Washed Up On The Rocks

Growing up on the East End, I was taught that Long Island looked like a fish. Brooklyn was its head, and the twin forks ending in Orient Point to the north and Montauk Point to the south formed its tail. To me, it always looked like a crocodile, its tail folded underneath itself to form Fire Island and the barrier beaches to the south, and its jaws spread wide, about to chomp down on Shelter and Gardiners Islands. Some of my elementary school lessons merged with my imagination, becoming the half-invented legends of my youth. There is the scrimshaw at the Whaling Museum carved by bored whalers at sea; the dusty metal detector still in my basement from a forgotten search for Captain Kidd’s treasure. Then there are the other things you learn outside of the classroom. Camp Hero’s radar dish still moves if you stare long enough at it. Strange, mutated animals (possible Plum Island escapees) occasionally wash up on shore. The so-called Philadelphia Experiment drove the doomed sailors of the USS Eldridge mad. The stories that stick with me the most, however, are the hidden ones: the true but untaught legends, proven and documented but less freely spoken of in polite company. But then again, I feel no need to be proper on paper. Just after Christmas, 1922, a nor’easter raged off the coast of Long Island. The SS Madonna V had set out from Nassau in the Bahamas. Though built in Boston thirty years earlier, and though it flew the Union Jack at sea, the double-masted schooner was registered to a homeport of Halifax by its owner James R. Laing of Nova Scotia. On its way to a listed destination of St. Pierre, Quebec, the SS Madonna V was just off the South Fork on December 28 when the storm caught it. It’s not clear what brought the ship so close to land. Maybe in the rough seas, the captain hoped for smoother sailing along the shore. Maybe the crew was trying to dock and bring their cargo in to market. Maybe the reports of another ship, the Vincent A White, which had set out earlier from Nassau along the same path only to be harassed by “pirates” off the coast of New York, had made the captain wary of the normal shipping routes. Whatever the reason, with the wind whipping, the SS Madonna V turned toward shore, only to be swept up in the current and eventually run aground at around 1 a.m. along the Nappeague Stretch, 9 miles west of Montauk point— near today’s Hither Hills State Park. (Or Cyril’s Fish House, where some still go to get smashed.) As the waves began to break the ship apart, local residents poured out from their homes to aid in the rescue. This was not a simple act of heroism. The custom of “wrecking” is an ancient and well-understood one. The rules are simple: save the crew, keep the cargo. Though the sport had gone out of fashion along the East End some generations prior, something in the air revived the old reflexes, and like riding a bike, the practice came right back on that cold December night. Men, women and children ran out into the surf, snagging up crates and crew by lamplight. The nearby Coast Guard had sent out lifeboats to aid the failing ship, but by the time they arrived, the Madonna V was damaged beyond repair. The captain and eight crewmen, though cold and shivering, were safe. The cargo bobbed like corks in the darkened waves, and when it was inspected more closely, the rescued sailors were handcuffed and shipped toward New York to stand trial. When congress had voted to pass the Volstead Act banning the sale and possession of Alcohol in the United States in July of 1919, they had no notion that this would invite a different type of troublesome tourist to Long Island’s East End. Given its proximity to Jazz age Manhattan, its sparse population, and its fishing industry, Montauk was a natural gateway for illegal liquor. With a simple 120-mile drive the only thing standing between rumrunners and their profitable port of Manhattan, many fishermen found themselves picking up a second, more lucrative income. For years, Montauk Highway, route 110, bore a different designation: Moonshine Lane. That night, December 28, 1922, the residents of Nappeague stayed out in the cold until dawn picking more than 2,000 crates of whiskey out of the sea. Something tells me they kept warm the rest of that winter.