by William Pringle
I was the last person to re playing our tune again. e lived with the question of why I didn't check on them earlier that morning, drop what I was doing and go, be sure they knew.
Bret Slocum was adamant anyway, impatient to be south, and was the best seaman, sailor and boatbuilder that I had ever met. Indeed, he had been my mentor, teaching me a thousand things, large and small, that those who live on the ocean should know. Abby wasn't so sure about leaving, but she had made only one bluewater passage before, was newly in love with Bret, and trusted him completely.
Maybe I was unduly concerned. Jusfine was a lovely small open schooner, a 42-foot Tancook Whaler, built by Bret on Hassel Island, St. Thomas. He was apologetic about entering wooden-boat races because Jusfine, authentic in every other way, was one of the first boats built in the Caribbean of cold-moulded plywood. She had solid wooden masts, no engine, stones for ballast, a big traditional open cockpit for fishing, and a snug, comfortable cuddy forward of the foremast. She sailed sweetly and effortlessly, won many races, and was the center of attention in every port she entered. Bret maintained her perfectly, truly "all a-taut-o", scrubbed and coiled down.
We had first met in Martinique in November, 1971, when I had my own incomparable head-turner, the 60-foot cutter Clover. The circumstances were not ideal, as we had just lost the rig off of La Perle rock, and had come staggering back into Fort-de-France with the mast pieces all strapped to the deck while we furiously hand-pumped fuel to the balky Lister diesel. Bret was over to help immediately; in the next few days, he helped organize pulling the mast stump (it had broken at the lowers), floating everything ashore at Chantier Grant (Clover drew way too much to get in to their dock), and getting the 90-foot mast laid out and lined up in a covered shed. It was the beginning of a great friendship, and the two boats' crews saw lots of each other in various Caribbean anchorages over the next two years. When we decided to sail north, Bret's 13-year-old daughter Margot sailed up with us from St. Thomas to Martha's Vineyard, before going to live with her mom for the summer. Jusfine had arrived a few weeks earlier than us, so we partied a bit, then went our separate ways for the summer.
That summer Bret cruised Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, stopping to build two salt-box houses for a customer in Truro, and doing a few rigging jobs, but by the middle of September Jusfine was snugly rafted alongside Clover at Concordia Yachts in Padanarum, Massachusetts, where we were having a bowsprit installed, and rebuilding the galley. Bret was totally provisioned to go south, but broke, and anxious to get back to the Big Warm, where he had several lucrative projects waiting. He whiled away the time building a sort of turtle-back over his cockpit, using his dory, some dunnage lumber and a sculling oar, covered with several tarps, to reduce the exposure of his open cockpit to possible boarding seas, leaving only an area aft to steer.
The westerly gales. They were truly the cause of what was to follow. They blew unrelentingly that autumn, never less than 35 knots, frequently at 50. And it was cold, below freezing night and day, slowing down the work on Clover. In order to conserve his provisions, Bret ate many meals with us; it was obvious that the waiting was wearing on him as one after another the gales howled through. He would have been still more morose had he not met the lovely and adventurous Abby Lederman, an unattached 22-year-old friend of ours who was going to catch a ride south on Clover. In short order, she had moved aboard Jusfine.
"The very first wind with any north in it and we're out of here, Bones," Bret vowed. "When the butter stays hard during the daytime, it's time to head south. And it's been like that for awhile now."
The morning of October 24 was foggy. For the first time in 5 weeks it was not blowing a whole gale. We'd all been listening to the weather forecast on WWV the night before, and Hurricane Gilda had gone ashore in North Carolina; maybe that had blocked the incessant westerlies. Whatever, a light air from the north got up in the late afternoon, and Bret got underway with a minimum of farewells. "See ya in Saint Thomas," about summed it up. We were wrapping up our own work, and would be only a couple of weeks behind them.
But that north wind, fitful at best, died away after dark, and wondering what had happened to Jusfine, I set off in the Zodiac to find them. They were anchored about four miles away, outside the breakwater, eating dinner. I asked if they wanted to have a tow back and raft up again until a better wind came along. "Hey, we're fine here, and when the tide turns tomorrow, we're out. Hey, if it gets up, we can always duck into Cuttyhunk or Menemsha. See ya down the line!"
At five the next morning, October 25, the weather report was very, very bad. Hurricane Gilda, which was supposed to be dissipating in North Carolina, had rebounded from the coast, and was heading northeast and strengthening. Jusfine had no electricity, and so no VHF, but she had a battery-powered short-wave receiver that got WWV. I just assumed that Bret was listening to it, and got busy securing Clover for a hurricane-strength blow. It wasn't until 10AM that I took off in the Zodiac to check on Jusfine. They were gone. Not a sail on the horizon. But Bret was a seaman of vast experience. And he had mentioned maybe stopping in Menemsha, an excellent hurricane harbor on the northwest shore of Martha's Vineyard. In any case, there was nothing to do. Jusfine was gone.
On October 26, 1973, the Nantucket lightship reported sustained winds of 115 knots, and seas of 45 feet.
Jusfine was never heard from again.
Copyright© 2001 Compass Publishing