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Deadly Gamble at Calvert Symposium. Next, a Musical?

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

In eight-foot waves and gale force winds from Hurricane Connie, six people from the Levin J Marvel clung to a duck blind as Chesapeake Bay charter captains struggled in vain to reach them.

Marvel Capt. John Meckling and five passengers had been in the water for three hours. Others from the Marvel gripped pieces of the ill-fated vessel trying to stay alive. But other passengers had no such means of survival in the ferocious seas.

Even Bay-wise captains in their deadrise boats, Porky, Silvie and Smokey Joe, couldn't get to the fast-splintering duck blind amid the waves and troughs.

"We did not think anyone could reach us in time," Nancy Madden, among those in the blind, would say.

Two local fellows along the North Beach waterfront, Billy MacWilliams and George Kellam, both military-trained, volunteered for a last-ditch rescue mission. After securing a small skiff, they raced into the darkness, MacWilliams manning the outboard and Kellam, unlit cigar in his lips, baling water. from the waves. Somehow they found the blind, and two at a time, they raced all six to shore moments before the blind splintered and washed away. For their efforts each would receive a Carnegie Medal of Heroism and

other awards.

"It is a story or ordinary people becoming extraordinary heroes," Diane Donovan Harrison, (right),

a member of the Calvert County Historical Society whose family was involved in rescues, told a rapt audience.

More than 130 people turned out at Calvert Marine Museum on Sunday, Aug. 13 to relive the 1955 sinking through the memories of a survivor, heroes and experts, and Kathy Bergren Smith, author of the popular new book, Deadly Gamble: The Wreck of Schooner Levin J Marvel.

The Sinking of the Levin J Marvel Symposium was sponsored by the Historical Society, the Calvert Marine Museum, New Bay Books, and Kathy Bergren Smith.

Fourteen people perished that Friday after Meckling, who would stand trial later in Baltimore, made the unwise decision to sail his engine-less schooner with its vacationers down the Choptank River from Cambridge into the storm.

On board were well-heeled, accomplished people from the New York region who had seen an ad for the Marvel in the New York Times. They'd experienced happy days at anchor off of Poplar Island and swimming and partying at ports along the Choptank River.

"What a day! Wow!"John Ferguson, left, a rising senior at Bloomfield (N.J.) High School and a survivor of the tragedy, wrote in his diary — recovered later in tact.

Ferguson, who traveled to the symposium from Florida, recalled arriving in Annapolis with his father, John Sr., to find the "tired-looking" Marvel.

"It didn't look like the pictures, that's for sure," Ferguson said from the stage..

During the Marvel's last gasp, Ferguson recalled water pouring up through the deck as the storm lashed the boat. He and his father were next in line for tying together life jackets. Young Ferguson looked about for a young woman whose company he'd enjoyed. The boat swamped and was breaking up; he never saw his father again.

In the water, a body floated by Ferguson, and a life jacket that he grabbed. He spotted the deck house, which had broken free from the vessel, and swam to it. He would ride it to shallow water, and safety.

Bertram Roberts, a Yale University psychiatry professor and researcher, was among the passenger, along with his wife, Frances. As the tragedy unfolded, she told him, "One of us has to survive. We have these two little children."

One of those children, Maggie Roberts Barkin, right, who took part in the symposium, recalled from her mother's account that Meckling had

asked her father to assist in the life-and-death operation of tying passengers together. While some of those he aided would survive, Bert Roberts' body washed up, a large bruise on his head.

Now Barkin, of New Haven, Conn., a former actress and drama teacher, is at work on a play, a musical, about the tragedy.

In an interview she spoke of scenes in her play depicting people in the water and conversations they might have had, of her father tying passengers together before his death, and the hubris of Capt. Meckling.

"I can see it. I can just see how dramatic it would be," she said,.


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