It was early summer (June if I remember) in 1974 or 75 and we were working an hour and a half South of the Inlet, 7-8 miles off Seaside. Slicky calm, not a ripple on the water. Farmer (who had the Margaret Nancy - a WWII converted T boat) was a mile or so south of me. Chops (the Jack & Doris - the last oyster schooner ever built in Port Norris (1929 - I've seen a picture of her goin down the ways with a brass band aboard.), who had been another half hour or so below us, came steaming by heading for home around 1 PM. Pretty early I thought but what the hell, that's why you have your own boat, quit whenever you want. None of my business anyway.
A couple hours later, Herman (the Rockaway Belle - A smaller WWII Tboat) gave us a call "Boys, a pretty nasty squall just broke out up here." Herman was about an hour up east of the inlet around Asbury Park, maybe three hours north of us. "It's blowin 60 miles nordeast, and doesn't look like it's gonna let up. I'm steamin home."
Herman was no stranger to nasty weather so I said to the gang ("Fiddle" - Marcles Menscer - an old moonshiner from North Carolina and "Maverick" - Howard Kirby - long time oysterman and deckhand from Bivalve, NJ), "Let's get the hell outta here, we done enough for today anyway." We usually would work until 5 o'clock or so anyway but it don't hurt to quit early once in awhile. A sudden squall almost always blows over in 10 or 15 minutes. But 60 mile is 60 mile and it's nordeast to boot. I got an old oyster sloop built before the turn of the century and the closest calls I ever had were buckin nordeasters home.
I hauled back and put the dredge on the rail and headed for home while the boys cleaned the deck. We hadn't finished getting the gear aboard before it got so bad I hadda slow down. Never saw the ocean get so rough so fast, from slick calm to nasty in about 20 minutes. We got the gear aboard, and started to jog for home, with the sea on the starboard bow. Every once in awhile one would come over and I'd have to slow down to let the water clear. We're thinkin we're gonna be in for a really dandy ride but we've been there before, no greenhorns here.
About an hour later, all of a sudden we took a really nasty roll and the six cages we had full snapped the restraining chains welded to the port rail and slid all over to the starboard side. "Boy we're in the shit now", I thought. 6 cages (3' by 4' wide and 5&1/2 ' feet high) full of about 3,000 lbs of surf clams each. Now I got all these clams, probably 5,000 lbs of dredge and hose, another couple tons of booms and shit, all on the starboard side. This on a boat that only had about 6" of freeboard on a nice day.
The deck right below the pilot house was the lowest and was under at least 12" of water. She was layin way over, and I knew it was only a matter of time before she took another roll and went all the way. That's how pretty near all the clam boats go, heavy deck loads make them top heavy and they roll over. The saving grace for us was she was originally an oyster boat and built for deck loads, course that was over 80 years ago. Then she was named the Finette Bornhurst ( she was now the Carollelle, after my wife Carol-Lou). The boat papers said she was built around 1915 but old timers in Port Norris had told me they were sure she was built long before then, old Bornhurst just never got around to registering her, apparently not an uncommon practice back then. Besides the papers said she was 45' long and I know she was over 70' long (we measured her on the railway, pay by the foot you knoow). It seems in the 20's that she was split in half and a 30' piece stuck in the middle to lengthen her out, another not uncommon practice in the old days (before the "We Know What's Best For You" dynamic that prevails today).
I slowed her down and put her directly into the wind, figuring that was our only chance of not rolling over. I called Farmer and told him to stand by, he was probably gonna have to pick us up pretty soon. He said okay, he would stand by us. He'd been joggin too and was only a few hundred yards away. It was comin on dark by then and any pickup in this weather was gonna be tough even in daylight.
Mav and Fiddle went out on deck to see if there wasn't some way to get rid of some of the weight. I'll never forget. Mav jumped on top of the dredge and a cage every once in a while would tip side to side and slam against the dredge. He would time the cage and jump between to get by. "Jesus Christ, Mav, be careful!!" I'm screamin to myself. He finally got the cage door open and started to throw clams overboard. Was standin on the dredge and pulling them out by hand too. How the hell he never got squinched I'll never know. Dredge movin, cages movin, boat rollin and pitchin.
Fiddle meantime, got the boltcutters out and cut the back out the cage that was against the rail in front of the pilot house. He was knee deep in water she was layin over so bad. Because of the shakin of the cage, the goddam clams packed in like concrete and wouldn't fall out. He had to reach in and pull them out by hand. Scrape them out on the deck. Tried to shovel them overboard but there was too much water to use a shovel, so it was bend over and toss'em over the rail (about 30" high there) by hand. 20 years later I can still see Fiddle bent over, head down, clams shootin up in the air, every once in a while a sea comin over the rail, washin right over him, him not missin a beat. Jesus he was tough.
Goddam good men to have in a pinch those guys.
Meantime, I'm still joggin up northeast. According to the radar, we seem to be makin pretty good time given the conditions. Later I figured out what happened. There musta been a strong souwest tide (current) under the nordeast wind that caused the seas to get so big so fast. Man, every once in awhile we would go down between em and and you'd hafta look halfway up the mast to see the skyline, they were so big. Radar fadin, I guessed water got to the alternator and there was no more charging. Had to put the radar on standby and would only flick it on every 10 minutes or so.
By this time Farmer is more than a mile away and it pretty near full dark. I call him and tell him he's a pretty long ways away if we go over and maybe he oughtta get a little closer to us. "Don't worry, I got you on the radar" he says. I say to myself "No way in hell he's gonna get to us in this weather and dark to boot. Well fuck 'im, I ain't gonna ask him again." I was pissed. He must been 7 or 8 miles away when he went in the inlet.
We kept joggin until we were east southeast of the inlet, maybe a little higher. Couldn't leave the wheel, not even for a minute. So goddam rough and knew we were done for if she ever got side to. We were about 5 or 6 miles from the inlet, the boys had gotten as much weight off as they could but she was still layin over pretty good. Was starting to feel a little better by now, we had lasted a lot longer than I ever thought we could and we weren't listing as bad as we were. Deck was still under though. If I could get a shot for the inlet with the sea aft the beam, we had a pretty good chance. Nothing better than those old oyster schooners with the sea astern. I said to the boys, "go back and put the coffee on, we'll have a cup and a cigarette before trying the turn."
We had our coffee and cigarettes, and got ready for the turn for the inlet, which lay WSW from us. I figured this was the most dangerous part. If we got caught side to, we would roll the rest of the way over. I had thought it all out and figured a port turn was the best chance (even though she turned MUCH BETTER AND QUICKER to starboard) as if we were to get caught side to, she would have the low side into the sea. If we were to get caught with the high side to the sea, she would surely go over.
Well, I made the turn, and old Carollelle came home just like she was born to it. After a while, I figured a few things out:
1) Why the ocean got so rough so quick. (The strong SW current running underneath and against the NE wind). A true anomaly. The current usually runs with the wind, particularly a strong wind. No way it would get so rough in such a short time otherwise. Never saw it before or again.
2) Chops (remember he went in early) must have had one of those continual weather receivers. They were coming out just about then and few of us had even heard of them. We relied on local radio stations and the Marine Operator (She broadcast a Weather Report once every 6 hours). Normally that would be all we need as we were seldom more than a couple hours from home. I bet he'd got an early report from somewhere up above us (Long Island Sound maybe) of the storm coming. He didn't tell the rest of us cause he was a "Port Norris Oysterman" and it would be his idea of a good joke on us cretins.
3) Farmer left us to fend for ourselves because he was having problems of his own, probably leaking pretty bad. If he was, he could never admit that he, or his boat, were having a problem. We'da probably drowned because of his pride. I never held it against him (or Chops), but I never forgot it either.