Story of a Cement Schooner: The Talisman

 

It began as a cry for help; I consented. It ended as a cry: my own. When I first saw the ship, was I glad not to be considered as crew. Her sheer bulk, not just the length of 72 feet, but the weight, 60 tons, was intimidating enough. The source of her weight was more to the point. Made in South Africa some thirty years ago, she was constructed from cement. Not a veneer. A solid inch to two inches thick: cement inside, cement outside. Probably ignored for years, her paint was chipping; her lines were stiff. She would be departing just on the edge of winter, not promising weather. Berthed in Solomon's Island, she had to traverse the Chesapeake Bay before entering the ocean. She then had a long, tedious trek taking her south around the tip of the Florida Keys and back up the Gulf of Mexico. Her destination: Biloxi, Mississippi.

 

For the voyage out of the Chesapeake, as predicted, the weather was gruesome: cold and rainy. Near the Outer Banks, the Talisman, as she was named, encountered strong gales, icy rain, and powerful currents. A week later, a beautiful old tall ship was lost in this very spot.

 

The call came from Charleston, South Carolina. "I have phoned everybody I can think of," said the Captain. "No one can make the trip. Please, we need your help." One of the crew, and there were only two besides the Captain, had broken his leg. The remaining man refused to go any further without a third person on board. I gave in; in part because I figured that they had arrived far enough south for warm weather.

 

Although I was a woman in her fifties, I was eager to be going out to sea again, anticipating pleasant sailing off the coast of Florida with balmy breezes, a warm sea, and friendly dolphins. I secured an immediate flight and arrived mid-afternoon expecting we would sail out right away. Not so.

 

The Captain and his first mate met me at the airport. After gathering my duffel, we drove a rental car through the quaint and gracious streets of this southern belle city back to the boat. She was berthed at the very end of a series of attached docks off South Battery Street just across the river from Fort Sumter.

 

Tidbits of information gave enough insight that, had I been smart, could have justified taking the next flight home. Instead, I was wined and dined then driven to the hospital to see the invalid. A huge cast ran from his foot to his hip. Obviously sedated, he was grinning despite not being able to move. He would remain hospitalized several more days before attempting to fly home. It had been an ugly accident. The boat was heaving and battling giant waves. The weather channel had an alert out for all crafts. Matt, the young man, was attempting to remove an outboard motor from the back rail. The outboard belonged to a dinghy, which had already been lost overboard. In front of the back rail was the Mainsail traveler. Just as he was about to lift the motor, the boat surged up and crashed down again into the surf. Matt was thrown off balance catching his foot under the traveler. He heard it crack and knew immediately the bone was broken. The Captain braced the leg with broken plastic battens from one of the sails. For two hours, he held Matt’s leg as still as possible while waiting for the Coast Guard Emergency craft. Blood was streaming across the deck while the boat crashed up and down out of control in the pounding surf until she hit a sand bar and was grounded. "His evacuation by Coast Guard rescue vessel left us hard up at falling tide," wrote the Captain in his log. "We refloated the vessel on the incoming tide the following A.M. with the kindly help of a NW wind."

 

Before sailing any distance in the ocean, the Captain made sure the underside of the schooner was clean. He pulled monster barnacles off the propeller, rudder, hull, and transducer in the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream south of Cape Fear and spent some time experimenting with the Furuno Depth Sounder. In the storm just outside Charleston, the Captain felt comfortable with the reliability of the craft in deep water and believed he had a dependable depth gauge. The ship grounded at a reading of thirty feet!

 

The next day,The Talisman made the front page of the Charleston newspaper. The news story centered on her being grounded. No mention was made of Matt's broken leg.

 

Before we could leave, more repairs were needed and the fuel tank had to be filled. To complete the latter task, we had to motor several miles up the river. There was only one fueling dock in the area able to accommodate a boat of this size. The weather was lovely, however, and I had an opportunity to acquaint myself with the schooner before setting out to sea.

 

Late afternoon, we finally set off. The water around Charleston had been calm; but even before we hit the ocean; I could see the swells. The weather report was not favorable either. Wind was coming from the south. This meant that we had to go to weather; the sails were useless. It’s not pleasant to motor a sailboat. It was particularly unpleasant to motor The Talisman. Clearly, she was not built to go to weather. After only a few hours, my head was splitting as sixty tons of ship was being beaten up by powerful surf. We stayed west of the Gulf Stream but just out of sight of land. The three of us rotated every four or five hours, taking our turn at the helm. Being at the helm of a seventy-two foot boat was a new experience for me, an overwhelming responsibility. From the platform where the great wheel was, I looked down the long starboard side past the main cabin structure and the stay sail above and further down to the bow with its second mast and sails. The sheer size was intimidating. It was during my second shift that the cabin flooded.

 

Inside, the boat was quite impressive. The main cabin, or ‘salon’ as we called it, was huge. It had high ceilings, several built-in couches, a lovely wooden hand-carved dining table, a well-equipped galley, and plenty of open space. However, when I heard the commotion and looked down, this huge room was immersed in a surging wave. Water smashed against whichever side the boat heeled. The Captain was cursing the huge generator. Despite being new and expensive, it was not working. That meant that the sump pump was not functioning. Like a chain gang, we had to bail out the water only to have more come in. The Captain finally located the source: a hole in the bow. While he patched up the hole from the inside, the other crewmember, Bob, had to bail out the water while I continued steering up top. Later that night, while I was at the helm, the Captain, assisted by Bob, hung over the bow attached by his lifeline with his head upside down and almost under water. While the boat pitched, he moved the giant anchor away from the hull. The anchor was the culprit that pierced the cement and caused the hole. This problem was now fixed, but our troubles had only just begun.

 

Another day and I was at the helm again. It was late afternoon. We were progressing very slowly, maybe two or three knots. The big Ford motor was at full throttle but it had sixty tons to push through an unfriendly tide and oncoming wind. Suddenly, I heard a loud ripping noise, looked up to the bow, and saw the jib descend into the sea. Shreds of sail hung on the forward mast. It had split down the middle and was now swirling around and around through he air. Floating and swirling, it descended down, down to where I was standing. I clutched the wheel, my mouth agape, mesmerized in fear. The white sail became a blur. My vision was fuzzy, my mind couldn’t focus. My body was wrapped up in this white mist and I was no longer at the helm. Suddenly everything became no thing and I faced blackness. No forms, no shapes. My mind raced desperately searching for details, facts, and shapes interspaced with dots and dashes then stretched deeper for memories, something to hang onto. Shadows, shade, splitting up then blank. Time stopped. I was nowhere, out of myself, gone. Then slowly, I became aware of myself. I was thinking. I was alive. I was somewhere. My eyes refused to cooperate. My memories floated across the inward vision of my mind. Slowly, I pulled thoughts to the surface. My eyes began to distinguish white light, a mist. Then out of nowhere, a voice. My arms were responding but I couldn’t connect. My body moved. Still I could not bond. Outside, my physical self was doing what it was being told to do while inside, my mind was in a mist of memories.

 

“Are you alright?” It was the Captain. In the mist, I could see his face above mine. He was leaning over. I was lying down. Slowly, very slowly I put the parts together: where I was, who I was, when … when what?

 

“What happened?” I whispered trying to focus on the Captain’s face to keep myself connected.

 

“The boom broke loose and hit you.”

 

I digested the information. The boom? I was at the helm. The boom hit me? Then I remembered the sail ripping apart. The sail had pulled the boom down with it and I was knocked unconscious. Unconscious, out, gone. Had I experienced death and been retrieved? Not bruised and broken like Matt? Incredibly, I was unharmed.

 

“I am fine,” I assured the Caption. My lie must have sounded convincing since he asked me to return to the helm so he could fix the damage left on the fore deck. There was no time to dwell upon my experience. The ship does not stand still at sea.

 

The steering wheel was hydraulic. Periodically it would just spin and the boat would be at the mercy of the wind and the sea.. The Captain devised a plan. We placed a can of oil next to the wheel. When she stopped functioning, we opened the dome where the compass was located and poured the oil down the innards. We did have a backup: a twelve-foot long tiller on the aft deck. Sure enough, it came to a point where we had to use the tiller. It was too powerful for me to hold alone so we arranged a pulley system. This gave me leverage so I could control it reasonably well. The tiller, however, turns the opposite direction from the wheel. Going back and forth from the wheel to the tiller and back to the wheel again was a mental challenge. It demanded coordination and it took concentration, difficult to do when confronted with possible panic, confusion, stress, or a combination of all three.

 

The boat was well equipped with radar, maps, and every kind of electronic communication so verifying our location without land in sight was one of the easier tasks. We chose to make a stop in Fernandina Beach, Florida. What our Captain remembered about this area and what we actually found were quite different. First we located the channel buoys, but our delight at finding them was short-lived. Despite following them carefully (red, right, returning), we could not locate a dock of any kind. It was well after dark and all we could see were fires from some big refineries. "This used to be a quiet little resort," the Captain said. I went below and called on the radio asking for some guidance from anyone listening. A friendly voice came on reporting that there was no dock master; the dock was closed for the winter. We could take our chances, however, and pull up to the fuel dock anyway. “When you see several small sailboats at anchor,” the voice said, “you should see the dock.” Little did he know how much we needed to go ashore, nor was he aware of our size and our condition. Everything below was wet, everything. It all had to be pulled up on the deck and aired out. Hopefully there would be sun the next day to dry it all out.

 

It took three tries, making large circles and negotiating the tide, but we did pull up to the very end of the fuel dock. Bob jumped off, grabbed the lines. I threw the big fenders over the side. The next day was sunny so we took all the rugs, sheets, even some furniture out to dry. Our boat looked like a yard sale in progress. Walking on land felt good too although it took awhile to readjust to the earth not shifting beneath our feet.

 

The next night, we set out again. The Captain and I took turns sailing throughout the night and into morning. Bob had given up on us and on the ship and had flown home from Jacksonville Airport. Then it happened again.

 

"There's water leaking. Come quickly!" I yelled to the Captain. Grudgingly, he rolled out of his cot half expecting to see the tidal wave we had in the salon before. There was water but not nearly as much. The Captain had to rig up the hand pump he had purchased in Fernandina Beach along with hydraulic cement he had used to patch up the hole in the bow. Tying up the wheel, I dashed down to look at the former hole in the bow but it was completely dry.

 

“Where is the water coming from this time?" I asked.

 

"Just look at the depth here!" replied the Captain. The bilge was practically shallow, no more than a foot or two deep. No wonder the salon had high ceilings; we were standing down on the very bottom of the boat! Most boats have fairly deep bilge areas. On top of this, the automatic bilge pump was not working because the generator had a broken part and couldn’t function without it.

 

Awkwardly, I carried the pump tubing up the steps to empty on the deck and over the side. The stairs were very steep: straight up and straight down. Down the second step, you leaned forward and grabbed a metal pole which had braided rope around it at just that point. When the boat was toiling through ocean waves, this braided rope was a necessity for getting down below.

 

The hand pump worked reasonably well. The water had not risen too high but it had sloshed through the pantry door where the pots and pans were piled on the floor. They were filled with seawater. Water also splashed into the oven and the rugs were soaked once again. My feet were drenched too. Despite being off the Florida coast, it was cold. It was exceptionally cold down below in this cement-walled, water soaked salon.

 

This was the pattern as we trudged along ever so slowly heading south. Problems plagued with short intermissions of enjoyment. The winds continued to be unfavorable.

 

Again it happened while I was at the helm. The engine was our main source of power, the sails adding little momentum but enough to have them all up, including the Staysail. The engine began making a strange sound. I lowered the stick to slow it down but the noise continued. "Captain," I called. "There's something strange going on."

 

"Shut it off! Shut it off immediately!" I did. "Shut it off, I said!"

 

"It is off!" I shouted back. He ran down to the aft quarters and pulled up the floorboards.

 

"It's the drive shaft," he shouted. Peering down the back ladder, I could see oily water sloshing in the area he had uncovered. I watched in disbelief as the Captain descended into the wet, oily hole. Blindly, because the shaft was below the flooring and there was no light, he groped and pulled and was able to disengage the broken part. He was soaked and filthy with black grease all over his hands and arms and oil on his clothes and in his hair. The next problem was finding a facsimile of the part. Without the engine, our progress rate was reduced to a mere one to two knots. Fortunately, a replacement was found and back down the hole went the grubby Captain. After what seemed like a very long time, he yelled, "Turn on the engine!" Nothing. Back down the hole for an adjustment. "Try again!" Success! Back up to 4.6 knots.

 

"This wheel doesn't seem to be doing anything, just spins 'round and 'round," I said.to the Captain as he came up from a brief nap. He rushed to read the co-ordinands. Fortunately, the sails had held us pretty true to course. We took off the compass dome and poured more oil. The wheel did not respond. The Captain, who was still suffering from utter exhaustion, instructed me to revert to the tiller and then descended to his cabin. Even with the cable tied around for leverage, this was challenging particularly at night. The moon was on the wane. It was very dark on the upper deck. I was terrified of slipping but after my last fall, perhaps I was unduly apprehensive. It was a long night. Plenty of time to reenact that disaster in my mind over and over as I shivered physically and emotionally while clinging to the tiller cable. Finally the clouds parted. Although there was no moon, the stars appeared and I was rewarded with their performance as they curved across the sky.

 

The wind reversed the next day and for the first time, filled the sails, Adjustments were made for the new tack and we were up to eight knots in no time. Soon we could turn the engine off and really sail.

 

Sadly, The Talisman never made it to Biloxi. She rounded the keys, the wind being on the right side, but she ran aground near Tallahassee. It was not a violent bump. It was a soft landing, the depth finder still malfunctioning, but on impact, the hull split on one side. The Captain admitted after the fact that he had his doubts as to the substructure. When he had repaired the hole in the bow, he had seen nothing in the way of a frame, no netting, no steel, nothing under the surface. Sure enough, the hull was only cement, no support. She must have been poured into a mold. Made in South Africa where there may have been few demands on her weather-wise, we supposed the cement had been more than adequate.

 

When the sorry event happened, the Captain threw the anchor to the side to tilt the boat away from the split as much as possible. Then he got on the radio. Harry of Tow Boat US Carabelle was summoned. He came to us, viewed the situation, and conferred with the Captain. The next morning Harry returned with fifty pounds of hydraulic cement, another pump, battery, and a generator. It was twenty-one hours after the initial grounding. Working through the night and low tide, the Captain was able to repair and strengthen the hull. However, the blessed northern wind that had produced the calm sea condition was posed to change the next day. The Talisman's weakened hull could not have withstood a real shakeup. Harry agreed to attempt the refloat at high water that evening. He arrived at 13:30 and trenched, dug, and pulled carefully so as not to exert undue pressure on the vessel. The Talisman came free at 24:00 and was towed back to Carabelle docking at 04:00 December 10th.

 

The Captain was relieved of his command by the insurance company who took over. We do not know how much the owner had paid for the boat nor how much he had her insured for, but she was declared a total loss. Unable to live up to her name, The Talisman has taken her magic and luck with her and become part of an underwater seawall south of the tip of Florida.

 

The Captain is back to sailing smaller crafts. And I, well, I was not sorry to see the last of The Talisman. No, that is not really true. I had learned so much not only about this unique boat but about myself. I could stay calm when a panic situation occurred. And I could handle the helm even when it became a huge tiller. I would never forget this journey and, in a funny way, I was grateful to have had the experience.