Family bids goodbye to ketch of a lifetime

Storm-wrecked Witch of Endor slated to be sold, owners aim to start anew.

Pascal Albanese, left, and his wife Jeanie Hay Sternbach. — Courtesy Pascal Albanese and Jeanie Hay Sternbach

For nine summers Jeanie Hay Sternbach and Pascal Albanese lived aboard their 41-foot Formosa ketch, Witch of Endor, in Vineyard Haven Harbor. But unlike so many of the yachters who flock to the Vineyard, they aren’t deep-pocketed folks. Charters, winter jobs, and the summer rental of their house afforded them the sailing life.

After overcoming a costly flood and fire aboard their beloved vessel last June, they hoped next season their newly born son, Montgomery Ace, would experience the joy of being rocked to sleep by the sea. They’d just finished the last few cosmetic touchups when the nor’easter of March 2 struck. The Witch of Endor was moored inside the Vineyard Haven breakwater. What amounted to a Category 1 hurricane masquerading as a winter storm broke the ketch’s mooring lines at sunset and left it heeled over against pilings along the Tisbury dinghy dock, where it would languish for a week before a salvage operation could safely be undertaken.

The same storm sent the cutter Rachel Saunders and sloop McNab onto Owen Park Beach, and drove the schooner Heart’s Desire ashore practically onto Beach Road. But unlike Witch of Endor, all of those vessels were recovered in seaworthy condition.

On Tuesday, March 6, on the pavement of the Steamship Authority terminal, in between trips to his work van and the pitched deck of the Witch of Endor, Albanese called the situation he faced “the most devastating experience of my life.”

A short time later a Tashmoo Boatyard crane hoisted away the ketch’s two masts.

On Friday, March 9, the ketch itself came ashore in a technically complex rigging and hoisting maneuver that involved crews from Offshore Engineering, Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, and a Baxter crane. The ketch was set upright on blocks and jacks along a railing at the edge of the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven, where it stayed until a trailer truck from Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard collected it the following Monday afternoon.

Insurance snafu, community outpouring

The Witch of Endor was not insured. In a series of emails to The Times, captains Albanese and Sternbach wrote that false information was the root cause of this.

“We were given misinformation from our former insurance agent, who has since left the company,” they wrote. “We were told that if we repaired all of the damage that the surveyor recommended after the fire/flood that occurred last June, we would be able to have our insurance reinstated. The surveyor had already seen the necessary repairs accomplished when she was hauled immediately after the fire/flood. The additional repairs that could be done in the water took a considerable amount of time, effort, and money, and when we had all the receipts, photos, etc., ready to send to them, we were told by new agents that we would have to have another out-of-water survey first.”

The captains declined to name the insurance company, and went on to say out-of-water surveys are more difficult to execute in winter when boatyards are stuffed with stored boats, but they had managed to schedule a survey and haul out in Falmouth this month.

“We were so close,” they wrote.

Absent insurance, they made a special effort to prep the ketch as the storm approached.

“We had two oversize mooring lines with proper chafing gear that did not show any signs of wear or chafing,” Sternbach wrote. “Pascal was working on the general maintenance of the boat the day before the storm, and double-checked all the gear …”

Sternbach also said their private mooring was regularly maintained.

“Both lines simply could not handle the strain of an incredibly strong storm surge, and snapped,” she wrote. To this she added, not even the breakwater could stop the wave action.

“Even the day before, the winds were forecast to be much weaker than they ended up being. This was not supposed to be a hurricane, but ended up having hurricane-force winds recorded.”

While some costs were unavoidable, such as the Baxter Crane and work done by Offshore Engineering and Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, captains Albanese and Sternbach wrote of how thankful they were for the great deal of help many people gave freely: “We are so grateful for the local boating community and all of the people who have showed up and offered to help us with advice, expertise, time, energy, and compassion. The generosity on this Island is incredibly inspiring and humbling.”

After one friend came down to the wreck site to give her condolences, Albanese discovered she’d left a $500 check on his dashboard.

Pro diver Heidi Raihofer, whose work was instrumental in securing hoist straps around the ketch, wouldn’t take payment.

Mariner and mechanic Jeff Canha volunteered his help try to save the ketch’s inboard diesel engine, “a major source of possible equity for salvage companies — will be an important selling point if it can be saved.”

Ralph Packer gave free lot space at Tisbury Wharf Co. for the ketch to be stored until its fate is clear. He also lent advice and a large, high-powered water pump that allowed for the removal of “as much of the seawater as possible before the crane haul.”

A platoon of volunteers helped muck out sand and seaweed from inside the ketch, and also worked to prepare it for transport.

Among others to whom the captains expressed thanks include harbormaster John Crocker, Tisbury Wharf Co. manager Noreen Baker, impromptu salvage-mates Dana Thornton, Joshua Hammond, Marcos Batista, and Dalibor Petrovic, and Steamship Authority staff.

Repair costs too steep

Currently up on blocks and jacks at the Tisbury Wharf Co., the Witch of Endor will be sold in lieu of undergoing repairs, captains Albanese and Sternbach wrote. Damage not just to its exterior but inside, where sand, seaweed, and the Atlantic collected, amounts to tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of restoration. Rather than plunge into “crippling debt,” the captains now hope to save enough over time to buy a new charter sailboat. Since they’ve already incurred sizable out-of-pocket expenses in recovering the ketch, however heartbreaking it is, they just want to cut their losses and sell the Witch of Endor for what the market will bear in its condition — a sum they estimated to be a fraction of the vessel’s value prior to the storm.

Adding nautical insult to nautical injury, the ketch threatened to topple over on Tuesday. Be it from wind pressure or snow weight, “the leeward side was sinking,” Albanese said. Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard staff staved off additional calamity by shoring up the vessel.

With encouragement from friends, the captains hope to amass new boat capital through an online funding platform.

“Ian Ridgeway volunteered to help us set up the gofundme campaign, offering his fundraising and specifically crowdfunding expertise accumulated in the past few years,” they wrote. Ridgeway is a former captain of the Black Dog schooner Alabama. Anyone wishing to donate by mail may do so at P.O. Box 1224, West Tisbury, MA 02575.

Albanese is a washahore, Sternbach Island-raised. They moved in together after their second date 12 years ago, and bought the Witch of Endor a year later. Sailing life is among their greatest bonds. The couple say they have shared their “love of sailing with thousands of people over the years,” and enjoyed repeat customers, including families. The Witch of Endor has also served as a marriage venue and vehicle from which to commit ashes to the sea, they wrote, and added that they’ve donated many charters to charities like the Possible Dreams Auction.

What their next vessel may be, or what it might be called, they can’t foresee. The Witch of Endor wasn’t a name they picked. The vessel retained the same name since the 1970s, according to Albanese — a mystical Old Testament heroine whose namesake was co-opted by Tolkein in his Lord of the Rings books, and Lucas with his Ewok-inhabited Star Wars moon. Sternbach said she liked the empowerment of the name.

“The Bible is [otherwise] not really big on women of power,” she said.

One name they said they would entertain is Ace, their son’s middle name.

While Montgomery came to Jeanie in a dream, they wrote, Ace was a moniker employed by Albanese’s late father when he couldn’t recall somebody’s name.

“Their family always talks about how Pascal’s dad was so well-loved, and so friendly with everyone,” Sternbach wrote, “that all of those different ‘Aces’ thought it was their own special nickname and were honored to have it.”

So whatever type of sailboat the next Albanese-Sternbach vessel is, it won’t just be crewed by the married captains, but also up and coming mate Montgomery Ace, who may one day lean over the bow and see his name rising and falling above the surf.