed he was fighting for his life. Helga had to sleep in another bed; they feared he might hurt her in his sleep.
After his most recent bypass surgery, the dreams faded. Enough time had passed, he says, that he could find some peace.
Not long ago, he went to see a friend who is warden of a nearby prison. Inmates there paint as part of their rehabilitation. He gave the warden a photograph of the Marvel. "See if you can't find someone who'll paint this for me," he said.
The painting hangs framed in his office, the room's most prominent decoration. He looks at it from his desk. It's a side view of the Marvel, the reflection of her hull shimmering on calm water, sails full, the sky Caribbean blue.
More than a dozen passengers stand by the gunwales. They're dressed in the cheery colors that children favor—yellow, blue, red. Their faces are featureless dabs of white paint, but they seem happy. Each looks out from the painting and lifts a hand to wave, a salute to the captain.
more from Washingtonian
- Most Read in Articles
- From the Magazine
- Dining Out
- More from Articles