`Houdini' raised from waters of Spa Creek

Sailboat hit seawall, sank during Isabel last year


August 31, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

A ghostly sight hung over the Annapolis harbor yesterday.

About 10 a.m. - against a backdrop of bulging gray storm clouds - a tall yellow crane lifted the hull of a sunken ship from Spa Creek near the Naval Academy's USS Maine Memorial.

Using four cables attached to a nylon sling, the crane tugged cautiously at the sea-worn sailboat Houdini, which had smashed into the academy's seawall during Tropical Storm Isabel almost a year ago and has remained an eyesore and a safety hazard.

What emerged - inch by inch - looked more like a specter than a sunken sailboat.

Covered from bow to stern with brown and green slime, the boat's 43-foot fiberglass body surfaced intact except for the starboard side, which the water had broken open.

Suspended on its side in the air, the 22,000-pound Houdini - with cables and sailcloth hanging off its deck - dripped like a wet towel.

"It's pretty ugly-looking," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, one of at least 30 onlookers, some of them watching from boats moored in the harbor.

The removal, led by a crew of more than 40 from the U.S. Naval Station, Annapolis, was engineered by Greg Barnhill, a Baltimore County resident who spotted the unsightly wreck while sailing with friends.

Barnhill, chairman of Ocean Race Chesapeake, host of the 2006 Volvo Ocean Race to Annapolis, brought to an end a nearly yearlong standoff between the boat's owner, Bruce Ekstrand, and officials with the city, state and Naval Academy over responsibility for removing the Houdini.

Barnhill - a partner in Brown Advisory, a Baltimore investment management firm - offered to foot the bill for disposal of the ship and to auction off its parts to raise money for the nonprofit organizations Ocean Race Chesapeake, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

He also persuaded Ekstrand - who could not afford to remove the sunken boat - to sign over the Houdini's title, granting Barnhill the right to lift it. The Naval Academy's Public Works Department paid for the $10,500 removal by crane.

Because he was visiting New York for the Republican National Convention yesterday, Barnhill could not be present for the Houdini's removal. Instead, two friends on the board of Ocean Race Chesapeake - Stuart Amos and Lee Tawney - gave Barnhill a play-by-play account of the removal by cell phone.

Headed by Brian McCormack, commanding officer of Naval Station, Annapolis, the operation began at 6 a.m., when several work crews arrived at the seawall. In addition to naval station divers, who made a dozen trips to explore the Houdini last week, the removal force included a security boat, a huge flatbed truck and a team of hazardous-waste managers who cordoned off the wreck area with orange floats to contain any fuel leaks.

By 10 a.m., a diver had attached the crane's rig to the sling under the wreck, at which point the crane operator began to tug slowly. McCormack said the lifting had to be done gradually to prevent breaking the boat, which was filled with about 54,000 pounds of water.

When its deck appeared above the surface, the Houdini began to drain from the gaping hole in its side. Occasionally, personal objects, including a blue and white cooler and a sopping pillow, fell out.

Although the boat emerged in one piece, not everything went as planned. Because of the damage to its starboard side, the Houdini could not be transported on the flatbed truck. Instead, a naval station barge carried the wreck to the station, where it will remain until Barnhill examines it.

At the sight of the ship, some onlookers - including the mayor - expressed doubts about the potential of the Houdini's remains.

"It will take a lot of magic to do something respectable with it," Moyer said. "So, we're just going to have to be creative."

Barnhill said that no matter how battered the Houdini is, he will proceed with plans to save items including the cleats and parts of the boom and stern.

"After spending months in brackish water, I think we'd all look that way," Barnhill said of the Houdini's appearance. "The intention is still to salvage parts for the auction." The auction will be held by the end of next month, , he said.

Barnhill said the removal took place at just the right time. "I think if it had sat there for another three, four or five months, it could have broken down even further," he said. "So I'm ecstatic."

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