Down East 2013 ©
Stare at a map of the Maine coast long enough and you’ll find plenty of places associated with maritime disasters. Who can look at Boon Island, for instance, without remembering the horrible choices those stranded colonial sailors were forced to make? In Cape Elizabeth, one neighborhood has become forever associated with a comparatively recent, but no less dramatic, shipwreck and rescue. Thanks to striking photographs such as this one, the area around High Head will always be associated with the Oakey L. Alexander, which ran aground here during a March gale in 1947.
The unknown photographer who raced out to the scene had all the makings for a dramatic photograph: a mariner dangles precariously from a line that looks more like a thread suspended above the thundering surf, while a half-dozen men in coats and mittens haul him the two hundred yards separating ship from shore. No other options remain for the seamen of the 395-foot collier Alexander, her bow torn cleanly off by a rogue wave and her lifeboats, at far left, as stove-in and useless as her crumpled mizzenmast. A wisp of a telephone pole serves as an anchor for the rope lifesaving contraption, while a dash of late winter snow and a wave caught in mid-spray, at far right, add a damp chill to the scene.
As dramatic as this image is, it doesn’t tell the full story of the brave actions that brought this thirty-two-man crew safely to shore. Captain Raymond Lewis’ decision, for instance, to ground his ship before the remaining bulkhead gave way and sank the Alexander in deep water has to be among the boldest any skipper has made. And who could have imagined that Earle Drinkwater, commanding officer at the nearby Coast Guard Lifeboat Station at Two Lights, would succeed on his first try in using a mortar to launch an eighteen-pound weight onto the ship’s bridge, allowing the breeches buoy to then be hauled back and forth? Lastly, Captain Lewis’ adherence to maritime tradition by being the last man hauled off the stricken ship, despite the real possibility that waves could sweep him and the Alexander away at any moment, proves his honor and leadership.
In the end, this photograph is memorable because of the tension it captures, from the three men at right who hold their breath as a shipmate is hauled to shore, to the well-dressed bystander, at far right, who can’t take his eyes off the scene.
“To have photos of this big vessel, destroyed, with the breaches buoy bringing people across,” remarks Nathan Lipfert, senior curator of the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, “That all has a sort of twentieth-century immediacy to it.”