Whaling Museum hosts an evening with The Accidental Sailor

Whaling Museum hosts an evening with The Accidental Sailor

Above, Simon shows the audience a photo of the crew right after being rescued. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Danger on the high seas: Reliving ‘the perfect storm’
A painting by George Schoenberg depicts the rescue on Oct. 29.

By Heidi Sutton

The Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor hosted a presentation of “The Accidental Sailor” with guest speaker and storyteller Nelson Simon last Thursday evening. In front of a captivated audience, Simon recounted how he and his crew members were caught in “the perfect storm” off the coast of North Carolina and how they all miraculously survived. With a slide show and readings from his journal, Simon gave a dramatic day-by-day account up until that fateful hour when the ship starting taking on water and had to be abandoned.

Simon opened the lecture by reading the names of his crewmates: Joey Gelband, Laingdon Schmitt, Jen Irving, Peter Abelman, Damian Sailors, Marty Hanks, Barbara Treyz and John Nuciforo.

“A ship in a storm is like a tiny quadrant of order in a huge universe of chaos and it only works if everyone does their job, and these people did,” said Simon solemnly.

The Anne Kristine

In late Oct. 1991, the Brooklyn resident found himself aboard the Anne Kristine, a 150-year-old Norwegian schooner bound for Bermuda from Mills Basin, Brooklyn. The 95-foot ship, which had been lovingly rebuilt by explorer Norman Baker in 1986, was to be transported to Bermuda and then continue on to Puerto Rico to take part in a scientific expedition to study whale behavior.

Simon had second thoughts from the very beginning, a sort of sixth sense about the whole thing, but signed up nevertheless as the last, and least experienced, ninth crew member. Why did he do it? “Maybe being an immigrant, we are taught to fit in, go along, to accommodate people. I didn’t want to be a bother,” explained Simon, who was born in La Paz, Bolivia. Though he had recently sailed on the Clearwater Sloop for a week down the Hudson River holding educational tours, he couldn’t help but wonder what he had gotten himself into.

What was supposed to be a pleasure cruise, turned out to be a near death and life-changing experience for Simon as the ship found itself caught between a nor’easter and Hurricane Grace, battered relentlessly by enormous waves for days until the captain sent out a Mayday.

Unlike the fishing boat Andrea Gail and its six-member crew who were lost in the storm never to be seen again, the crew of the Anne Kristine were all rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard on Oct. 29. Simon described how each crew member had to jump into the raging sea one at a time with a life jacket and flashlight and wait to be plucked out by a helicopter rescue crew.

Last seen turning sideways in the waves, the ship was lost at sea.

From left, friends Paul Maggio and Jonny Rosenblatt, storyteller Nelson Simon and Joan Lowenthal, Elizabeth Fusco and Amanda Vengroff of The Whaling Museum. Photo by Heidi Sutton

“Anne Kristine did everything that we asked of her,” stressed Simon. “She held up under the most challenging circumstances. She was completely seaworthy. There was some talk afterward that she had let us down but nothing could be further from the truth.” Instead, Simon blamed human error, citing several key mistakes including “heading east instead of west” and not priming the pumps properly.

For the crew, telling Norman Baker that his beloved ship had sunk was hard. “Anne Kristine wasn’t just a ship, she was a community,” said Simon. Baker held a memorial for the ship shortly after at his home in Massachusetts — 150 people showed up, including the nine-member crew that sailed on her last.

Even after 26 years, Simon still gets emotional speaking about the event. “In preparing this [lecture] I remembered how afraid I was,” said Simon. He described the scene right before he was rescued — “a young man standing on the ship’s deck, looking up at the [midnight sun], wondering how he got here and waiting for his chance to get away.”