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Barcarole cruises south for winter; The Chesapeake Bay boat's voyage from Nantucket to Maryland is the 'roughest passage' for the captain and his crew of two.


Capt. Ellery B. Woodworth had just recalled an old Navy line when he heard the cabin cruiser Katie Marie radio a distress call to the Coast Guard.

His boat, Barcarole, a 30-foot rolling, pitching beauty of an old wooden boat built for the Chesapeake Bay, was headed due west in 45 miles of choppy Atlantic Ocean swells from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to Block Island, R.I., before eventually sailing to Maryland.

Woodworth's yarn, one of many flowing from his life in universities, politics, choral music and at sea, was the Navy order to new ship commanders: "Take her out, and bring her back, and don't hit anything."

But it was time to get serious. The engine of the modern power cruiser Katie Marie had stopped a half-mile from Block Island, out to sea from its home state, Rhode Island. The operator had dropped anchor. He, his wife and their two children, from Providence, were aboard. They needed help. Woodworth and his two crewmen scanned the swelling seas ahead.

"This is the Motor Vessel Barcarole," Woodworth said over the radio in a mellow bass-baritone voice that sings each summer at the Berkshire Choral Festival. "We think we have sighted the Katie Marie and are proceeding to offer assistance. We are a crew of three on a course of 275 degrees."

Within minutes in 3-and 4-foot waves at flank speed of 10 mph, we threw a line to the disabled boat. After an hour of strained pulling in crashing seas, the boats reached the safety of Old Harbor on Block Island. The grateful captain and family thanked us.

Like some other sailors of larger, newer craft -- power or sail -- costing either side of $1 million -- they admired the almost 19th-century lines and look of the 54-year-old cabin cruiser which cost a few thousand dollars when new.

"She just runs and runs and runs," said Woodworth of Stevenson, who was guiding its fourth round trip between Maryland and Nantucket where he summers after having grown up in Cambridge, Mass.

During the 11-day passage, tying up in ports with the crew sleeping on board most nights, Barcarole cruised south for the winter with solitary monarch butterflies and changing skies.

One sunny day, it sailed on a glassy sea. On rainy days, the bridge windshield wiper worked furiously. On windy days, waves splashed over the bow. The boat cruised in empty waters but also past scores of buoys, lobster pots, lighthouses, dunnage, logs, ferries, fishermen, steamers, yachts, outboards, dredging boats, bridges and Navy ships, but disappointingly, no submarines out of New London, Conn.

"It's a great adventure in scenery, but this was my roughest passage yet," said Woodworth. Yet, despite his two new crew members who took turns navigating, steering and looking out for trouble, no one got seasick, fell overboard, jumped ship, mutinied or even argued. The old sea dog's motto -- "Floggings will continue until morale improves" -- was unneeded.

The boat surfed down Atlantic swells from Hurricane Floyd, navigated a tricky current/tide channel at Watch Hill Light, R.I., into Mystic, Conn., cruised along choppy Long Island Sound, tied up opposite Hart Island, New York's Potter's Field graveyard of 750,000 dead that no one visits, passed through treacherous Hell Gate on the East River between Manhattan and Queens, N.Y., was turned back by head winds at Sandy Hook, N.J., left off his two crewmen at Forked River, N.J., for commitments at work and a grandson's birthday party, and sailed home alone into Delaware Bay, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and up the North East River to the Bay Boat Works for wintering in North East.

"Stay your course," Woodworth told the helmsman at the start, one of many bits of advice evenly offered. "The faster boats usually change theirs." He also advised: "We may miss a few buoys, but never dinner."

Ernie was going home after 58 years. He took the helm before passing beneath the Whitestone Bridge linking Queens and the Bronx, N.Y. As College Point emerged off the port bow, he blew the Barcarole's horn a long blast and tipped his cap. He had began life there with his parents who had immigrated from Germany.

Woodworth is a cautious but self-confident mariner who prefers calm waters, sticking near land and yielding to others in questionable approaches when having the right of way. The waters were quieter the last leg of the trip.

"It was beautiful going home," he said.

Now retired, the captain earned a bachelor's degree in government in 1954 and a master's degree in education in 1960, both from Harvard University. He was special assistant to five presidents of the Johns Hopkins University, a legislative aide to former U.S. Sen. Daniel Brewster, unsuccessful candidate for Maryland delegate in 1990 and a captain in the Naval Reserve, which he served 30 years.

He has sailed and cruised for years. In 1995, he earned his Coast Guard masters license to operate ships on inland waterways up to 100 tons. His vessel was built in 1954 at Bay Boat Works, was owned by the firm's boat-building Green family and then another group before he bought it in 1968.

"She's a good running boat," said Bob Green, one of the original builders of the craft that was first named the Deep Six.

Ten years later, Woodworth gave it a new 170-horsepower Volvo-Penta engine. The Barcarole looks like a trim lobster boat designed by Oscar de la Renta. Solid. Simple. Slim. It is a "Chesapeake Bay deadrise," referring to the walls of the bow that rise almost straight up, not flared as today's boats.

This helps create the picture of a pencil writing a small wake on the water. The slimness also gives it its roll. An observer in Nantucket thought it too small for an ocean trip where land can disappear. One man said it was like his little wooden bathtub ships when he was a boy: "When we get older, why don't they make them anymore?"

Modest length (fits inside two 10-yard markers on a football field). Modest width, or beam (9.5 feet), modest draft (3 feet) and modest height (10 feet). Six tons of blue hull, white superstructure, planks abutting rather than overlapping. Three-quarter enclosed bridge and two-person flying bridge topside featuring the Maryland flag ("What's that?" other sailors ask). Cabin that sleeps four or five. Upside down, inflated rubber lifeboat tied down on afterdeck.

A pretty boat with a poetic name that most fellow sailors don't recognize. Opera lovers know the Barcarole as the beautifully flowing instrumental piece in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffman." Woodworth comes from a musical family, once taught music for seven years at Gilman School and was choral director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for four years.

Barcarole departed Nantucket Harbor on a clear calm September morning, delayed for a day by Hurricane Floyd. Goodbyes had been said to Alex, a boy of 8, his parents and a cat named Marmalade, dock neighbors who were living full-time on a sailboat, some of several friendly boat bums greeted along the way. "Sail safely," Alex said.

Ahead was the first of daily trips of 45 to 73 miles.

"My, my, my, my, my," the captain murmured in characteristic sing-song fashion as we cruised toward Martha's Vineyard in smooth seas. "It doesn't get any better than this."

At the fishing port of Menemsha, a large crowd admired the sunset a la Key West. It was a dry town, but some bottles were in evidence, as people stood around on the beach talking quietly. Dead elsewhere, the summer was still going strong there.

The passage to Block Island started and ended in troubled waters under gray rainy skies. The gusts and swells over five hours were spaced far enough apart to avoid extreme discomfort but not 25-degree rolls. Temperature was in the 50s and 60s.

The next day in Mystic, Conn., the tiny boat faced the closed railroad bridge for Amtrak trains to Boston. The Barcarole needed 4 more feet of space.

"Captain, I'll call Boston to see if I can open it," the bridge tender said by radio.

Boston said OK, the bridge swung open, the boat sailed up to another bridge, a bascule type which opens like hands praying. Awaiting beyond were the old whaler Charles Morgan and other Mystic Seaport relics. We slept at a friend's house that night.

At sea, living on board was like camping, except you tried to keep your balance while relieving yourself or eating. When at sea, you relieved yourself in the head -- the telephone booth-sized bathroom -- but at night in public facilities on land. After a while, even the toilet on land moved. Showers lost their appeal. You ate sandwiches for lunch or heated canned stew on a portable gas stove for dinner. Getting ice for perishable food and evening libations was as vital as gasoline.

So was eating out occasionally. One bar with maritime decor in the Bronx had a ship's life ring that looked deliberately scuffed. It was marked "Titanic" on top and "London" on the bottom. It was either a great joke or the owner didn't know the Titanic was out of Liverpool and never quite made London on the Thames.

"Change course to 460 degrees," the navigator said to the helmsman the next day in Long Island Sound. "You got an old compass," answered the wheel man whose instrument registered the normal 360. Humor was in evidence, but so was occasional bad visibility. "On the port side, is that a red can or a green one?" the wheel man asked the lookout searching for telltale buoys. "Sailboat," was the answer.

Early on, when no disaster had been recorded in the boat's log, Woodworth announced, "The captain's retiring to his bunk. Call if there's an emergency."

It became a daily period of added concentration for the new hands studying the charts, compass, buoys, depth meter and vessels. But all along, there was a heightened level of awareness of things on all quarters. Reading a book while under way seemed as appropriate as leaping overboard.

After Norwalk, Conn., we had a breathtaking lesson on the curvature of the earth. The bare tops of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center and the Empire State Building more than 37.1 nautical miles away began sticking out of the waters of Long Island Sound. Then half the towers, then three-quarters. The whole skyline developed.

Making the East River passage through New York City was memorable. The river is swift, ship traffic heavy. Especially tricky is Hell Gate, where the Harlem River joins the East River in a busy intersection of currents and tides. You don't run out of gas, break down, fall overboard. The new crew members wore life jackets and had heard instructions on marking a man overboard, throwing out life rings and dropping anchor.

The world swept by in four hours by the clock but in 15 minutes in our eyes and ears and noses. The islands of Rikers, North Brother, South Brother, Wards, Roosevelt, Governors. The Empire State, the United Nations and all the famous buildings. At the Chrysler Building, the sun ricocheted in a brilliant flash. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty offered historical illumination in the Upper Bay.

The captain's only moment of visible anger came in response to bad manners in Barnegat Bay boat traffic in New Jersey. ("This also happens in the Chesapeake Bay.") A showoff in his huge power boat -- one of many -- roared by a few feet away and almost swamped us, requiring a quick turn to put the stern to the wake.

Woodworth yelled an oath but gave them the thumbs down rather than the finger up. "The flying bridge's the best place on the boat to see things," Woodworth later concluded. "No one's sat up there much this trip. We've been busy. Not bad, not bad."

Ernest F. Imhoff is a former assistant managing editor for the Evening Sun and The Sun. Frederick N. Rasmussen is an obituary writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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