One night forty years ago, the old Onward dragged her anchor in the night and beat in her stern on the rocky coast of Prickly Pear Island, one of islands forming North Sound in Virgin Gorda. A sudden swell had come up—it was winter and one could expect to have ground seas in anchorages exposed to the north, but this one came on exceptionally fast and big like they sometimes do.
The Onward was a classic old wood boat with a deep keel in a shallow anchorage. Captain Zane received a medal for rescuing his charter guests, but the boat was lost. He took it hard. A short stocky guy in his early 70s, with a stricken look, he haunted Fearless Fred’s, the rowdy Yacht Haven bar—an old captain with no deck beneath his feet.
Soon, salvagers and the northerly ground seas had picked the Onward clean; all that was left was the keel, a great big lead casting that must have originally weighed 20 tons. There it sat, blunt monument to the sea’s might, awash, forgotten by the wide old world—until the Coral Bay boat builders got their hulls finished and started looking around for ballast.
Lead, of course, is the ballast of choice, assuming that gold is beyond most people’s reach – which was certainly true of the Coral Bay boat builders who were nothing if not frugal. Most of the easy scores were accomplished by the time I was ready. My boat, Breath, a 42′ Venus designed by Paul Johnson, required some eight to nine tons of ballast. I looked into using lead from worn out batteries, I acquired lead from the x-ray department of the old hospital, I picked bullets out of the St. John shooting range . . . lots of work for little lead. I was ripe for Danny Linkey’s idea.
"Let’s get what’s left of the old Onward‘s keel . . . if we invest in a chainsaw and cut at low tide there’s lots of lead still available."
But first we had to get permission from the BVI’s Keeper of the Wrecks. This was, at that time (1980), Bert Kilbride, eminence grise of Virgin Island skin-divers who had spent many years combing Anegada’s Horse Shoe Reef looking for treasure. Opinions varied as to whether he’d been successful—he kept luring investors with the possibilities of 400 wrecks foundered on that reef over the last 500 years.
So one afternoon we knocked off early and jumped into an RIB inflatable with a new 15 horsepower outboard and belted up to Saba Rock where Kilbride had built a cute house guarded by a family of schipperkes. Bert was well over 70, with a head of unruly white hair, trim and strongly built, if wrinkled, with a wife half his age. He came to the door in a Speedo swimsuit. The little house was full of mementos, old anchors outside, bronze drift bolts, and toredo carved driftwood. He casually dropped two apparently gold coins into an ashtray and watched a pulse of excitement shoot through Danny and me.
We had a pleasant hour, paid him a nominal fee, and got back to St. John before midnight.
The lead was there, all right, but not much of it protruded out of the water. The previous salvors had done their work well. Time and again
our chainsaw gulped seawater, thought it was dying, and gave up the
ghost until its carburetor was disassembled and cleaned—a lengthy process.
We ended up having to raise the keel higher. The key player here was a five ton hydraulic jack which didn’t seem to mind working underwater. We would jack up one side of the keel as far as it would go, stack rocks under it to hold the gain, then start again with the jack. At first we lost most of our progress every time we took the jack out. We learned we needed flat, even-sided rocks, and even then it was a case of two steps forward, one step backwards each time we withdrew the jack.
We were working in about three to four feet of water, it was January, and the water was cold. Often a swell would make it impossible to work. We would labor for hours to slide the keel forward precious inches, one time even a half foot up closer to shore, and higher out of the water. We had to watch that we didn’t catch our hand and drown in three feet of water.
Finally the keel was high enough out of the water to use the chain saw on it. We’d spend hours knee-deep in water, sawing. Pretty soon, each of us found our métier. I was good in the water with the jack, Joe was good at roaming far down the coast for the perfect stackable rock, and Danny had a knack for making camp—keeping the fire stoked up, the coffee pot bubbling, the rum bottle near at hand. He found some driftwood and made a comfortable bench we could sit on.
Danny was also the chain saw mechanic. We went through three chain saws by the time we left Prickly Pear with enough lead to cover the cost of the chain saws—barely.
"Well, what did you expect, trying to run a chain saw on salt water instead of gas and oil?" asked Augie after hearing our story. Augie was a master of the pithy and sometimes withering remark . Once, after watching me try to hook up a trailer to the ball hitch on a car, he pronounced me a mechanical idiot.
"Augie, you shouldn’t say that!" expostulated his lady, Sylvia.
"Why not, it’s true," he said matter of factly, and I had to agree.
Meanwhile, though a mechanical idiot, I knew enough to seek advice from the mechanically -gifted, i.e. the self-same Augie. His advice had been invaluable to all the Coral Bay boat builders. Now as it happened, Danny found another less strenuous source for lead, and Augie took his place.
As usual he had a plan. It involved my three chainsaws and his hydraulic motor which he put together with a couple of long hoses. . .and it was into the surf like a gladiator stepping into the arena with an invincible weapon. With cannibalized, amalgamated tool in hand, we proceeded to slice and dice that keel with the greatest of ease. The machine didn’t mind spray, in fact it was perfectly at home underwater altogether—the wonder of Hydraulics!
From here on out it was merely a question of a strong back. The most exciting thing that happened was when I was suddenly attacked by a man-eating fish— a monster two inches long and savagely inclined, which nibbled ferociously at a raw mosquito bite at my ankle, so tenaciously I had to wrap a cloth around it.
In three days we had cut everything to portable dimensions and loaded it into our boat, cleaned up the shore, and had a last drink at the Bitter End bar before shoving off for home on St. John.
All is well as ends well.