Updated: Jan 17
The sailing schooner had broken apart, lashed by Hurricane Connie's furious winds and laden with water from above and below. Cast into the roiling Chesapeake Bay, 16-year-old John Ferguson watched a body float by, then a second life preserver to grab and finally the wooden deck house that would save his life.
Hours later, the storm drove Ferguson’s makeshift raft into the shallows off of North Beach, where heroic locals noticed him amid their rescue forays.
“I’ve been cold ever since,” said Ferguson, 83, speaking on Friday evening, Jan. 13, at the Bayside History Museum in North Beach. The building where more than 100 people had gathered had served as a temporary morgue for victims of the sailing disaster — Ferguson’s father among them
It’s been 67 years since that August night in 1955, when 14 people died in the Chesapeake Bay’s worst sailing disaster in modern times. All that time Ferguson hadn’t been back.
The occasion for his return was the recent release of Deadly Gamble: The Wreck of Schooner Levin J Marvel, by Maryland author Kathy Bergren Smith. The book is published by New Bay Books and available here.
More than 100 people turned out in the lively and eclectic museum to hear Smith, right, tell of her research, ask Ferguson's recollections — and sign copies of her book. The brass bell of the Marvel recovered after the tragedy perched in front of speakers and to their right was an elegant model of the vessel.
The Fifties was an era of “dude cruises” and overnight outings on Chesapeake Bay. Ferguson’s Bloomfield, New Jersey family and other people from New York region had seen a Marvel ad in the New York Times.
What the vacationers found in Annapolis, as described by Smith — a writer who chronicles the maritime industry — was “the sorry sister ship that didn’t get bought” when two similar vessels were on the market.
The Marvel clearly hadn't been maintained to a ship-shape standard by its owner, John Meckling, a sketchy sort with a magnetic personality. It was “kind of depressing,” Ferguson recalled, coated in paint of an unappealing hue of aluminum, “She just, overall, looked very sad.”
One of the crew had showed up drunk, so Meckling departed with only a 17-year-old as crew. The 23 passengers who chose to board ignored the shabbiness. “Everybody had the same objective — have a good time," Ferguson recalled.
A good time indeed for several days of sailing to Eastern Shore ports, swimming and camaraderie. "Wow! What a day!" Ferguson gushed in in his diary. So smitten he'd become with sailing that he'd talked his father, John Sr., into booking him a second week. So thoroughly were passengers enjoying themselves a skiff was dispatched on a liquor run. Not exactly a “booze cruise,” Ferguson observed, “but apparently, everything that was drinkable was gone.”
Well-known passengers included Louis Sobel, who had headed the organization that aided Jewish victims in the post-World War II era. Sobel and his wife, Minna, perished. Also on board was Bertram Roberts, a psychiatrist and researcher at Yale.
In the North Beach audience on Saturday night, Roberts' daughter, Maggie Barkin, got to her feet during questioning from the audience.
“My parents were on the boat. My father drowned,” she said. Her family had intended to vacation on Cape Cod, Barkin recalled, but changed plans due to a polio outbreak in Boston. Her words inspired others in the audience to recall connections with the disaster, including the sight of bodies on local beaches.
“I never knew if I would ever know the whole story,” Barkin said of Smith’s book.
Deadly Gamble recounts Mecklin’s fateful decisions as captain and his trial on multiple counts of manslaughter and negligence. Some of the material in the book came from Ferguson’s diary that day, recovered after the sinking and mailed to him.
Ferguson offered advice that went beyond boat safety: “If you know any young people, tell them to keep a diary. Even one line in a day. It’s a wonderful record of your life.”