Barcarole cruises south for winter

The Chesapeake Bay boat's voyage from Nantucket to Maryland is the 'roughest passage' for the captain and his crew of two.

October 10, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen

Capt. Ellery B. Woodworth had just recalled an old Navy line when he heard the cabin cruiser Katie Marie radio a distress call to the Coast Guard.

His boat, Barcarole, a 30-foot rolling, pitching beauty of an old wooden boat built for the Chesapeake Bay, was headed due west in 45 miles of choppy Atlantic Ocean swells from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to Block Island, R.I., before eventually sailing to Maryland.

Woodworth's yarn, one of many flowing from his life in universities, politics, choral music and at sea, was the Navy order to new ship commanders: "Take her out, and bring her back, and don't hit anything."

But it was time to get serious. The engine of the modern power cruiser Katie Marie had stopped a half-mile from Block Island, out to sea from its home state, Rhode Island. The operator had dropped anchor. He, his wife and their two children, from Providence, were aboard. They needed help. Woodworth and his two crewmen scanned the swelling seas ahead.

"This is the Motor Vessel Barcarole," Woodworth said over the radio in a mellow bass-baritone voice that sings each summer at the Berkshire Choral Festival. "We think we have sighted the Katie Marie and are proceeding to offer assistance. We are a crew of three on a course of 275 degrees."

Within minutes in 3-and 4-foot waves at flank speed of 10 mph, we threw a line to the disabled boat. After an hour of strained pulling in crashing seas, the boats reached the safety of Old Harbor on Block Island. The grateful captain and family thanked us.

Like some other sailors of larger, newer craft -- power or sail -- costing either side of $1 million -- they admired the almost 19th-century lines and look of the 54-year-old cabin cruiser which cost a few thousand dollars when new.

"She just runs and runs and runs," said Woodworth of Stevenson, who was guiding its fourth round trip between Maryland and Nantucket where he summers after having grown up in Cambridge, Mass.

During the 11-day passage, tying up in ports with the crew sleeping on board most nights, Barcarole cruised south for the winter with solitary monarch butterflies and changing skies.

One sunny day, it sailed on a glassy sea. On rainy days, the bridge windshield wiper worked furiously. On windy days, waves splashed over the bow. The boat cruised in empty waters but also past scores of buoys, lobster pots, lighthouses, dunnage, logs, ferries, fishermen, steamers, yachts, outboards, dredging boats, bridges and Navy ships, but disappointingly, no submarines out of New London, Conn.

"It's a great adventure in scenery, but this was my roughest passage yet," said Woodworth. Yet, despite his two new crew members who took turns navigating, steering and looking out for trouble, no one got seasick, fell overboard, jumped ship, mutinied or even argued. The old sea dog's motto -- "Floggings will continue until morale improves" -- was unneeded.

The boat surfed down Atlantic swells from Hurricane Floyd, navigated a tricky current/tide channel at Watch Hill Light, R.I., into Mystic, Conn., cruised along choppy Long Island Sound, tied up opposite Hart Island, New York's Potter's Field graveyard of 750,000 dead that no one visits, passed through treacherous Hell Gate on the East River between Manhattan and Queens, N.Y., was turned back by head winds at Sandy Hook, N.J., left off his two crewmen at Forked River, N.J., for commitments at work and a grandson's birthday party, and sailed home alone into Delaware Bay, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and up the North East River to the Bay Boat Works for wintering in North East.

"Stay your course," Woodworth told the helmsman at the start, one of many bits of advice evenly offered. "The faster boats usually change theirs." He also advised: "We may miss a few buoys, but never dinner."

Ernie was going home after 58 years. He took the helm before passing beneath the Whitestone Bridge linking Queens and the Bronx, N.Y. As College Point emerged off the port bow, he blew the Barcarole's horn a long blast and tipped his cap. He had began life there with his parents who had immigrated from Germany.

Woodworth is a cautious but self-confident mariner who prefers calm waters, sticking near land and yielding to others in questionable approaches when having the right of way. The waters were quieter the last leg of the trip.

"It was beautiful going home," he said.

Now retired, the captain earned a bachelor's degree in government in 1954 and a master's degree in education in 1960, both from Harvard University. He was special assistant to five presidents of the Johns Hopkins University, a legislative aide to former U.S. Sen. Daniel Brewster, unsuccessful candidate for Maryland delegate in 1990 and a captain in the Naval Reserve, which he served 30 years.

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