The dark Gulf squall hit hard and wet, snapping the sails from the royals to the main, full of an angry, thrilling wind. Two dozen men and women scrambled along the yards. A hundred feet above the wide-planked decks of straight-grain Douglas fir they clambered up the ratlines and out among the topgallants, feet dug into toe-ropes
Peter Throckmorton died almost three years ago, (on June 5, 1990, at the age of 61-a victim, surely, of the hard-drinking, fast-smoking and generally wild life he led. He left behind many friends, many enemies-most who knew him were a little of both-and the kind of swashbuckling legend that few can boast of in today’s workaday world.
He ran away from home at 15, sailed on Chinese junks, made dangerous deep dives for big money in Hawaii. He was fluent in seven languages and had been in intelligence during the American occupation of Japan. There were war tales from Korea, prize-winning photos of the rebels in Algeria, barely revealed exploits in Nigeria. To the end of his life, he wouldn’t sit with his back to a restaurant door; people were looking for him.
And then there was the sea. Somehow, with all the romance of his John Le Carré life, it always came back to the sea.
Without so much as a college degree, but with a natural intelligence and curiosity remarkable to behold, Peter was a student of all things marine. He was one of the pioneers in the field of nautical archaeology, discovering, off the Turkish coast, what was then the world’s oldest known shipwreck. He excavated ships in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the Falkland Islands, and he studied the men who sailed them. (In his cups one night he pursued me for an hour, trying to pierce my ear with a potato and an 8-penny nail;
there was a legend, one of Peter’s legends, that if your ear was pierced by a man who’d sailed with men who’d sailed in string-ships rigged with rope, not wire-you’d be safe forever from drowning.) He taught himself archaeology, spending hundreds of hours in the museums of Athens. And he knew more than most men alive about ships.
So it was. one day in 1961, that he spotted the 150-foot Elissa in the Perama yard, Not yet consigned to oblivion, but in the foothills already, she was named the Chrisiophoros and sailing under a Greek flag, with her three tall masts cut down to a single cargo boom and her fine teak deckhouses long gone. He boarded, and immediately he noticed the telltale gangs of rusty chainplates, pieces of iron in the scuppers useful only to a square-rigger.
He made die skipper’s acquaintance-a bottle of retsina, no doubt, eased the introductions-and was shown the builder’s plate at the foot of the mainmast. Alexander Hall No. 294 1877, a product of a famous shipyard in Aberdeen, Scotland, vintage 1877. A little research proved the rest. She was Elissa, a once-beautiful bark that had sailed under five flags, lost her gorgeous sailing bow when owners sliced it off to change her profile during a spell as a smuggling ship, and almost rusted away.
Peter the dreamer wanted to bring her back.
Perennially in debt, he couldn’t buy her himself, but kept track of her for years. By chance, Karl Kortum, curator of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, had been asked by Jack Capell, a Portland, Oregon weatherman and local personality, to find a sailing ship to restore as part of a museum in Portland’s harbor. Kortum and Peter finally connected, and after much difficulty Kortum told Peter to make die purchase. Kortum says Peter told him the price was exactly $14,000, but Peter long claimed that he’d had to mortgage his own boat, Stormie Seas, because San Francisco never sent enough money. “We went to buy her in a taxi with the money in a brown paper bag,” remembers my mother, Joan Throckmorton. “1 had to stay in the taxi while Peter went to negotiate.” But the Portland deal fell through. (Kortum says Peter never sent the ownership papers to San Francisco, even though the museum now owned her.) Eventually a member of the Canadian Parliament bought her, planning to bring her to British Columbia as a museum ship. But that plan fell through, too. The ship languished in Greece, ever closer to the end.
Then, a stroke of luck; Peter and Kortum connected with the Galveston Historical Foundation, which in 1974 had begun looking for a historic ship to add to its restoration of the Strand, the street called the “Wall Street of the Southwest” because of the booming seaborne business it did during the era in which Galveston was the largest city in Texas. And the final bit of luck: Elissa had called in Galveston several times in the 19th century, and so was a bona fide piece of that city’s rich maritime history.
The Foundation bought Elissa from the Canadian in 1975, beginning the restoration in Greece-where I saw her again in 1977, while skippering Stormie Seas-and finally towing her to Galveston in 1978. It was a long, uphill battle to raise the $6 million-plus needed to renovate her, and it took tens of thousands of hours of volunteer work to do it. But that’s another story.
For me, the tale ended last fall, when my wife and I were invited to sail into the Gulf of Mexico on one of Elissa’s rare day sails. The squall on that blustery day passed quickly, and Texas autumn sunshine peeked out to light the golden teak rails and deckhouses, lovingly restored over the previous 17 years. The rigging-26,000 feet of manila rope and countless fittings and bits of other tackle-creaked as the great ship came about late in the day and began heading back to port, where the Texas Seaport Museum had opened up alongside Elissa’s berth in late 1991. And my mind spun back to what for me remains Peter’s most famous line, delivered when I wondered how a novice such as myself could possibly skipper the 48-foot Stormie Seas from Greece all the way to Alicante, Spain.
“My boy,” Peter said in words that could stand as his epitaph as well as a beacon for all who love the sea, “just point her into the setting sun and go.”