Queasy on the Quonset
By J.V. Houlihan Jr.
In early May 1974, we all stood around the gangway of the ferry, waiting for the word from Captain Smith. There was a question as to whether we would run to the island. The Quonset was pinned to dock by a strong west/southwest wind, and we all knew it would be a nasty trip. The crews were all young and from various backgrounds: college graduates, maritime academy guys, assorted wanderers. Buster Hyde was the first mate. He was 70 years old and as salty as they come. Capt. Smith was retired Navy. The youngest guy on the crew was Matty Rooney. He was 18, and had a 100-ton license.
I was a recent college graduate, with a theater/literature degree. I’d had to get my Ordinary Seaman’s papers to work on the ferry— something I never really planned on. But we were in a recession economy, and a job was a job. So there we were, at the end of the state pier in Galilee, Rhode Island, waiting to hear if the boat would run. The company said we had to go, because we had perishables aboard. There was a large meat order that needed to get to the island. There was not a crew member on the boat who wanted to go on this trip. We boarded our passengers, loaded a few cars, and stood by our stations to let the ferry leave the dock. The bow thruster whined and vibrated as we slowly made way against the west wind and sprung off the dock.
The Quonset rolled – anyone who ever rode on this ferry knew this fact. We who worked on her knew this all too well. We sailed aboard her in all weathers, and we cleaned the heads after a bad crossing. ‘Nuff said about that. As we headed out toward the west gap, we could see this was going to be a hell ride. The wind was blowing a steady 30 knots—with gusts. A slate gray sea with whitecaps greeted us as we headed out of the gap. The first two seas we took leaving the lee of the breakwater pretty much defined what we were in for.
Arthur Hamilton was the helmsman for this trip. He was a young, green kid Capt. Smith assigned this duty to. Arthur was doing his best using much rudder to steady the boat. We took green water over the wheelhouse as we left the west gap. Buster was in the wheelhouse assisting the captain, and the rest of the crew were roaming the boat, keeping an eye on things. I stopped by the purser’s cabin on the way to the lower freight deck to see how Scott Kavanagh was doing. He was trying to bill the freight with little success. Lighting he pipe, he said, “This is pretty sloppy, Joe. I’ll do this on the island.” The boat rolled hard to the starboard. I continued moving aft to the fantail of the boat, and noticed concerned looks on passenger’s faces. The sea blasted against the windows of the Quonset.
Peter Crooker, a recent Mass. Maritime graduate, and a guy named Butch from Washington D.C., were down on the freight deck. I came down to check the freight lashings. Both of these guys were capable hands on a boat. I bummed a smoke from Butch, and as I lit up, he said, “I’m scared, Joey.” I couldn’t figure out if he was joking or not. Butch had put in hard weather offshore on some draggers out of Point Judith. We smoked, and looked at the sea from the starboard freight door, and didn’t feel very amused. Butch’s eyes told me he was very concerned, which made me feel worse.
Suddenly the boat rolled hard to the starboard, and as we held the lines that lashed the freight to the bulkheads, we felt the whole load shift. The heavy boxes of produce, beef, and beer slid along the wet deck. Peter was hanging onto some pipes along the port bulkhead. The boat then rolled harder to the port, and the lashings parted. As the heavy load moved, Peter had just enough time to pull his legs up to avoid being pinned and getting his legs crushed.
We were going a slow six knots, and each wave punched the old wooden-and-steel ferry. The Quonset was sluggish recovering from the 40-degree rolls. Butch, Pete and I couldn’t see the island from our vantage point on the lower deck. Time stood still every time she hobby-horsed into a hole. We had nothing to say to each other now; we just looked with concern at each wave. Butch went up to the passenger deck, and Peter and I stayed below. Amidships, I held onto a stanchion, looking out the port and starboard loading door, anticipating each punch and holding on.
It was now apparent to me that, if the Quonset rolled past her zero moment, it would be lights out. I was scared, but what could I do? I’d signed onto this job and this was part of the deal. So I rolled with it, literally and figuratively. Buster came down below to see how we were doing with the freight. “The old man scarthes me,” Buster said with his comical lisp. “Thethes goddam thethes are big bathstids,” he said. This clearly was not what Peter and I wanted to hear from Buster – that the captain scared him.
As Buster walked past the starboard loading door, a huge wave smashed into it, and cracked the four-inch oak door in half lengthwise. Green water dumped onto the deck, enveloped Buster, and sent him sliding on his back into a car. He looked dazed and shocked.
“Thunof a bitch kid, dat hert.” I helped him up, and we held onto the stanchion together.
We eventually got to Old Harbor on Block Island that day in May, but it took us two-and-a-half hours. Even inside the lee of Clay Head the seas were huge, and the boat rolled hard. Going into Old Harbor, we took two more heavy, 40-degree rolls to cap off the trip.
We all walked off the boat and refused to go back to Point Judith that day, then went to hoist a few drinks at the National Hotel – on the house. We stayed on the island for a day-and-a-half before heading back to Point Judith.
Even with the diminished winds we had a rough ride home.