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Classic schooner's sad end in a Spanish river

Jan 1, 2003

Running the boat aground in the river was, in fact, only the last in a long series of misfortunes. Indeed, since I had signed on as crew four months earlier in Key West, it seemed we had lurched blindly from crisis to crisis. For though there was no denying Constellation was a beautiful boat, there was also no denying that she was an old one as well.

A friend had warned me about this prior to our departure. andquot;A wooden boat,andquot; he said, andquot;especially an old one, is nothing but a collection of leaks loosely organized as a hull.andquot;

But by then I was in love and could not listen to reason.

She was a classic John Alden design, loosely based on the old Canadian Bluenose78 feet on deck, 96 feet overall if you counted her long bowsprit and boomkinand she was built in 1932 at the famous Hodgson Bros. yard in East Boothbay, Maine. During World War II she served in the U.S. Navy's Corsair fleet, hunting Japanese submarines on the West Coast. After the war she was re-rigged with a Marconi main for ocean racing. In 1955 and again in 1959 she finished first in her class in the Transpac Race. During the mid-'70s she circumnavigated the globe. But by the late '80s when her present owners, Cliff and Ruth Ann Fremstad, fell under her spell, Constellation was nothing but a barely floating hulk tied to a forgotten dock in Fort Lauderdale.

Though they could ill afford such a boat, Cliff and Ruth Ann had worked hard for four long years to fix her up, taking her on charters out of Key West to finance her restoration. With the mate Tim's help in between day trips, Cliff completely rebuilt her deck and refinished the interior. He also had her hull refastened at a cut-rate yard in Tarpon Springs. Thus, when I joined Constellation that spring, she wassupposedlyready for her first ocean passage in nearly 20 years.

On our shakedown from Key West to Charleston we developed some slow leaks on the port side and blew out the mainstay. No big problem. We patched the leaks with some underwater epoxy, rerigged the stay with a new Norseman terminal, and headed south again for Florida, to St. Augustine, for the start of the 1992 Transarc rally to Spain.

As we were entering the inlet at St. Augustine in the midst of a mean swell, a huge pillar of black smoke suddenly emerged from the midship hatches. Evidently we were on fire. But when we shut down the engine the smoke immediately dissipated. It turned out we had only fractured the exhaust on the old GM diesel. We spent the rest of that afternoon cautiously maneuvering through the drawbridge and into the inner harbor under sail, where, thankfully, we found a long, empty dock to tie up.

Two weeks later, after Cliff had rebuilt the exhaust system while the rest of us attended to other repairs, including more underwater work on the hull, we were prepared for the start of the rally.

On the morning of our fourth day out I found that we had come close to sinking during the night. The slow leaks on our port side had suddenly become very large leaks, and the water in the bilge had swiftly crept up over the cabin sole. All through my morning watch I sat on the coach roof tending the powerful gasoline-driven crash pump that had been set up on deck, and each time I started it up I marveled at the massive quantities of water that came rushing out of the boat.

Later that same afternoon, as we limped back west, one of the starboard chainplates split in two.

When we reached Florida three days later we had the boat hauled at Rybovitch-Spencer in West Palm Beach, whereupon the yard's two wood hull specialists, who were both named Don, discovered that a large section of Constellation's port side was not fastened to her frame, which prompted Cliff to make unkind remarks about the yard in Tarpon Springs. For two solid weeks the Dons worked at putting the hull back together again, re-packing seams and replacing loose planks. Meanwhile, Tim and I painted the topsides and refinished the caprail, and Cliff replaced the chainplates. When we were done the Dons asked us where we were headed.

When we told them, they laughed at us and said, andquot;This boat isn't going to Spain.andquot;

But by now it seemed our destiny and the boat's had become one. So again we cast off our lines and headed east.

The hull was tight now, and the leaks had stopped, but still we had problems. When we reached Bermuda, the alternator failed and had to be replaced. In the Azores the engine seized up and so was stripped down and rebuilt by a mad Portuguese mechanic and his son. And whenever we sailed off the wind, which was much of the time, the boat rolled over and worked, groaning like a banshee. Bulkheads and odd bits of interior joinery often sprang loose and had to be screwed down again. Meanwhile, though we never experienced anything like severe weather, our sails blew out with clockwork regularity.

Finally, though, we did make it to Spain, and as soon as we had tied up and cleared customs, Cliff broke out an enormous magnum of champagne. Smiling triumphantly, he poured us each a glass and announced with a gleam in his eye, andquot;I'm gonna send a postcard to those Dons.andquot;

We spent two weeks in Puerto Santa Maria, across the bay from Cadiz. Next, we sailed 60 miles north up the coast to the town of Huelva, situated on a fast tidal river, the Rio Odiel. Huelva is near Palos, the port from which Columbus departed on his first voyage to the New World. Here we planned to join the start of the America 500 rally, which soon would embark on a quincentennial recreation of Columbus' historic trip to the Bahamas.

Unfortunately, however, not long after we anchored in the river at Huelva our generator burned out and had to be taken ashore for repairs, so we missed the start of the rally.

We finally left Huelva and started downriver again on a Wednesday evening about an hour after sunset. We ran aground less than half an hour later near a junction in the river where an enormous white statue of Columbus stands facing west, gleaming like a tombstone in the darkness.

It was a stupid mistake, but an honest one. The river channel was well marked with flashing buoys, but we had failed to take into account that some of the buoys would be lost in the blazing lights of an oil refinery that stood downstream. First we gunned the boat hard to port, back toward the middle of the river, then hard astern, then hard to port again. All to no avail. The slack flood had turned less than an hour before, and now the strong ebb tide was quickly gathering force. In the few minutes it took for us to launch our dinghy it seemed we lost nearly a full foot of water from beneath the hull.

We quickly set an anchor well off the port bow and tried to pull the boat off on her windlass; then we tried to heel her off on a line to her masthead. Again, no luck. Dave, who had signed on as crew in Bermuda, joined me in the dinghy. Cliff ordered us back upriver to Huelva to find a boat to pull us out. Together we sped off into the darkness, and in only a moment we were caught like thieves in the spotlight of a Guardia Civil patrol boat. The police boat was clearly too small to pull a vessel as big as Constellation, but nonetheless we waved them on to the grounding and then raced up the river.

When Dave and I returned an hour later with a small tugboat, we found Constellation leaning to port at a severe 40anddeg; angle, her crew huddled like refugees on the starboard side of the deck. To tow her out now in so little water was obviously out of the question, so we released the tug on a promise it would return in the morning. Dave and I rejoined the Constellation. The Guardia Civil, we learned, had offered no prospect of assistance beyond their repeated announcements of the obvious -- that we had strayed from the channel and run aground.

So now we could do nothing but wait and monitor the inexorable progress of the tide. I wrapped myself in a blanket, wedged myself against the side of the cabin, and tried to persuade myself this was an interval, not an ending. If only I could sleep, I thought. Then on waking I would find myself on a level deck, aboard a boat that was floating free.

But I could not sleep. The last of the tide had slipped away, leaving Constellation full on her side, and her old wood hull now made very loud cracking noises at irregular intervals. They sounded like gunshots, muffled in the still dark of the night.

andquot;Must be the masts, settling against their wedges,andquot; said Cliff quietly.

But the rest of us knew he was deluding himself. Eventually the tide turned, rising again, but the port rail did not rise with it, the angle of the deck did not change, and slowly the interior of the boat began to fill with water. We got out the crash pump, our trusted ally, and started it up. But after the pump had run some 30 minutes without perceptibly slowing the flow of water into the boat, it became clear to all of us, save Cliff, that Constellation was finished.

At daybreak, as the first streaks of light stretched out across the river, the crash pump finally ran out of gas. The river, still rising, had crept up more than two feet above the port rail, and the interior of the proud, old schooner was half full of water. Stray pieces of flotsambooks and loose paper, articles of clothing, cushions from the settee, a pair of plastic parallel rulesdrifted aimlessly about the main saloon. Tim and I sat patiently in the dinghy watching Cliff as he roamed the dry side of the deck -- stowing a winch handle, the boathook, and several pieces of line. Finally, without a word, he joined us, and we pushed off and slowly motored across the river. When we reached the dock Cliff trudged wearily up the ramp toward shore, and Tim and I stood for a moment gazing at the wreck we had left behind.

andquot;Cliff and I worked real hard on that boat,andquot; said Tim, frowning.

Constellation never floated again. The following day a full salvage crew arrived on the scene, but they were unable to extract the boat as its frame was badly fractured. Within a month all her rig and gear were stripped off and her remains were left to rot in the river.