For Chilmarker Lynn Murphy, no reverse needed

There was no official recognition of his actions when Hurricane Carol struck Menemsha, but those who were in the harbor noticed.

The caption from this September 1954 Globe photo reads, "One of the most hideous jumbles of boats, piers and gear buildings occurred in Menemsha, Martha's Vineyard, where the sea and the winds cracked hulls like so much kindling." – MV Museum

The 2016 hurricane season began on June 1. Martha’s Vineyard residents can take some comfort in knowing that the science of predicting and tracking storms has evolved over the past 61 years. When dawn broke on August 31, 1954, Menemsha watermen had a vague idea that weather was coming in, but along with the rest of New England, they were unprepared for the fury of Hurricane Carol, one of that century’s deadliest storms.

About mid-morning on that weekend, 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.”

Charles Orloff, now executive director of the Blue Hills Observatory and Science Center in Canton, was a 13-year-old amateur weather watcher that day. “The National Weather Service knew it was coming, but their tracking was off by more than 100 miles, and it just wasn’t broadcast well enough. The word hurricane was first used in broadcasts at 7:30 in the morning,” he recalled in a recent phone interview.

“There were federal budget cuts, so an important weather buoy out by Stellwagen [Bank] was down, and weather planes didn’t fly at night then. Still, I’d say it was forecast well enough — it just wasn’t broadcast well enough,” he said.

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.”

‘Fishing was all we had’

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 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.”

‘The air felt funny’

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.

Mr. Murphy is now 88 years old. He lives in Chilmark with his wife Sue, retired Chilmark postmaster. They have been married 40 years. Many of his memories are now in the mists of time, lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

About 10 years ago Sue 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.”

‘At some risk’

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.”