Illuminated by a full moon, the schooner Hindu looked every bit the grand historical vessel designed in Maine in 1925 and christened the "Princess Pat," only to embark upon a world-wide storied career that included importing spices from India (hence the name change) and, bedecked with a machine gun, searching for U-Boats in the 1940s. Its sleek, 79-foot length and nearly 70-foot tall masts evoked all of the exotic romanticism of life on the high seas.
Thus it was with genuine pleasure that last Sunday I embarked upon an assignment to join her captain, crew and guests in the 28th Annual Wreckers' Race sponsored by the Schooner Wharf Bar. The wind had been up for days and the idea of rockin' and rollin'out to the reef got all kinds of juices flowing.
The morning of the race was overcast and lacking the kind of snap, crackle and pop I'd been anticipating. Then, just as the appointed forming-up at noontime approached, the sky lightened, the breeze freshened and the guests and crew arrived. In no time, introductions were exchanged, the 20-odd guests were put aboard, safety instructions were announced and Geoff Kaufman, down from Provincetown, accompanying himself on concertina, began a medley of traditional sea shanties to help transport us back to an era when brave, enterprising souls patrolled the treacherous waters of the reef, awaiting cargo-laden European vessels that might fall prey to its hidden razor sharpness. According to John Viele in Volume 3 of "The Florida Keys," by the 1850s "ships were piling up on the reef at a rate of nearly one a week." Despite a late start from a too-distant starting point, the Hindu's captain and crew handled the wheel, lines and sails so adroitly that in a little over three quarters of an hour we were sounding the "finished" horn and congratulating ourselves for taking third place! It was great to be aboard for one more achievement in the Hindu's legendary list of accomplishments.
The return trip, like most return trips, began as a soirée of small talk, dinner plans or simply semi-dozing under the afternoon sun in time to the steady rocking of the sea. We were just off Fort Zach and heading in. Suddenly, the ship shuddered violently and a sonic boom and rapid popping sounds cracked overhead. In a split second, a huge tree trunk wrapped in sails and rigging was hurtling down directly toward where I was sitting. Before I could react, it crashed to the deck, pinning my right foot beneath it. Then I heard cries of "Man overboard!" and Capt. Josh Rowan's voice yelling precise orders to the spotters and to whoever was in charge of retrieving the ladder to put over the side. I was yelling that I was stuck. "Stuck" occasioned two unsettling thoughts -- I couldn't feel my foot and thought that it might be mashed and, since I had no idea of what exactly had happened, I didn't know whether or not there was a danger of sinking and I'd be inextricably attached to the boat if we were. I yelled for help.
It arrived instantly. I freed my foot, which happily was all there. The ship was in a tight turn to retrieve the person overboard and Josh was yelling for everyone to get to the stern. I wasn't moving too well so he literally grabbed me by my back waist and threw me where he wanted me to be. Everyone aboard acted in unison with no hint of panic. The person overboard was retrieved and was fine. I was pretty sure that my foot was not broken -- how? -- and the only other person who'd been injured lay under the boom when the mast fell on it and seemed to be in some pain but was fundamentally OK. Ice bags appeared for both of us. Josh was on the horn to the Coast Guard and threw the Hindu into overdrive to get us in ASAP. In no time at all, the Coast Guard came roaring up and boarded us to determine if there was an emergency. We satisfied them that we were OK to stay on the Hindu and, before I knew it, we were at the dock and being greeted by paramedics. By now I was sure that my foot did not need a trip to the hospital so I signed a waiver, kept icing my foot and asked for a beer. The person who'd been under the boom was taken away on a stretcher as a precautionary measure.
It was immediately agreed that the whole thing, all things considered, had been a miracle. I thanked everyone for their incredible professionalism and limped away.
The next day I visited with Josh to find out what had happened. Contrary to popular belief and rumor, the accident wasn't due to "punky wood" in the mast or "too much sail in high winds." What happened was that a small piece of steel called a tang that secured the sails and transferred stabilizing force had simply broken due to fatigue of some kind. This fitting, made in a foundry far away and a while ago, had succumbed to "abrupt plastic deformation," thereby nearly killing me.
Long ago on the handball courts of New York City, any time the ball hit a pebble or a crack or any other unexpected impediment, a player called a "Hindu!" and got a "do over." Not surprisingly, Josh Rowan, his father Bill, and the entire Hindu family's primary feeling about what happened is one of enormous relief that miraculously no one was seriously injured. There also doesn't seem to be any substantial damage to the hull or deck, so like an old New York City handballer, Josh is already making plans for a "do over," to build a new mast and continue the ship's journey through history.
I plan to be on her in next year's Wreckers' Cup Race, and next time, I expect to win.