THE ALMOST WRECK OF THE OLD HORSE EYE
by Dave Gale
Originally published in Southern Boating Magazine
The wind was nor’east at 20 knots and gusting to 30 with low scudding clouds and an occasional driving rain squall -- a nasty winter weather pattern known to Bahamians as a “spittin’ nor’easter.” It was not the time to cross the Gulfstream to the Bahamas from the Florida coast in our old 95-foot Grand Banks-type schooner converted to island freight boat.
To an old sailor’s eye, her hull was a rough copy of the famous Nova Scotia schooner Bluenose and was probably built around 1925, and in fact she’d seen her days sailing the banks as a fishing schooner, smelling of codfish, salt and mildewed canvas. In her younger days she heeled to the strain of wet canvas and heard the groan of manila lines creaking through her blocks, while the soft rush of her bow wave diminished as it worked aft along her hull. The moaning wind in her rigging brought the smell of hemp and tar to the nose of her helmsman who, standing at her wheel down aft exposed to the elements, would turn her wheel a spoke or two to ease her over the long North Atlantic swells.
In 1956 she was leading an equally hard life as an inter-island freighter, smelling of old wood, flaky paint, and diesel fuel. Her helmsman turned her wheel in the protection of a pilothouse, perched tugboat style, at her bow. She rolled, but she didn’t heel. Her helmsman could not hear her bow wave because of the insistent diesel engine that plunged her headlong into each wave without a care for easing her over it, and its throb was felt as well as heard throughout her hull. The vibrations worked their way up through the helmsman’s feet and occasionally set a wheelhouse window to sympathetic rattling. She had a Jimmy 6-71 engine and box-like cabins built all over her, except amidships over the hatch of her main hold.
She had the curious name of Old Horse Eye, and as a Bahamian boat, it was easy to assume she’d been named for the Horse Eye Jack. The prolific Jack family of fishes include Passing Jack, Blue Runner, Goggle-eye, Jack Crevalle, Amberjack, and others. But I had the feeling that she wasn’t named after a fish at all, for Bahamians don’t refer to a fish as “old” or “young.” They’re large or small and sometimes fat, but never old or young. That may have been her name before her Bahama life, and it may have referred to the eye of some old horse. It’s beyond me. She was owned by our friend Captain Percy Sweeting from Harbour Island, Eleuthera, who had a charter with a hardware and lumber company to carry freight from Miami to Nassau.
For four days we’d been on the Miami waterfront tied to the old Albury docks, which barely supported a bunch of dilapidated warehouses flanked by rusting railroad tracks. The wind whistled around the delivery trucks, which had parked crosswise between the dirty railroad freight cars while they discharged their cargo into the seemingly un-fillable hold of Old Horse Eye. Since she had no crane aboard, everything was handled one piece at a time: out of the truck, over the dock edge, across the deck, and down into the hold. Gradually she settled deeper and deeper into the water, and then seemed to settle no more, despite the hundreds of bags of cement being loaded aboard. What an amazing old vessel. How could she hold so much freight? Then someone noticed that although the tide was coming up, Old Horse Eye wasn’t! She was sitting on the bottom, held fast by too many tons of cement. In a panic, we off-loaded cement until she floated once more. Then we took on some lighter freight before closing and battening down her hatches. I thought that was the end of the loading process and we would now await better weather. How wrong I was.
When I returned from shopping ashore, I found she had a big, black Buick tied down across her main hatch. “Now, she’s fully loaded,” I said to myself. But I didn’t fully understand the Bahamian expression “as full as she can hold,” nor his ingenuity at utilizing every square inch of space aboard.
We then took on lumber and LP gas cylinders along her side decks up to the level of the Dutch doors leading into the cabins and galley. To get to my cabin I had to crouch-walk on top of the deck cargo to keep from hitting my head on the beams of the deck above, and I could only open the top half of my cabin door. No big deal, except we’d lost sight of her waterline long before. Forget the Plimsoll mark; she never had one anyway.
After a Bahamian mailboat supper of pork chops, peas ‘n rice, and coleslaw, we turned in for the night knowing that, although we were ready for sea, with this much wind we wouldn’t be going anywhere that night. We awoke about four AM to the smooth, no-monkey-business growl of her Jimmy, idling, just waiting for its call to serious power, the pungent smell of diesel exhaust in our nostrils. “Percy, surely you’re not going to sail for Nassau with this much wind up?” I asked.
“We’ll be okay. She’s a good sea boat and John wants this freight now!” he replied.
I said to myself, “Okay, Captain Percy, if that’s your decision, let’s get going.”
We had what looked like a hundred cases of paint stacked all around the engine room, leaving precious little space for Brill, our engineer, to maneuver. The engine’s gearbox had a big lever for forward, neutral, and reverse, and a smaller lever for the throttle. Brill received his engine orders by bell signals delivered by pulling on a thin rope in the wheelhouse which rang a bell in the engine room. There were various combinations of bells for forward and reverse, with corresponding bells for speed changes and another bell signal for neutral.
I was broke and had no other way to get back home, nor money to stay in Miami, which had something to do with my sailing with Old Horse Eye that morning. I wasn’t looking forward to the trip. It was still dark as we proceeded past the Quarantine Station in Miami’s Government Cut, and even before we came abreast of the outer end of the breakwater, Old Horse Eye put her bow under, taking green water on deck, and on Buick. That shook us up a bit, but we figured there was a short chop in the cut because of the outgoing tide and the incoming seas, and it would be better further east where the seas would be farther apart. Wishful thinking. We kept taking bigger seas on deck, and I was thinking maybe we’d made a mistake. Other sailors out there thought so too, because a friend of Percy’s in a boat twice as big as ours called on the ship-to-shore radio and said, “Lord, Poicy, toin back, Mahn! It’s terrible out here! ‘Tink of your wife and kids, Mahn! Do, Poicy, toin back and wait for weather!”
That was the extra nudge that Percy needed to turn her southwest away from the seas, and thence northwest, whereupon we nearly rolled over in the trough before we got back into Government Cut. We came into the Cut from the south just barely ahead of a larger vessel which had turned in from the north and like us, was hell bent to get inside. Percy had the right of way over the vessel astern, and he knew he should be on the right-hand (north) side of the channel. However, she was so close astern that he was afraid he might cause a collision if he tried to cut across her bow. He rang Brill for more speed, but the Jimmy didn’t have any more and the vessel not-quite-astern didn’t slacken her speed enough for us to cross her bow to get where we belonged. At least we weren’t plunging our bow under water anymore, which was a relief. We were considering what to do next when we saw red and green running lights ahead -- BIG, BRIGHT, HIGH-IN-THE-AIR, WIDE-SPREAD-APART, red and green running lights, coming right at us. The ship looked too big for the channel, but she was in it and she had it all. I didn’t see room enough for us between her and the rock breakwater to the south, and there wasn’t time to get to the north of her. Percy could only say, “Humbug! Humbug! I’m a ruined man!” If we were to avoid death by drowning, we would have to come up with stronger language than that, and possibly something stronger did escape over my dry tongue.
Percy, who’d gone to sea most of his life, spoke the colorful English unique to the Bahamas. “Humbug” to him was “trouble and worry.” He was generous, religious, seldom used foul language, and never the Lord’s name in vain.
We all knew that to pass very close along the ship’s side would be suicide. She was moving fast, and we’d have been sucked against her by the trough behind her bow wave and crunched to splinters. So Percy made a tough choice; he put her wheel hard down and headed straight for the rocks right next to the Quarantine Station. We rammed aground with an awful crunch and a lurch, then lay right over on her beam ends. We all scrambled to stand on the side of the wheelhouse as we watched the big ship slide by in the pre-dawn light. Then came the bow wave of the ship. First it crashed over the Buick’s grill and hood and all along our side deck, then it swooshed away and left us looking at seaweed-covered boulders in shallow water along our side. When a lesser wave washed over the Buick again, we realized that although we might be wrecked, we couldn’t sink. Our bow was right out of water close to the breakwater, and we were heeled over at a pretty bad angle. I crawled my way down stern to the engine room hatch to see how Brill was faring. He was clinging to the shift handle, which was bent like a corkscrew, amidst a jumble of paint cases all over the engine. He was waiting for the next bell from Captain Percy and wondering what the hell had happened on deck and where we were. He must have danced the engine room quick-step to keep from being buried under all that paint. Percy signaled Brill for full astern, but Old Horse Eye didn’t budge.
Next Percy called the U.S. Coast Guard on the ship-to-shore radio. When he gave them the name of the vessel they couldn’t believe their ears, so they asked him to spell it for them, and to describe his vessel and its location -- standard procedure. Captain Percy didn’t feel like spelling Old Horse Eye right then, but he was willing to describe his vessel’s predicament by shouting, “It’s the only damn vessel that’s wrecked at the front door of the Quarantine Station.” Fair enough. The Coast Guard should find us easily with that colorful description. They responded by sending a picket boat. It pulled with all its might, with us in full throttle astern, but Old Horse Eye didn’t budge.
Someone called for a tug, and when she arrived we made her hawser fast to Old Horse Eye’s big aft cleats. She tugged away, but Old Horse Eye still didn’t budge. In the heat of the moment, Percy didn’t see that a second tug had gotten in line with and in front of tug number one, but I didn’t know that Percy didn’t know. I had fastened the first tug’s heavy hawser around an 18” cleat, then over to a similar one on the other quarter, and then around a 10” x 10” wooden quarterbit. Unbelievably, the two tugs let slack go in the line and then charged ahead. That ought to pull her off, I thought. I was partly right. Off came the cleats and the quarterbit, the taffrail, some of the after-deck and the whole damn transom. I leaned over the ragged deck plank ends to see if water was going in, but all I saw was Brill clutching the crooked shift handle, his eyes as big as saucers. His engine room wasn’t a dark hole anymore. The morning light glimmered on Brill, his engine and his cases of paint. Because the stern had a long overhanging counter, the gaping hole was well above our waterline, and no seawater was rushing in at Brill. Percy was saying rude things about tug number two and slack hawsers. The recently lettered nameboard and Old Horse Eye’s transom was last seen floating out Government Cut with the ebbing tide, complete with taffrail, after-deck and cleats. We still had the bow to pull on, but if that ripped off, we could be in trouble. One tug at a time would be prudent; also no slack, just a steady pull. One tug finally wrenched Old Horse Eye around by the bow, which I thought might break her in half. However, the old girl wasn’t going to give any more of her parts to the tug, for she came off the rocks and floated all by herself. The tug crew thought we were sinking, but we assured them that she always floated like that when loaded.
Presently a dull orange sun-ball nipped through the widening slot between the horizon and the hard gray cloud edge, assuring us that the nor’easter would soon abate. We chugged along under our own power back to our berth at the Albury docks, while Brill eyed his new Biscayne Bay window view of everything astern, and the water-danced reflections of the morning sunlight filtered through the jumbled cases of paint into his hitherto sunless and shadowy engine room.
Lumber, caulking, and Bahamian resourcefulness built us a new transom and, though it spoiled Brill’s view, it did follow us across the Gulf Stream in the better weather. I don’t recall that part of the voyage, so it must have been either a piece of cake, or an old horse’s eye.