It was ten o’clock on a Monday night, August 24,1931. The steamer Naushon was arriving in Vineyard Haven from New Bedford via Woods Hole, with an unusually small number of passengers (28), and a crew of 25 aboard. The vessel passed the breakwater and was slowing down to dock at the wharf.
Just as the steamer was nosing up to the dock, a heavy Northeast squall suddenly broke. The first gust “almost bowl[ed] over the Naushon,” according to the United Press report. “Considerable excitement prevailed aboard ship.”
The two-year-old Naushon was 250 feet long, the largest of the island steamers at the time. With carpeted stairs, brass railings, a huge glass observation room, writing desks stocked with monogrammed stationery, and 32 overnight staterooms (each with running water), the ferry was considered “Queen of the Island Fleet.” It was claimed it could hold 2,000 passengers.
Capt. Webster Gifford found himself unable to control the 936-ton steamer in the sudden tempest. The vessel, which stood high out of the water, careened out of control. The UP reported that the ship was “swept on a crazy course down Vineyard Haven Harbor … [on a] wild dash before the wind.” It drifted helplessly, broadside before the gale, and Zeb Tilton’s 200-foot coastal schooner, Alice Wentworth, was anchored in its immediate path.
As the Naushon swung around, the bowsprit of Tilton’s coaster impaled the steamer clear through its after port cargo gangway, and snapped off. The force of the impact knocked down and bruised several passengers aboard the Naushon. The Wentworth was reported unoccupied at the time, although Zeb would later claim he was sleeping onboard. (“I had turned in, and when I felt the bump,” he told Nantucket’s Inquirer and Mirror six weeks after the incident, “I knew something had happened. Just stuck my head out long enough to see what was going on and then went back to my bunk.”)
Carrying Zeb’s schooner with it, the Naushon next struck the 60-foot power yacht, Selkade, owned by Calvin Child, at anchor and unoccupied. Some reports state that the yacht was overturned. Child was a retired millionaire executive of the Victor Talking Machine Co.; he was a close associate of William Barry Owen, and kept a summer home in Vineyard Haven.
An additional six or eight “small pleasure boats” at their moorings were also struck, among them a 30-foot power boat, and the sloop Miss Vineyard. Some foundered. A motorboat moored nearby went missing and was presumed sunk.
Finally, the AP reported that the Naushon was “swept aground” on a sandbar about 75 yards off the beach, listing heavily in five feet of water, not far from the modern site of the Martha’s Vineyard Times offices on Beach Road.
The Coast Guard’s 75-foot patrol boat, CG-280, was immediately on the scene. Its boatswain had witnessed the Naushon drifting helplessly before the squall, just as the patrol boat was rounding into the harbor. CG-280 broke its rudder in an attempt to assist the steamer, and the disabled rescue vessel was left helpless on the same sandbar.
The Naushon’s passengers were directed into the lifeboats and rowed to shore, but the boats were too large to be beached, so the passengers had to be physically carried by members of the crew the rest of the way. Fortunately, the UP reported, “Though raging seas prevailed, the water was almost as calm as a mill pond on the lee side of the stranded ship.” The Naushon’s crew remained aboard, where they would spend the rest of the night.
A call went out to Coast Guard Station Base 18 in Woods Hole. Four more patrol boats and two destroyers, Tucker and Badger, eventually arrived. Tugs were sent from New Bedford. The Coast Guard stood by the Naushon all night as it rested on the sand; the patrol boats kept a line on the steamer to prevent it from pounding on the beach and breaking up.
Finally, at 11:15 the next morning, during high tide, the Coast Guard cable ship Pequot, assisted by the patrol boats, the lighthouse steamer Anemone, and the tug John Duff, managed to pull the Naushon off the sandbar. They soon freed the Alice Wentworth as well.
The Naushon suffered no damage, and was back on its regular schedule that evening, less than 24 hours after the accident.
Epilogue: In a repeat performance in July 1935, the Naushon again grounded on a mud flat at 10:30 at night inside Vineyard Haven Harbor, in thick fog at low tide, as it was arriving from New Bedford. The 40 passengers had to be taken to safety on the Eben A. Thacher and the Bethel’s launch. The Naushon freed itself by midnight.
The Naushon was ultimately seized by the federal government, requisitioned by the War Shipping Administration, and sent to Britain in 1942 as part of Operation Maniac to become Hospital Ship Np. 49.
Captain Gifford died suddenly at the Dania Chimpanzee Farm in 1954 in Florida, just as he was docking a sightseeing boat with 30 or 40 passengers aboard.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.