One day when I was 18 and still lived on the water, I rowed ashore to keep a sailing date. I had promised Jesse Fishman that I would take out his 12 year old daughter Sandy, and try to give her a few sailing pointers. I had raced against Jesse in our decked canoes..... and he knew that I could handle a boat. We all belonged to the boat house on City Island, owned by the Ratliffs, which was right next to Vidal's dock.
It was a strange summer day, sunny and hazy at the same time. In fact, it was the 4th of July weekend and I looked forward to our sail. I met Sandy dockside and we began to rig up her 10 foot Moth. I had never sailed a Moth before, but thought, 'how hard can it be?' It was cat rigged [one sail], and had all the necessary equipment ...... dagger board , tiller, rudder, mast and boom. We had a small danforth aboard, and some salami sandwiches. Once we stepped the mast, we took off........ sans life jackets!
The wind came from the northwest............... perfect tacking wind. After one tack, I was unhappy with theMoth. It was like trying to sail a little barge that plowed through the waves and worst of all, it 'slipped and slid off the wind'on every tack we took. 'How unlike the canoe', I thought. Awful. Once we got out of the congested harbor, I asked Sandy to take the tiller, which she did. Every time we got a little puff of wind, Sandy let out the sail and spilled it. "Don't do that Sandy....... when a puff of wind hits, lets try to get the most out of it." "Point as high as possible and sail those puffs." I was happy knowing that the first boat I ever sailed was a decked canoe. I remember that I thought that it was so much harder to teach someone to sail, on a 'sluggish'boat. The Moth was 'response-challanged.' Luckily we had a stiff wind. Gradually, I noticed how the wind was 'picking up' and the puffs were getting stronger. As pressure on the tiller increased, it became harder to hold a course.
Sailing a decked canoe taught me to be ever vigilant of the intensity and direction of the wind and to monitor sail performance. Suddenly, I noticed that the wind slightly whistled as it blew through the stays and the sail was fluttering. To the northwest, I saw a wind filled ' dust cloud'lift up over Rodman's Neck. Not a good sign. "Sandy, quick...give me the tiller and you drop the sail." Sandy said, "no, I want to sail the puffs." "Nope, not this time, we're dropping the sail.....NOW!" A wind blast hit us the second the sail came down. The clouds darkened and clearly we were in for a summer storm. Having seen many flash summer storms before, I knew that they were sudden, intense, but short lived. I figured that we could ride it out. After all, we were just past the Harlem Yacht Club, still in the harbor.
We managed to ride it out until we were almost out by Big Tom's rock. Steadily the wind had blown us in the direction of Stepping Stones Lighthouse. Too late, we threw the danforth overboard. Unfortunately there wasn't enough line for it to hit the bottom and hold. But, that little Moth was surprisingly seaworthy.
Even though I had lived almost all ofmy life on boats, the height of the waves astonished me. We bobbed up on a wave, where we saw horizons including all of the New York skyline, then rolled down on a wave, where all we saw on either side of he boat, was a wall of water! The wind howled and screamed as it passed through the stays. We bounced about like a cork, but took on only spongeable water. However, I thought that there was a possibility that a wave could crest on top of us and swamp the boat. I asked Sandy if she was scared. "No,...... Fay, could you please pass me a salami sandwich?" That tickled me.
I thought ..... 'had we carried a boat hook, perhaps we could have snagged onto a mooring, and ridden out the storm that way'. But we were being pushed further and further out of the Bay area, into open waters, with no sign of the storm letting up. Several large yachts tried to "rescue"us. Since I felt we were in no imminent danger, I waved them off. As the storm intensified, I changed my mind. I felt very responsible for Sandy and thought that most probably, I should let someone help us.
A 50 foot auxiliary sailboat came in our direction, with the skipper yelling "Come Aboard!" Later, I thought it was the biggest mistake I made that day. He threw me a line and said "tie it around the mast." 'How dumb', I thought. 'What's wrong with our painter tied to your boat? I yelled.' In any event, I told Sandy to get aboard his boat............ and shouted out to him: "I'm taking the sail and boom." He became angry. "GET ABOARD THIS BOAT!" he demanded. While the Moth bounced around like crazy, I wrapped the sail around the boom, .......then threw it towards his boat. Sandy grabbed it. I boarded his boat with great difficulty. Eventually, we got under way. We probably went about 50 feet, with theMoth bucking upward, plunging downward, and caught broadside, when the short tow line strained the mast. Mast and stays flew off the boat which caused the Moth to lunge forward and flip over! .... 'big surprise' I said to no one in particular..... Our nervous captain quickly cut the mast loose and took off. 'Damn,' I thought, 'why did I ever decide that we should be 'saved'by this guy?' 'Now what would Jesse think when he looked for us, and found a capsized boat with no occupants.?'
Since the wind came out of the northwest, the skipper of the boat decided to lay in the lee of the land, on the east side of City Island. We temporarily anchored off Rochelle St. and were unable to get ashore long after the storm had passed! He kept us there, for at least an extra hour. I was so upset. Finally, I convinced the ole guy to drop us off at Beldon Point. Of course, Sandy and I wore only bathing suits and we were barefoot. We had no bus money..... so we walked about a mile to the boat house, carrying boom and sail. 'More wasted time'I thought. I was anxious for her parents to know that Sandy was okay. After all, they had entrusted her to my care, and several hours had passed since we left Ratliff's float to begin our 'sailing lesson.'
As we approached Ratliffs, there was a cluster of people on the sidewalk, talking about the stormand all themissing people from our boat house. "Who's missing?".... "Well, two little girls went out in a boat, the boat sank and the girls are missing and feared dead." "Oh my goodness, Sandy, did you hear that?....... what are their names? ....... maybe we know them." The people didn't know names, just that everyone was worried. We walked through the lower level of the boat house and came out onto the handball court. All of my friends and fellow sailors were standing with their backs to us, looking towards the water. Sandy spotted her mother, Hannah. "MA!" she cried out. Her mother spun around and saw her daughter. Immediately, she screamed "SANDY!" and began to cry. Then, all at once, about 30 people turned around, saw us, and let out a cheer. That stunned me.
Later, I discovered that many people drowned that day. On his fishing boat the Sea Queen, my father brought in 17 people to Vidal's dock. They floundered around in the seas after their canoes and kayaks swamped, and dad had plucked them out of the water. Another fishing boat waited for the coroner, with a drowned woman aboard his boat.
Every decked canoe that went out during that 1947 summer afternoon, came back with a gaping hole in his deck where the mast used to sit. My friends said that they never had time to drop their sails. The storm hit them with such swiftness, packing such powerful winds, that everyone was caught by surprise. Frank Jordaens, Joe Farruggia and Lou Whitman had a 're-building' project ahead of them that summer.
It was late in the afternoon, the storm had passed and it t was again sunny, just as though nothing had happened. When Jesse finally finished work on what was left of the Moth, we had a chance to talk. He told me that when he and his brother Dave searched for us in their motor boat, and found the Moth upside down, their hearts sank . "But, I never told Hannah what we found because I was sure you were alright. I just told Hannah, "Fay's an experienced sailor, they'll be okay," Finally, I told Jesse how the guy who 'saved' us had unnecessarily wrecked the Moth in the process. "It's a lousy sailing boat Jesse but, I was amazed at how well the boat performed in a storm.""By the way, who were the two little girls that drowned? Do we know them?"..... "Fay, don't you know?...... it's you and Sandy!"