John Gallagher, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, speaks about the state's Abandoned Boat and Debris Program and the recent work to haul out the abandoned New Hope, a 63-foot wooden trawler left in the harbor of West Ocean City.
OCEAN CITY — Worms opened the wooden hull and in washed the green water and silver minnows. The fishermen spoke less of salvaging the 63-foot trawler left in the harbor of West Ocean City.
The New Hope slouched to starboard, then sagged against the bottom sand. Five years went by; the trawler settled in. The shipworms ate away, until all that remained were bones.
Bones and questions.
The notorious trawler was entangled in a divorce — was the wedding really a wedding? — and a mistake at a Pennsylvania prison, a judge said. The case of the New Hope reached the top of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. It would end with a cleanup by a company based in Anne Arundel County — an end to a strange odyssey.
"(Wooden trawlers), they don't exist anymore. Most of them are steel," said John Gallagher, a director in DNR's boating services. "This was a pretty rare bird."
In Ocean City, the sinking of the New Hope was a slow spectacle.
The greenish decking, the broken back and rusting nose drew them. Tourists, fishermen and photographers came for the irony tied to the pier.
Their photos captured rot beneath dripping sunsets. The fishing boat's mug was printed on postcards sold in gift shops. Buy the New Hope on a throw pillow, on an iPhone case. Fog-wrapped, the trawler hung in a juried exhibition in Connecticut.
By then, the "H" of its name was nearly pulled off one side; the sea was working on the "O." Surely, the neighbors said, some prankster would repaint the scaling letters: No Hope.
"An almost eternal image," said Stanley Kolber, a New York City photographer.
The trawler was scenery when the Glen Burnie-based company came with its salvage ship, the Iron Lady. Its crane pulled apart the boat's broken ribs. The state paid for it all, about $60,000, and six times the cost of scrapping the usual, smaller abandoned boat, said Gallagher with the DNR.
The New Hope steel, that winch and dredge, was sunk at an artificial reef nine miles offshore.
Perhaps the answers sank with the steel, 55 feet deep.
The captain was missing.
"I heard he made a whole bunch of money scalloping and then abandoned her," said the fisherman Nelson, who was raised in Pasadena and captains the Valerie Marie.
There was a photo of a man in a white suit, leaning behind a young, dark-haired woman, his hand upon her bare shoulder.
Life of a trawler
Holden Beach is a lip of eroding sand off the North Carolina coast, an island with eight miles of beaches and tethered by one bridge. Here, trucks brought heart-pine timbers and cypress planks to Varnam family boat wrights.
Paul King married a Varnam daughter in 1962, then he learned the wood: that cypress planks swell to seal a hull. In 1974, he began framing a 63-foot fishing boat.
The craftsmen worked with hammers and hand saws, the boat frame raised outside on rails. Heart-pine timbers for bones, cypress planks for hull. King measured by sight the slope of the body, the rake. He sold the boat that same year.
Some Varnam boats went north to New Jersey. Some went to fishing towns along North Carolina's Pamlico Sound, within that crescent of the Outer Banks.
In Bayboro, the Gaskill family shrimped and ran a seafood company. The father, the patriarch, was Noah Gaskill. That 63-foot trawler of heart pine and cypress took his name, Capt. Noah.
In the 1980s, his grandson, Dennis Gaskill Jr., shrimped the Capt. Noah as far south as Key West. Sometimes, Dennis' oldest boy came to watch from the wheelhouse as his father pulled shrimp nets.
Dennis fished the trawler for a decade. It settled in him like a childhood home.
But there were weeks away at sea while his three boys grew. Dennis Gaskill Jr. was a sixth-generation fisherman, the family's last.
In town, in the lawyer's office, he signed the papers.
Of the buyer, he asked something.
The life ring said "Capt. Noah." Could he keep it?
Clifton Lupton Sr. agreed.
The trawler was soon renamed for his son's wife; it became the Cathy Sue.
Through the late 1990s, the son, Clifton Lupton Jr., fished the Cathy Sue from the New York coast to Florida, one day catching 50 boxes of shrimp, each box 100 pounds. Lupton sold the fishing boat in the early 2000s, he said, to another seafood company on the Pamlico Sound.
Then he lost track.
Eventually, a father and teenage son, fishermen from Virginia Beach, found the boat run-down and for sale near Lowland, North Carolina. Its registration number remained, but another name was painted on the cypress chin: New Hope.
Robert Dane Jr. and his father moved aboard the aged trawler. They scrubbed and greased and rebuilt the generator through winter. Robert Dane Jr. was 17. He got his first tattoo, a skull on his left arm, at the pier in Wildwood, New Jersey.
South to Newport News, Virginia, they dredged scallops: shucking, washing, bagging. They buried 50-pound bags in the boat's iced belly: a good day brought nearly 400 pounds, the limit — more than $3,000 profit.
The New Hope had fished three decades. The maintenance became too much.
After one year, about 2006, they sold the wooden trawler to a Vietnamese fisherman. The fisherman worked from the same docks in Cape May, New Jersey. They sold it for $10,000 cash and a $40,000 check, Robert Dane Jr. said.
He had to drive to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to cash the check at the man's bank.
First, he stopped by the docks.
The new crew, he said, was christening the trawler according to Vietnamese custom.
He said they were roasting a pig.
'I cannot do anythingto step on the party'
Blessings for 99 years of happiness came from the guests at the Grand China Restaurant in Lancaster.
It was October 1994. Ly Pham, in her white dress, went home and thought, "He's a good man. I'm very happy to marry him," she would tell the court.
The divorce case was heard in March 2006: Phuong Truc Pham vs. Ly Thi Pham. They had two young children.
Abandoned boats are often mired in liens and legal complexities. The sinking of the New Hope was a monument to complexity.
In the Lancaster courtroom, March 2006, the couple disagreed on their wedding date. That date determined how their money would be split.
Phuong Pham told the court he once returned from fishing to a surprise: his own wedding.
"Her daddy give to me a box like this, have two rings in there already. I take it out and give to her one. That is how they tell me to do it," he said in the transcript.
The court-appointed divorce master, D. Scott Eaby, spoke up.
"If I believe your story here, and I'm not saying I don't, if we take it as true, this is a very unusual set of circumstances," he said. "So your wife thought she was getting married and you knew it was a wedding ceremony, but you didn't want to get married?"
"You could have walked away?"
"Because my friend come over already."
"So your friends being there, that's the only reason you didn't stop the ceremony?"
"Right. I cannot, you know, make her family go down this way. I cannot do anything to step on the party."
The divorce took two years, until May 2008. Eaby accepted that Phuong Pham was married that day. The fisherman was ordered to pay his ex-wife $160,000 from his three rental houses in Lancaster.
The money was due within four months. One year passed without payment. And the New Hope sagged at the pier in West Ocean City.
In April 2009, Phuong Pham's attorney, Samuel Mecum, discovered the fisherman had mortgaged the rental houses for more than $250,000, Mecum told the court. He asked to withdraw from the case.
Ly Pham was authorized to subpoena bank records and find the money. Her own attorney, Lucile Longo, wrote the court about Phuong Pham. "He has taken all the equity from the properties and apparently absconded with the cash." (He could not be reached for this story, despite numerous attempts.)
In May 2009, the manager of the pier, Campbell, faxed Pham a note.
Please call me ASAP. Your plug on your boat is melted.
That same month, May 2009, Pham was sentenced to prison for failing to make the divorce payments. He was supposed to be imprisoned until a June hearing or until he posted $100,000.
Instead, the Lancaster County Prison mistakenly released him without the money, according to court records.
"If an inmate is released on the wrong date, whether it's due to paperwork, miscommunication, misinterpretation of the sentencing sheets," said Tammy Moyer, the prison administrator, "it would most likely result in an employee being disciplined. So I am not at liberty to discuss the details."
It was June 2009. A warrant was issued for Phuong Truc Pham: 42 years old, brown eyes, black hair, 5 feet 7 inches.
In Lancaster, Ly Pham was authorized to sell the New Hope.
"The boat New Hope sank in the bay outside of Ocean City, Maryland, thus it could not be sold," her attorney, Longo, wrote the court.
In July 2009, at the pier, the manager Campbell pumped out the trawler, according to his log. Unaware, he faxed Phuong Pham again.
Your vessel New Hope, to my knowledge, has not been attended to since October 2008. Since then, she has almost sunk at the dock. Also, her pumps started a fire.
The trawler sagged. Paint wore from the wooden hull. The shipworms bore in.
Two years went by.
In May 2011, a complaint was reported to the Natural Resources Police. The New Hope had sunk tied to the pier. It sat on the bottom, derelict.
"Determining the current owner of this vessel is problematic," the officer wrote in the report. "While U.S. Coast Guard records list the owner as being Mr. Phuong T. Pham; by way of court order in Pennsylvania, Ly T. Pham also could be a viable owner, as well as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
Two more years went by.
In August 2013, Phuong Pham was arrested on the warrant in Philadelphia, said Sgt. Christopher Leppler in the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office. In court records filed November 2013, the attorney Longo said Ly Pham was still owed about $130,000.
Ly Pham said she has never seen the money.
She saw, however, that photo from the trawler: a man in a white suit, a dark-haired woman.
It was Phuong Pham, she said, with his new wife.
In June 2015, DNR officials awarded the final contract for the New Hope salvage.
Also last year, Phuong Pham renewed his federal permit to captain fishing boats, said Ted Hawes, a chief of permits for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Pham's permit, Hawes said, is valid through 2018.
By the fall of 2015, the case of the New Hope had reached the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. Then it reached the Attorney General's Office.
The Glen Burnie-based defense contractor Murtech Inc. won the job for about $60,000.
Murtech's Boston-built Iron Lady, once a dredge for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, arrived at the harbor of West Ocean City in October 2015.
Steel-hulled, heavy enough to haul a grown blue whale, the Iron Lady settled beside the sunken fishing boat.
The New Hope was worn and grayed as the pilings. Among fishermen, there was no more talk about what a fine wooden trawler it once was, and could be again. Bits of broken hull bumped around in the sunken stern.
With regret and exasperation, the neighbors and fishermen watched its last days, the end of the odyssey.
"For $60,000, I would have taken a chain saw to it," fisherman Roger Wooleyhan said.
"This boat sort of had a soul," said Leah LeCates, who used to live on the harbor. "I probably have some Christmas pictures with it."
Paul Fohner, of Davidsonville, who moved to Ocean Pines, slowed his own boat beside the New Hope. "It's been an eyesore for too long."
With torches, the Murtech crew cut the steel and piled it aboard the Iron Lady. Nine miles offshore, the steel was sunk as reef scaffolding.
Mussels will grow on it, then hard corals. Then soft corals will come, such as sea whip, which may grow tall and thin, the color of carrots.
The Iron Lady's crane, with its metal mouth, jaws they call a clam bucket, pulled apart the hull of heart pine and cypress. Jeremiah Kogon, on Murtech's crew, said it must have filled 20 truckloads.
Just another job, he said. "I didn't know the back story. I don't think anybody knew."
The worm-rotted wood was dumped at a landfill, except for some souvenirs.
Come May, the nonprofit Ocean City Reef Foundation Inc. will hold its annual dinner and a New Hope souvenir will be auctioned.
It's a particular cypress plank, the familiar bit of the notorious, sunken fishing boat.
The name itself was saved, or somewhat.
The crew cut out the plank with the poetry and irony, the "New Hope."