I awoke that rainy morning to the rumbles of thunder. From my upstairs bedroom on Kent Island, I could hear the long low blasts of foghorns as big ships passed beneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. They sounded eerily closer than usual this morning at 4:00 AM. I listened to the ships until it was apparent that I wouldn’t go back to sleep. I hadn’t been fishing as much as I like to, going mostly early morning before work in less than optimum conditions.

I have limited opportunities to fish, so once again, despite the dreadful weather, I decided to make the best of the time I had available. I call my boat Thunder Road. The name is homage to the 1950’s song and movie by Robert Mitchum, but also because the locally-built Judge 27CC is well suited to difficult weather conditions just like this mornings. I grabbed my phone, put on some rain gear, and backed the boat out of the driveway.

It was pitch black when I arrived at the Matapeake boat ramp. Oddly, the lights were out on the pier. It wasn’t windy, but a dense fog had set in. I launched into the dark water and idled slowly toward the mouth of the inlet without my sonar or GPS so I wouldn’t destroy what little night vision I had. The fog was so thick I could barely see past the front of my boat. I wiped my glasses and breathed a sigh of relief as I slipped between the end of the pilings and the rock jetty. I was surprised to look up and see the shadow of a lone figure standing at the end of the pier. Another hardcore fisherman I thought, but then I noticed he didn’t have a fishing rod. My wave wasn’t returned as I continued out into the murky open waters of the Chesapeake. There was a cold chill in the air, so I pulled up my hood and swung the bow north into a strong outgoing tide.

I felt safer now about turning on the GPS on my console, but when I flipped the switch, the screen just flickered a few times. I fumbled in vain with the wires behind the cockpit. To make matters worse, my marine radio wouldn’t come on either.

“Oh well,” I thought. “It’s only a mile to the pilings on the Eastern Shore side of Bay Bridge.” I’d made that run a hundred times and I felt like I could do it in my sleep.

I pressed down on the throttle, my boat lurched forward, and I set out for the pilings. After an uneventful five-minute run into the darkness, I slowed down to look for the glow of the lights on the bridge. The fog seemed even thicker now.  The Bay Bridge is nearly five miles long and very well lit. I bet you could see it at night from space. I didn’t see any light at all so I shut off the engine to listen for traffic. The only thing I heard was the slap of the waves against my fiberglass hull and the slight rumble of a ship in the distance. Apparently, I had farther to go.

I continued in what seemed to be the same direction for another five minutes, repeating the process of stopping, looking, and listening.

Nothing.

I’ve piloted boats in the fog since I was twelve years old. I know how easy it is to get turned around in zero-visibility conditions, but I felt certain that I was still headed north. I idled onward.

Stopping every two or three minutes now, I was getting frustrated. There were still no lights or traffic noise. How could I have missed something as big as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge? To make matters worse, the ship I heard earlier sounded like it was  getting closer. Had the current turned me farther west than I thought? Was I near the shipping channel? My first inclination was to keep going, but I looked at my watch and noticed it was only ten minutes until sunrise. Continuing on would only complicate my situation. Even though I knew the outgoing current would push me south, I decided to stay put and drift with the tide until my visibility improved. I sat alone in the darkness and listened.

The wind was building, and it was raining harder. I heard another rumble of thunder in the distance. I was getting more and more concerned about the approaching ship. In the worst case scenario, I was indeed in the shipping channel and directly in its path. If so, I hoped the captain would notice me on radar. If he did, he might have time to take evasive action.

Louder now, the  ship didn’t sound like a freighter or even a diesel-driven tug. There was more of a pound-whoosh pulse to the motor, almost like the chug of an old steam engine. It’s not that unusual to see restored ships on the Bay, but it seemed impossible that there might be a steamer out here in such miserable conditions.

What was I hearing?

As I listened and worried, I caught a sound from the opposite direction. A clanking noise over the low roar of the waves and more. It was familiar, but I couldn’t quite figure it out, like the amplified rhythmic creak of a well-worn rocking chair. My mind raced. What could it be?

Suddenly, it hit me. I was hearing the wind in rigging, the creak of a ship’s hull, and water rumbling off a big wooden bow. A boat was approaching under sail and it had to be a big one. Who would take an old sailing ship out in this weather?

I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rise.

My glasses fogged up again, so I took them off and cleaned them. Now, I could see better. It was getting lighter and there was an occasional  clearing in the fog. I caught a glimpse of something big off my port bow. Was I imagining this? Through the mist I could make out the shape of an old wooden schooner.

That’s crazy!

What was she doing here?

I estimated her course and speed and hoped she would miss me.

Behind me, the chug-whoosh of the other ship was getting louder. There was no doubt about it. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had to take evasive action. I reached down to start my engine when I heard a panicked shout from a lookout on the bow of the old wooden schooner.

“Lights of a steamer, dead on ahead!”

I watched as the ancient schooner leaned hard to port and lurched back around toward me. The roar of the other big ship behind me now was deafening. A flash of lightning cut through the fog. I turned around and my blood ran cold. There was no mistaking the dark looming lines of an antique iron steamship. The schooner had cut right across her bow. A collision was imminent. My boat rocked hard as the steamer’s wake broadsided me from starboard. I grabbed for the t-top rail and missed. Falling hard, I hit my head on the opposite rail. Everything went dim.

When I came to my wits, things were fuzzy: blurred memories of crushing steel and splintering wood, an explosion, bright flashes, bloodcurdling screams. I reached into my coat pocket and found my cell phone. Speed-dialing the Coast Guard’s emergency number, I pulled myself up to look over the rail and braced for the carnage.

There was nothing. Nothing but the dark bay, the fog, and drizzling rain.

The phone crackled, “Ensign Davis, Coast Guard Station Baltimore, what is your emergency?”

I shouted into the speaker that I’d just witnessed a terrible accident – a collision between an antique schooner and a steamer, somewhere west of Matapeake.

“Hold please,” came the unexpected response. I heard a few clicks as I was transferred several times. Finally, a comforting voice came on the line.

“Captain, this is Commander Wayne Tilghman, U.S. Coast Guard retired. Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I responded, “but there’s been a horrendous crash.”

There was a pause on the line. I wondered if we might have been cut off. Then, came his reply.

“Captain, it’s the 15th, the Ides of March.”

Another long pause, then he continued, “In 1912 there was a gruesome wreck off Matapeake between the schooner Herbert D. Maxwell and the steam boat, Gloucester. Four men died, two of them were beheaded. Their bodies were never found. Thank you for the report. We get it every year on this date. You are number one hundred and two.”

Click. The phone went dead.

I called back immediately. Ensign Davis again, “Please reconnect me to Commander Tilghman,” I shouted.

“Sir, we have no one here by that name,” he tersely responded. “Now please stand down and keep this line open for real emergencies.”

There was silence on the line.

I drifted alone in the rain and fog and listened to the sound of the wind and the waves.

The Herbert D. Maxwell still lies beneath the waters of the Chesapeake Bay a few miles southwest of the Matapeake Pier.  For more information, visit http://www.chesapeakelighttackle.com/2011/05/25/wreck-of-the-herbert-d-maxwell/

 

Related posts:

Wreck of the Herbert D. Maxwell
Monday 4:00 PM Update
The Mansion at Romancoke

Posted Friday, October 25th, 2013 at 10:25 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “An Incident At Matapeake”

  1. Roger T says:

    Shawn,Good story.Made the hair stand up on my arm!
    Interesting read on Herbert Maxwell wreck.

    Been caught in the fog before,no fun and eerie too.

  2. Becky says:

    Creepy! Good read!

  3. Jesse R. says:

    I never knew about that and I fish there a lot. That’s so cool.

  4. Jackson O. says:

    There you go! I’ve sent this to several friends. Thanks for a good story with a real history lesson.

  5. Brian P says:

    Great story, Happy Hlloween!

  6. SVfisherman says:

    I know the kind of crappy weather you fish in so I believed this almost to the end!

  7. RiverCat09 says:

    Great story!

  8. reece L. says:

    Now that is -cool- creepy too, made even more so by the link to the true story of the wreck.

  9. Dan D, says:

    Very creative! The pictures pulled me in, hook, line, and sinker.

  10. Peggy says:

    Thank you for posting such an engrossing story! Love the history of the Chesapeake and ghost stories as well.

  11. Tony says:

    Very cool story! Thank you for that!

  12. Kim S. says:

    Loved it!

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