Ship was a tragedy waiting to happen

WAY BACK WHEN

An inexperienced captain and an unseaworthy vessel

April 24, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As another hurricane season commences, old-timers may recall a 1955 storm that produced high tides and rough seas on the Chesapeake Bay and resulted in the loss of the Levin J. Marvel, a 64-year-old, three-masted ram schooner under the command of an inexperienced captain.

Fourteen passengers and crew perished in the turbulent waters off Holland Point near the Calvert County village of Fairhaven. The loss of the 125-foot Levin J. Marvel remains one of the worst maritime calamities in the history of Tidewater Maryland.

The Marvel was designed by J.M.C. Moore and was built in 1891 at Broad Creek in Bethel, Del.

Robert Burgess, noted Chesapeake Bay historian and writer, called as "homely a vessel as ever cleaved the waters of the Bay. Her cumbersome hull resembled a canal barge."

The Marvel spent the next five decades sailing in the lumber, fertilizer and coal trade, traveling to Virginia and the Carolinas picking up cargo for delivery to Baltimore and Philadelphia.

As their cargoes were diverted to faster trains and trucks, the old vessels wound up in the backwaters of harbors awaiting better days that rarely came.

In 1944, Herman Knust, a former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad executive, purchased the Marvel for $18,000 for his Chesapeake Bay Vacation Cruises and converted her to passenger service.

In the vessel's hold where once fragrant Carolina pine had been stacked along with bags of fertilizer, 17 staterooms with bunk beds were installed with running water, electric lights and flush toilets. A dining saloon was built in the bow while a lounge occupied the aft end.

Knust targeted the kind of people who went to dude ranches to experience the life of a cowboy. While aboard this "dude cruise," passengers helped sail the vessel.

In 1954, John Meckling, an Indiana accountant who had served in the Coast Guard as a ship fireman during World War II, purchased the out-of-service Marvel from Knust for $7,500.

He put the vessel into the Booz Brothers Key Highway shipyard to fix leaky seams, rotted floors and peeling paint.

Later, at the Coast Guard inquiry after the sinking, Elias Bartholow, owner of Booz Brothers, would testify that the repairs were "temporary" and the vessel was "unseaworthy."

On Monday, Aug. 8, 1955, the Marvel left Annapolis with four crew members and 23 passengers happily anticipating a weeklong bay journey.

Meanwhile, some 500 miles east of Palm Beach, Fla., Hurricane Connie was charging up the East Coast. By Friday morning, the storm's northeast winds of 25 to 40 mph were shredding the Marvel's rotten foresail.

What passengers didn't know was that Meckling had little experience in either seamanship or navigation.

The Marvel was entering her death throes as Meckling desperately tried to find a haven to ride out the storm. He believed Holland Bay offered the best hope.

But 10- to 15-foot seas began washing over the vessel. The Marvel's anchor was ripped from the bottom, and the vessel was exposed to broadside winds. As pumps furiously tried to keep up with torrents of water flooding the vessel, passengers and crew standing in waist-deep water tried to plug leaks.

Finally, Meckling ordered all passengers into lifejackets and roped them together. At 2:30 p.m., the vessel finally rolled over onto her side and capsized, spilling passengers and crew into the tempestuous sea.

Some reached the shore on their own or floated on wreckage. Meckling managed to get several survivors to a duck blind where they were later rescued.

Citing the Marvel's "unseaworthiness coupled with poor judgment by the master," the Coast Guard inquiry concluded that Meckling was at fault.

The loss of the Marvel resulted in a change in Coast Guard regulations regarding passenger-carrying vessels.

At the time of the accident, the law regulating sailing vessels applied only to craft weighing more than 700 tons. The ill-fated Marvel - operating as an "uninspected sailing vessel" - weighed 183 tons.

The following year, though, Congress passed a law giving the Coast Guard authority to regularly inspect all commercial vessels carrying more than six passengers.

On April 18, 1956, at the Federal Courthouse in Baltimore, Mecklin stood trial on a two-count indictment that charged him with negligence and manslaughter, which carried an 11-year prison term.

While finding Meckling guilty of negligence and exposing his passengers to danger, Judge Dorsey Watkins acquitted him of manslaughter. He was given a year's suspended sentence and a year's probation.

"A person would have to be devoid of normal feelings and sensibilities not to have suffered. I think he has really suffered," said Watkins.

Meckling later moved from Annapolis to Bogalusa, La., where he owns and operates a distilled-water business.

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