In 1947, before Bernie Webber made the heroic rescue portrayed in the movie “The Finest Hours,” he was assistant keeper of the Gay Head Light, and in a memoir written many years later, he recounts those early years.
In our third installment, Bernie recalls climbing inside the giant Fresnel lens at the lighthouse to keep warm on cold winter nights, a scary encounter on a dark moonless night and being accepted by the “head keep’s” family. In this installment Bernie gets the call to help a fishing boat capsized off Nomans Land.
Although I was the assistant keeper at Gay Head Light, I was, after all, a Coast Guardsman living at the Coast Guard station. Thus, in addition to my lighthouse work I had responsibilities at the lifeboat station where I was required to help the crew with cleaning and maintenance. Occasionally I was called up to go out in one of the station’s boats on a rescue call.
I remember a Navy plane that crashed on Nomans Land island, a fishing vessel that ran aground at Tarpaulin Cove, and from time to time there were disabled vessels that needed to be towed to safety. The one case I remember best was that of the swordfishing vessel Smylyn.
It happened on a beautiful August day, clear, with warm bright sunshine. The offshore waters were smooth on top with a long rolling swell. Three local fishing boats were in the area, the “high-liner” Bozo crewed by Gay Head Indians, and (if memory serves me correctly) the Larsons on their Christine and Dan, and a much smaller boat named Smylyn that was new to the area.
On board each vessel some men stood on deck while others were perched high up in the masts standing on the yardarms within hoops that held them as the boats pitched and rolled in the sea swell, all eyes searching for sight or sign of the elusive swordfish.
The Bozo and Christine and Dan were large vessels and men high up in their masts were not a cause for concern about capsizing the vessel. On smaller boats it’s a much different situation; too much weight high up in the mast can cause a vessel to capsize. Such was the case with Smylyn.
The Gay Head lifeboat station was informed by the Bozo that the Smylyn had capsized in the waters between Gay Head and Nomans Land; a 36-foot motor lifeboat was dispatched from the Menemsha Creek boathouse, and I was on board.
When we arrived at the scene, the Smylyn was “bottoms up” and heaving around in the ocean swell. There was no sign of life, Bozo had been searching the area in vain since first observing the little vessel capsize.
The lifeboat coxswain ordered me to take a rope and dive in under the capsized Smylyn. Once there I was to make the rope fast to the bow so it could be towed. I dove in and I went down under the Smylyn where I was both surprised and shocked by what I saw.
Below I found two men floating, trapped in the mast upside down in a tangle of ropes and nets with eyes and mouths open and their arms spread, and they seemed to be waving at me as if asking for my help. I was already too late and feeling shaken, I rapidly secured the line then headed back up to the surface.
Upside down, the Smylyn was towed back to Menemsha Creek by the lifeboat. Once there, the bodies, still intact, were untangled and removed. The little vessel, once flipped over and rebuilt, lived on to fish yet another day.