Lynn Murphy, Chilmarker and Hurricane Carol hero, dies at 88

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Lynn Murphy stands atop his 1965 Dodge Power Wagon during efforts to salvage an overturned fishing vessel China Moon. – Susan Murphy

Longtime Chilmarker Lynn Murphy died at home on Thursday, Jan. 12. He was credited with being an inspiration for the Captain Quint character in the movie “Jaws,” and was considered “one of the last of a breed,” according to Menemsha friends and neighbors.

Hurricane Carol

In an MVTimes story published last June, Jack Shea wrote of Mr. Murphy’s heroism during Hurricane Carol, on August 31, 1954:

About midmorning on that day, Chilmarker Lynn Murphy noticed the tide was rising at an unusual rate. He went down to Dutcher Dock and ran into selectman and harbormaster Herbert Flanders, who was equally nonplussed, but asked if Mr. Murphy’s boat was running well. Given a positive reply by the 26-year-old coastal Maine native, Mr. Flanders presciently said, “Good. We may need some help later on today.”

Carol’s arrival was forecast too late for the Menemsha fleet to prepare, but Mr. Murphy, a taciturn Down Easter — ingenuous, often profane, and a fearless waterman — was ready to earn his place in the history etched into the waterfront memory of Chilmark. Mr. Murphy spent the day on the water in his 19-foot handbuilt skiff (without a reverse gear), ferrying people and their boats to safety.

His actions throughout that day would earn him the gratitude of the 57 people he reckoned he helped to safety as Hurricane Carol’s 96-mile-per-hour winds battered one of New England’s largest fishing and pleasure boat fleets. He was not the only one who helped that day, but his actions stood out so much that a group of boaters signed a letter published in the Vineyard Gazette just weeks later in which they called for official recognition of his bravery.

In the storm’s aftermath, a visiting boater from Winnetka, Ill., recommended Senator John F. Kennedy give serious consideration to proposing Mr. Murphy for the Congressional Gold Medal — and in a letter dated Oct. 8, 1954, Senator Kennedy applauded Mr. Murphy’s “selflessness and heroic and public-spirited actions during the hurricane.”

David Seward, now 68, grew up in Menemsha with his twin brother Douglas. Their parents ran the Menemsha store. “Fishing boats were docked three deep in the basin,” he told The Times. “Chilmark was fishing. Fishing was all we had.”

He said Carol’s fury was unforgettable. “I had never seen anything like it, and I haven’t since,” David Seward said.

The normally placid Menemsha Basin was hammered with waves — water rose six feet over the bulkhead — and Everett Poole’s fish house, now Menemsha Fish Market, floated away on an unexpected maiden voyage before Chilmarkers got a line on the building and pulled it ashore.

“You could see the storm surge coming cross the sound,” Mr. Seward said. “Then it hit.”

“Three large swordfishing boats were always moored at the front of the bulkhead because they had long bowsprits for the harpooners. The Aphrodite went to the bottom — the Aloysius and the Seer, owned by Harry Dellas Hess, made it through OK. But Seth Wakeman’s boat ended up sitting on top of a piling, and a schooner called the Riggadune was thrown up in the air and impaled on a piling with the stern up and the bowsprit stuck in the mud.”

“Lynn [Murphy] and Herb Flanders, who owned the Menemsha gas station on the dock, were out in the harbor in Lynn’s boat trying to save a catboat. They finally did, with the help of several others who jumped in and waded over the breakwater. Those hearty enough to watch from the shore weren’t sure the catboat rescue would be successful, as they couldn’t see how all of them could make it safely to shore. But they did. Just minutes later the storm surge covered Dutcher Dock and was rising halfway up the bulkhead.”

Mr. Murphy first visited Menemsha in 1948 aboard a dragger with his brother, Ernest Albion Murphy. The harbor reminded him of McKinley, Maine, and he decided to stay. He bought a fishing dragger that he fixed up, but locals soon learned he was a skilled mechanic. Before long he was repairing boat engines, not fishing.

About 10 years ago Mr. Murphy’s wife of 40 years, Sue, retired Chilmark postmaster, recorded Mr. Murphy speaking about Hurricane Carol. “He had so many wonderful stories about Chilmark. I thought it would be a sad thing to lose them,” Mrs. Murphy said.

In his distinctive Down East accent, Mr. Murphy recalled the day he went down to see why the tide was running so high and harbormaster Flanders asked him to be prepared to help.

“That was noontime, no wind, but the air felt funny, very still, and the tide was running like a full moon tide, coming right over the dock.

“Herb said, I’m going to need a hand around the dock. I got my boat, the Misfit, a 19-foot flat-bottomed skiff I built in Louis Larsen’s garage. Had no reverse. Didn’t look like anything, but I had used inch-and-a-half hard pine for planking, and she was rugged as hell.

“Herb asked me to get all the women and children off the boats [in the harbor]. I went to get a 60- to 70-foot sailboat, fella’s name was Alan something. Gave me a hard time, though he thanked me later. But Herb Flanders asked me to do it, and Herb Flanders was Chilmark. So that’s what I did. I told the Alan fella he could stay on board if he wanted to, but the women and children were coming with me, and I took them in and told them, Go to Herb Flanders’ house up the hill. Herb and his wife opened their house to everyone.”

“Really started to blow in mid-afternoon. Lots of boats tied up, it was a holiday. Like everybody, the Coast Guard had no idea what was going on, and they had tied up their boats, but they relaunched them to help out.”

After the boaters were safely off their boats, Mr. Murphy and other members of the tight-knit waterfront turned their attention to the boats that had pulled free of their moorings — some crashing into each other, others running up on the jetties.

“Some were loose, others tangled in moorings. We’d cut ’em loose and swing around to get a line on ’em and tow ’em into the [Menemsha] pond, or tie ’em up wherever we could on the dock. We didn’t worry about scratching the sides. Not at that point.”

William Bross Lloyd Jr. of Winnetka, Ill., was in charge of a 36-foot yawl in Menemsha Harbor when Carol struck. His wife and three children were aboard.

In a letter dated Sept. 11, 1954, addressed to Senator Kennedy, he wrote, “Mr. Murphy was the only person who alerted us to the coming hurricane, and then at some risk to himself, he found us a place to tie up to fishing boats at the dock.”

Mr. Lloyd recalled how he watched as Mr. Murphy and Mr. Flanders successfully pulled a catboat off the breakwater and took it in tow, when Mr. Murphy’s propellor shaft slipped. A Coast Guard boat came to his aid.

“Mr. Murphy soon had his boat repaired and in action again,” Mr. Lloyd said. “Soon, he again came aboard to warn us that the worst of the storm was yet to come, and to ask that we leave our boat, later severely damaged.”

“When he first warned us, we thought Mr. Murphy represented the Coast Guard, and in the light of his public-spirited and unflagging efforts beyond the call of duty, Mrs. Lloyd and I still look on him as a kind of unofficial volunteer Coast Guard.”

“It is quite possible that without his timely warnings and his help, there would have been serious loss of life at Menemsha. As Senator from Massachusetts, I am sure that you will be proud to know of his actions. For our part, we feel that he eminently deserves the Congressional Medal, and I hope that you will give serious consideration to proposing his name for this award.”

In the weeks after the storm, many boat owners sent letters to Mr. Murphy thanking him for his actions. Leopold Mannes of New York City noted his “crucial assistance” in saving his yacht, and said, “I truly realize as well the skill involved.” Some letter writers enclosed checks, and more than one, cognizant of seasonal dynamics, asked Mr. Murphy to say nothing of the generosity. Several asked Mr. Murphy about how soon their boats could be made ready for the next season.

One group of boaters lobbied for an award in a Letter to the Editor titled, “Seek Special Award for Lynn — Hurricane Hero,” published in the September 10, 1954, edition of the Vineyard Gazette and signed by John G. Gager, yacht Mamie Taylor; Mr. and Mrs. William Bross Lloyd Jr., yacht Volya; Mr. and Mrs. Hans van Nes, yacht Chauve Souris; F.C. Hatfield Jr., J.C. Stansbury, yacht Deek; Mr. and Mrs. Howard Palmer, yacht Blue Seas; Leopold Mannes, yacht Madam; and Robert C. Ascher, M.S., yacht Cuckoo.

The Lynn Murphys of the world don’t regard themselves as heroes but as people who, as Mr. Seward said, “did the work because it had to be done.”

That fall, Sen. Kennedy visited Menemsha to shake Mr. Murphy’s hand.

“I was working on a boat just then, so I didn’t have much time to talk, but I told him I appreciated him coming by,” Mr. Murphy said. “That was something he didn’t have to do.”

The end of an era

Island writer and teacher Nancy Aronie said of Mr. Murphy’s death in an email to The Times: “The first words my husband Joel said when he heard of Lynn Murphy’s passing, after of course a moment of sadness, were, ‘Well, that’s an end of an era.’

“Lynn was bigger than life. But I found really early on that his bark was bigger than his bite. My first winter here, 45 years ago, I slid into a snowbank trying to get out of my driveway. There was only one light in the distance. I trekked up the hill through the deep snow. I had never met Lynn. I knocked on the door and when he finally came and opened it he said, ‘I know I know I heard ya’ out they-ah.’ He put his boots and his jacket on, and freed the stuck car, yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘You New Yawkahs come up heah …’ When I showed up again with a gift bottle of Chivas Regal and a sheepish apology about actually being from Connecticut and how grateful I was, we became fast friends.

“Thank God he screamed at our 13-year-old son Dan when he sped into the harbor with his 75-horsepower engine and looked as if he would never slow down. It was Lynn who taught our headstrong young son the rules of the road.

“Everyone on this Island has a Lynn Murphy story. He was a kind  and generous neighbor and friend. His heart was huge. His energy was enormous. There has never been anyone like him in our lives.

“Joel was right. It is an end of an era.”

Susan Murphy told The Times in a phone call that her husband died of complications from old age. Mr. Murphy will be memorialized at a graveside service at Abel’s Hill in Chilmark at 2 pm on Saturday.