Capt. Frank Warner’s Tale by Pieter Greeff

Of date approximation, the best I can recall is early summer, 1944. I was going on nine years old. My dad had bought an SS boat (sixteen foot LOA, gaff-rigged, Shinnecock Sloop, number 49) and set me to hand sanding its bottom before we applied a coat of copper red. He taught me to sand with wood blocked sand paper and to caulk seams that had opened so that they wouldn’t leak. Sandpaper, caulking string and compound, and a putty knife were the tools of my new skill.

The Shinnecock Yacht Club on Penniman Creek in Quogue was pretty quiet on weekdays during the war. Many fathers were away in the service. Mine had been a Navy pilot during World War One and was at home as a captain in the New York State Guard. During weekdays he was working and I was sanding and caulking. One day I had ridden my bike to the Yacht Club and spent an hour or so sanding when I decided to take a break. Capt. Frank Warner maintained the club, with its ancient club house which had collapsed during the thirty-eight hurricane and had been salvaged and jacked up again on posts. He had an old lap-strake work dory with some winch equipment astern to lift and lower heavy cement anchors with their chains, ropes and wooden or cork float buoys.  In his seventies, Captain Frank, along with Billy Halsey, the one-eyed surf-man hero, were legends in their time, the last remaining evidence around Quogue of the iron men of Down East, Long Island, who worked the wooden ships. I sat down on the dock, legs hanging over the edge, near where Capt. Frank was methodically loading tobacco into his pipe from a leather pouch, also taking a break. After talking about boat maintenance for a while, I asked him what it was like when he was a boy.

He was aged thirteen, he said, and had shipped out as a cabin boy on a schooner.  In those times he was old enough. He waited upon the Captain, served him his meals and cleaned his quarters. The Captain, he allowed, was a gentleman and helped him with his reading. He was kind to the crew and fair too but allowed no shirking or nonsense. Even his officers knew that there would be no slacking tolerated on their watches. One day the mainmast lookout hollered down that a wave the size of a mountain was looming in the distance.  The Captain unfurled and trimmed all the vessel’s sails. Then he had the whole crew assemble, kneeling, on the main deck where he read to them briefly, holding an open bible, about salvation and beseeched God to save them from death. He then sailed his ship on a tight reach, with as much speed as he could get out of her, directly at the tsunami. The wave came on and all knew that it was, indeed, probably the end. But, miraculously, the ship sailed up the looming water at a slant, through the foaming top, over it and down the backside to be saved from destruction. It was, Capt. Frank informed me, the wave created by the explosion of Mount Krakatoa , a volcano that erupted in 1883. Hundreds of ships throughout the Pacific, he said, foundered and many sailors went to a watery grave that day, but he was saved.

Now one contemporary of mine from childhood, sixty years later allowed that Capt. Frank never did this at all. He suggested that after a lifetime of skinning eels and digging clams out on the bays Frank probably got bored and made it all up. I knew better.  Who was he? Was he there? As far as I knew Capt. Frank hadn’t told the story to any of my friends and my dad allowed that his age, about 74, fit true. Indeed he was a quiet and not overly talkative man. So whether or not Capt. Frank crested that wave was not a question in my opinion. The way he spoke of it, smoking his pipe thoughtfully, and the look in his eyes as if he saw again the looming, dark mountain of water blocking the sky was all I had to know. Besides he kept a real pistol in the door flap of his old Dodge, being the only deputy to Quogue’s sole policeman, Ross Federico. Furthermore Capt. Frank had credentials far beyond solitary clam digging. Indeed those heroic credentials were without dispute. When the collier Augustus Hunt went down, 22 January 1904, a mile and a half west of the Quogue Life Saving Station on the bar, before she broke up, losing eight on board with only two surviving, the crews of three Life Saving Stations, Quogue, Potunk and Tiana, came together to help. In thick fog and through the roaring surf the lifesavers could hear the cries of the stranded sailors. Lyle gun, lifeboat, all failed to reach the foundering ship. When the masts collapsed and the jib boom broke only two sailors jumped free into the sea. All others disappeared. Clinging to deck wreckage the two survivors came within two hundred yards of shore and the range of the Lyle gun whereupon a line was secured. George Ebert, the Hunt’s mate, tried to make it to shore, hand over hand, but fell off into the turbulent sea.  Immediately Surfman William F. Halsey, who later became the captain of the Quogue station, swam through the breakers with a lifeline tied to his waist to save the mate. The second sailor tried to fetch the line but collapsed, exhausted.  Then Surfman Frank D. Warner leapt into the water, swam out and rescued the drowning sailor. For these acts of courage both Halsey and Warner were awarded gold medals for heroism by the government. These acts were recounted by Jeannette Edwards Rattray, former owner and editor of the East Hampton Star newspaper, in her magnificent record of maritime disasters off Montauk and Eastern Long Island, 1640-1955, “Ship Ashore”.

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