`Houdini' wreck is set to vanish from the shores of Annapolis

Salvage team will remove remnant of Isabel's ire

August 14, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

The 43-foot mast juts out of the Annapolis waters: an eerie, unsightly reminder of the destruction wrought by Tropical Storm Isabel last fall.

By the end of the month, however, the remains of the sailboat Houdini might no longer haunt the city's shoreline.

During the week of Aug. 22, a volunteer salvage unit of the U.S. Navy is expected to arrive in Annapolis to lift the boat's wreckage from the waters of Spa Creek near the Naval Academy's USS Maine Memorial.

The removal follows a nearly yearlong standoff among the boat's owner, Bruce Ekstrand, and officials with the city, state and Naval Academy over responsibility for removing the vessel, which smashed into the seawall Sept. 18 during the storm.

Just when it seemed the Houdini would remain an eyesore on the Annapolis shoreline, sailing race organizer Greg Barnhill stepped in with an intriguing idea: Lift the sunken vessel from the water and auction off souvenirs from the wreckage to cover the costs. The various parties agreed.

"For a while, this was all about who had the authority over this ship," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "Then Greg Barnhill came up with a great idea. ... Now we're going to get rid of [the wreckage] and have a good time doing it."

If the proceeds from the auction do not cover the cost of removal, Barnhill -- a partner in Brown Advisory, a Baltimore-based investment management firm -- said he will foot the bill. If the proceeds exceed the cost of the task, Barnhill said, they will be split among three nonprofit organizations: Ocean Race Chesapeake, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

Barnhill, a Baltimore County resident who is chairman of Ocean Race Chesapeake, host of the 2006 Volvo Ocean Race to Annapolis, says he got the idea while sailing with friends this summer.

"I saw that the mast was sticking out, and it was at an angle that looked to me like a port hazard," Barnhill said. "I thought, `Wouldn't it be great if we got a group together and tried to salvage some of it?'"

Despite his lead role in the Houdini's long-overdue disappearing act, Barnhill deflects praise, instead crediting a "team effort."

"There are a lot of oars in the water making this happen," Barnhill said.

One of them is Cpl. Rick Kaufmann, head of the Annapolis division of the Department of Natural Resources, who called the Houdini a safety hazard and potential pollutant.

"The ship leans heavily to one side, and every time we have a major storm, it moves and breaks up a little more," Kaufmann said. "If it tilts any more, it will pose even more of a problem for the safety of the people in the harbor."

Annapolis Harbormaster Ric Dahlgren, who hears constant complaints about the wreck, said disposing of it is a community responsibility. "We'd all like to see it go," Dahlgren said.

Ekstrand can still recall when Isabel's high winds began to whip through the harbor where the Houdini was moored. In Annapolis, the storm sent waters surging over the seawall, flooding areas such as City Dock, knocking out power and forcing more than 300 people to evacuate.

"The wind and water got too rough and just dragged the ship into the seawall," said Ekstrand, who was sailing his other boat on the bay -- a 30-foot Catalina called Windscape -- when the storm hit.

About 30 minutes later, the Windscape also crashed into the seawall. Ekstrand, who lived on the two boats, leapt off the Windscape's deck and swam to safety.

In the wake of Isabel, Ekstrand removed the Windscape wreckage at a cost of $6,000. But the sailor could not raise the $10,000 he estimated he would need to remove and dispose of the Houdini. So when Barnhill approached him with a plan to lift the ship, Ekstrand agreed.

"I'm glad to hear it's being removed," Ekstrand said.

Although he has willingly signed over his sunken vessel and its parts, Ekstrand has one request: keeping the ship's 65-pound anchor as a souvenir.

"Most of the ship will be broken up," Ekstrand said. "But I'm pretty sure the anchor will be there."

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