by Captain Eric Wiberg

This story won semifinalist honors in the 2020 Stories That Need to Be Told contest

I was a yacht captain in my early 30’s in Rhode Island when a stranger called; said he’d heard I was the man for a job in the Dutch Antilles. I’d just returned to Newport from half a decade in the Asia-Pacific. My main gig was helping people who owned sailboats but didn’t have a lot of experience or time. They would pay me on short notice to do anything from shift the boat across a harbor or from one to another, and crewing and sailing large yachts thousands of miles. Ironically, summer was my quietest time. Most owners are so determined to just enjoy their boat without interference that they refused to call for help in July and August. So I was idle.

The local lobsterman was named Ted, also single and in his 30’s. We hadn’t met, and I didn’t know him; I had only fished commercially one day – in Maine – and it was not a success (I talked too much to be invited back). Ted said he had an unusual project. His ex-girlfriend owned and lived aboard a boat in Aruba that had a broken motor. She need help sailing it back to Newport, or at least to the United States. The problem was that all her money and effort was tied up in a drunk abusive local man considered her boyfriend. After several weeks intervening with her family and Ted, even after I coached her on how to sail out of port without a motor, we all realized that the dreadful situation was not going to change, so long as he demanded everything she had – and continued to receive it. Stockholm Syndrome was beyond my job description. We all realized that even my sneaking in the take the boat back didn’t solve issues like her repatriation, and the underlying issues. In fact, it might leave her homeless and more vulnerable.

Towards the end of August, Ted called again, this time tacitly agreeing that she had wasted my time and expertise with no reward. As a compromise, Ted offered that if I showed up the next day – my birthday – at 4.30 am and fished lobster offshore till late night, he would pay me handsomely, and our ledger made clean. I agreed. 

Before sunrise, I parked my Block-Island-bought rusted junker of a car at the fish piers, and met with some young men. One of my crew had on his ankle a wide metal probational tracking bracelet for child support (he was just out of Rogers High School), and others were more seasoned. It took about 3 hours to get offshore. As a kind of guest, while the others slept, on the trip out and back I was expected to entertain the captain, help keep him awake. The day’s fishing was characterized by excellent weather, a bite by a lobster to my finger (my role was bander), and lots of very loud music, fast-moving lines, traps, hooks, tattoos, cigarettes, hosing the deck, and spinning motor drums with lots of pressure on them, and swearing. Then, about sunset, we headed back to port without injury or damaging too much tackle.

An hour into the 3-hour trip to Newport, it was about 9 pm. I was tired and running out of stories and questions, I took a risk with my new companion, and asked him why his boat was named Gertrude H.? The inference was that, given we were both young and single, why didn’t he consider a spicier name more apt to attract the ladies? I settled in as he launched into the story of the Gertrude H., straight from Ted, her captain and owner.

On or about August 31, 1954, in what may have been Hurricane Carol (700 buildings and 17 persons lost in Rhode Island), the US Coast Guard Station Castle Hill, in Newport, sent out an all-persons broadcast, essentially stating: 

“Calling all stations, from Point Judith to Sakonnett and Gay Head to Nantucket: All seaborn vessels are to seek shelter ashore immediately. A storm, the speed and ferocity of which was not anticipated, is upon us. The Coast Guard is unable to deploy its boats to rescue you. Repeat: seek the nearest and best shelter, and remain there. God speed, and good luck. This is the Coast Guard standing by.”

Something like that. The call was made un the clear, so that anyone with a radio could hear it, and any boat which could hear it headed for port, or bay, or beach. That was about 3 pm.

Hours passed. 

About 9 pm, with the full impact of the hurricane enveloping them, there came a scratchy, but audible radio transmission on the same frequency. Like that by the Coast Guard, it was addressed to no one in particular, and everyone at the same time; it was personal, in an impersonal way. 

“This is the Margaret M., the Margaret M. We are south of the Sakonnet River, and there’s no way we can make it to port. Tom and I are going to head for Second Beach, and try to land there. Figure we’ll get to the middle of it about midnight. Margaret M., over and out.”

Those that heard it could only have thought: 

“There’s the voices of dead men talking. They don’t stand a chance in a 38-foot wooden fishing boat, with all that gear, lines and traps, on that mile-long beach. If they make it to the surf line, the boat will implode onto them, or tangle them up and crush them on they way in. They are doomed, plain and simple, and must have known it when sending that plaintive message.”

Hours went by.

About 11.30 pm Margaret M. with skipper Zane and mate Tom, entered wide Sachuest Bay, towards Second Beach, on the southeast corner of Aquidneck Island, on which Newport sits.

They made it most of the way up the bay, almost to the surf line in fact, when the hull of the Margaret M. first hit the shallow sand of the bottom. It was a very high tide, with massive rollers for waves, and though Zane and Tom, resignedly waited to be crushed, the hull held. Gradually, they bumped towards the beach as one unit. 

It was just before midnight.

Soon the decision loomed: leap and risk being drowned in the surging waves, or stay on the boat and hope to see sunrise unbroken, un-mangled and alive. 

They didn’t have to decide.

With no warning, two large, white lights flashed on in the dunes ahead and above. Soon, above the howling wind in the rigging which blew sand in clouds inland, the men could hear a jerking, clunking, mechanical noise. It was like a beast dragging metal blocks across a padded floor: slowly and awkwardly.

Puffs of black smoke raced past the lights, which also jerked up and down, but remained above the fray, equidistant from each other. Knowing it was not the sound marine diesels make, Zane and Tom guessed that it was the sound of a tractor, as on that uninhabited stretch there were no other boats, trucks, or trains. They were in the navel of a crescent of miles of untrammeled dunes.

The lights and the noise lurched down the beach from above, crossing an apron of sand hundreds of feet wide, towards them. Soon it reached the frothy white bands of the surf.

Cupping a hand to his mouth, holding his flannel winter hat on the other hand, his whitish hair whipping forward, Zane leaned over the swinging bow and yelled:

“Who goes there? What are ye?”

The tractor swooped into the surf line and turned sharp left. In what moonlight there was, this exposed the two large wide rubber rear tires, and a bowl of a metal seat.  Thereupon perched a thin, wispy, white-clad figure, right hands on the long metal levers, left upon the wheel. As soon as the bow of the Margaret M. was aligned with the tires of the tractor, and not before, came a high, level and determined call that reached Zane and Tom.

It’s Gertrude, Zane! Now get off the boat, and hook the chain to it, quick-like!”

And he did; Zane leapt off the bow, ran to stern of the tractor, and hooked that chain into the nose ring on the front of the Margaret M. that was sunk deep through the hull for just such emergencies.

And once they did, Zane’s wife Gertrude set that tractor in gear – the tractor she ran down to the neighboring farm to borrow in nothing but a night gown and a winter coat. She then drove the same tractor through the farms of Middletown to the back of the dunes of Second Beach and found her husband, his mate, and their boat, upon which the family so depended.

She pulled that Margaret M.  briskly, if jerkily, all the way out of the surf, propeller through the sand and all, into the base of the dunes, saving the lobster boat from certain destruction.

So Zane had a new name for her.

……Steering the wheel of the Gertrude H., that August night in 2000, towards a birthday party which I had missed (and smelled far too bait-fishy for anyway), Ted said to me without looking over:

“And that is how this boat got her mane, and not anybody’s going to change it. Not even the person who buys it from me.” 

And they haven’t. She lies in Newport still.

I understood.

Not only did I understand, but the story makes me cry every time I tell it. 

You see, as a young teen, I went to a boarding school overlooking Second Beach. And for two years I was somewhere I couldn’t escape from, but wanted desperately to. I needed, I called for, I so wanted an angel to find me, to throw the big lights on, and make the monsters go away, to illuminate my fears, banish my darkness with lights, with power, with decisiveness.

That person was my mother.

Only, my Gertrude H. never arrived. 

Ted (really)
July, 2020, Newport, RI