Sailboat Puff washes ashore in West Tisbury, owner arrested

The barnacle-encrusted sloop Puff aground near Lily Pond in West Tisbury. Owner David Hawkins is infamous on the Cape and Vineyard for grounding sailboats.

A sailboat belonging to vagabond mariner David Hawkins washed ashore in West Tisbury last week between Cedar Tree Neck and Paul’s Point. Mr. Hawkins, who has bedeviled harbormasters from Oak Bluffs to Chatham, was arrested by Tisbury Police Sunday on a warrant issued by Judge J. Thomas Kirkman after he failed to appear in district court Friday.

On Monday Mr. Hawkins pleaded guilty in Edgartown District Court to charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He was fined $500 and ordered to pay by Dec. 8. As part of his plea agreement, two counts of threatening to commit a crime were dismissed. The charges stemmed from a March 4 incident at Rocco’s Pizza in Vineyard Haven, where he allegedly threatened to headbutt a police officer and burn the officer’s house down, and later refused to allow the officer to search him and load him into a cruiser. A call to Elizabeth Searle, Mr. Hawkins’ attorney, was not returned by press time Wednesday.

West Tisbury Police Chief Daniel Rossi told The Times it was his understanding that Mr. Hawkins had headed back to his sailboat to try to refloat it. Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker found that unlikely without a full moon tide and assistance, and pointed out that Puff beached at the East Chop Beach Club last winter and it took one of Packer’s tugs to haul it back into the water. As The Times reported in January, Mr. Hawkins was arrested for disorderly conduct at the Wash-a-Shore Laundromat approximately four hours before the Puff went hard aground.

West Tisbury has no harbormaster. It’s unclear who, if anyone, is monitoring the Puff on the secluded shore where it sits. West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand told The Times that she was unaware of the Puff’s presence. When informed of its location ashore, she noted that the stretch of coastline is not town property, but she plans to look into the matter nevertheless. She also said the selectmen are empowered to act as harbormasters if the need arises.

The Puff is a shopworn 27-foot sloop of questionable seaworthiness, Mr. Crocker said. He called the vicinity it’s in exposed and a poor place to anchor. Mr. Crocker said he’s had several run-ins with Mr. Hawkins. Because he at times overstayed, docked or anchored improperly, or refused to tender tie-up fees, Mr. Crocker told him to leave the harbor last winter shortly before the New Year. “I did not have the heart to throw him off the dock at Christmas,” he said.

Because of his poor seamanship skills, compounded by the neglected condition of his vessel, Mr. Crocker said, he viewed Mr. Hawkins as a danger to himself on the water. He also described him as not an entirely clear-minded. “His perception of the world is radically different than ours,” he said.

Oak Bluffs harbormaster Todd Alexander banished Mr. Hawkins and the Puff from Oak Bluffs Harbor over the winter.

“He clearly doesn’t take care of his boat,” Mr. Alexander said. He said he believed Mr. Hawkins planned to overwinter in the harbor and that, after observing his behavior, he deemed him a collision threat to boats and infrastructure in the harbor, and also feared he might sink. Mr. Alexander described conversations he’s had with Mr. Hawkins as “very odd,” and said that Mr. Hawkins’ subjects tended to veer off point. The Puff has been anchoring in open water too often, Mr. Alexander said: “I don’t know how he does it. One of these days he’s going to go overboard.”

Mr. Hawkins apparently snuck back into Oak Bluffs Harbor on the morning of July 15. Oak Bluffs Police responded to the harbor after receiving complaints of “an intoxicated male” operating the sailboat Puff in a manner that caused it to nearly hit several other vessels. According to a police report, Mr. Hawkins allegedly fled Oak Bluffs Police in the Puff, and ignored an officer’s order to halt for questioning.

Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair issued a no-trespassing order for Mr. Hawkins and the Puff in Edgartown Harbor. Mr. Blair said the order does not encompass the federal anchorage zone in the outer harbor, where the Puff anchored in the weeks before tropical storm Jose hit. Mr. Blair broke his order and towed the Puff into the harbor as the storm approached because “it wouldn’t do anyone good being washed up on Edgartown beach,” to which he added “along with a dead body.” He said Mr. Hawkins was “clueless” about the coming weather. In conversations, Mr. Blair said, “he was always polite to me” and showed “glimmers of high intelligence.” The no-trespassing order is currently reinstated, he said.

Falmouth harbormaster Gregg Fraser said Mr. Hawkins’ sailboat was towed to a transient dock in Falmouth Harbor about a month ago by the Coast Guard because of some type of distress near the Elizabeth Islands. Mr. Hawkins has “no standing permission to tie up to town docks,” Mr. Fraser said, and noted that in the past, Mr. Hawkins hasn’t paid fees and has loitered. After the Coast Guard deposited it, his sailboat was moved to a season slip, and was gone by morning, he said. “He doesn’t typically cooperate,” Mr. Fraser said.

Mr. Fraser knows of at least two sailboats of Mr. Hawkins’ that have been destroyed. In one instance, Mr. Hawkins anchored off Grand Avenue prior to a storm. His sailboat was summarily hung up on rocks, and had to be freed by a towboat company using lift bags because the hull was so battered. The boat was subsequently demolished, Mr. Fraser said. He described some of the maritime choices Mr. Hawkins has made as “inappropriate or dangerous.”

Dennis assistant harbormaster Bill McKenzie recalled the Puff “high and dry” on the Brewster Flats, among other incidents. He described Mr. Hawkins as “a wandering soul without any means” who frequently snuck into slips and then wouldn’t pay. As the fees he incurred in Dennis mounted, Mr. McKenzie said, the harbormaster’s office attempted collection and found that they were going after the Puff’s previous owner, because Mr. Hawkins had failed to complete the proper paperwork when he acquired the boat. We “made him transfer the title,” he said.

Though at times hard to understand, Mr. McKenzie said, Mr. Hawkins “didn’t seem confrontational.” An Oak Bluffs Police report about Mr. Hawkins made reference to an “intoxicated male,” but asked if he ever came upon evidence of drinking and boating, Mr. McKenzie said he never observed beer cans or bottles of alcohol on the Puff, nor did he ever smell alcohol on Mr. Hawkins’ person or detect slurred speech. Mr. Hawkins was always looking to borrow something — a battery charger, for instance, he said, and could frequently be seen walking on Route 134. Asked what his appraisal of Mr. Hawkins’ seamanship was, Mr. McKenzie replied, “Would you say Gilligan is a capable mariner?”

Mr. Hawkins’ vessel prior to Puff, Court Adjourned, is in possession of Chatham harbormaster Stuart Smith, who seized it after Mr. Hawkins repeatedly moored it and anchored it illegally in Chatham waters, he said. Mr. Smith described the Court Adjourned as “unseaworthy” and “unsanitary,” and said it is currently up on blocks.

“He would be a textbook example of somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Mr. Smith said of Mr. Hawkins, and noted he has proved a headache from Sandwich to Orleans, chalking up numerous groundings and Coast Guard interventions.

In one incident, Mr. Smith said, Mr. Hawkins ran aground on the Common Flats, an area which the harbormaster described as “shark heaven” and “shark city.” Mr. Hawkins tried to swim from there to shore, and was luckily collected by a passing boater.

As it became clear Mr. Hawkins was a hazard to himself on the water, Mr. Smith said he

tried to reach out to his family for assistance, but it seemed “they’d been down that road,” and were unresponsive.

Mr. Smith hoped seizing the Court Adjourned would save Mr. Hawkins, he said, but he turned around and acquired Puff. “We just ushered him out,” he said.

Mr. Smith described Mr. Hawkins as hard to talk to, and said he thought he might be suffering from an underlying mental condition. “He’s gonna not come back from one of these trips,” he said

Court records indicate Mr. Hawkins is homeless, and may have a Post Office box in Vineyard Haven. The Times was unable to locate him for comment.


Brittany Bowker contributed to this report.