An Adventure Turns to Disaster

On August 12, 1955, the schooner Levin J Marvel capsized in the Chesapeake Bay near the town of North Beach, Maryland. The ship sought shelter from Hurricane Connie in Herring Bay during a weeklong adventure cruise that became deadly. The Marvel’s 23 passengers and 4 crew-members were washed into the storm about a quarter mile from shore. The townspeople organized a remarkable rescue effort in severe conditions and saved many lives that day. In the end, fourteen passengers lost their lives, the largest number of fatalities on the Chesapeake to this day.

For the Marvel’s captain, the storm was just the beginning. The Coast Guard decided to make the disaster an object lesson in order to persuade congress to legislate an inspection regime for passenger vessels. He was painted as the incompetent master of a decrepit ship and charged with negligence and manslaughter. He might have ended his days in prison if not for the pro bono work of a retired Baltimore magistrate.

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Upcoming Events…

Plenty of opportunities in February to learn about this fascinating story!

Meet the Storyteller and the Survivor

Thursday, January 12, 5:30 PM, at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Saint Michaels, Maryland

Friday, January 13, 5:30 PM, at the Bayside History Museum in North Beach Maryland This is where the ship found dirt and the survivors came ashore. This event is sponsored by:

Bayside History Museum

Calvert County Library

& New Bay Books

John Ferguson was 16 when he boarded the Levin J Marvel with his father in August 1955 for a vacation that he had planned for them. But The good times ended when the ship foundered off of North Beach. John lost his dad that day and nearly lost his old life.

John is returning to Maryland for just two days to speak about the experience on the web and J Marvel and his involvement afterwards with the Coast Guard investigation and the trial of John Meckling.

Don’t miss this fascinating opportunity.

Need a Christmas/Hanukkah gift for a book lover?

Give them the compelling story of the sinking of the Levin J Marvel and it’s historic aftermath. The book features the photography of the renowned Baltimore pictorialist Aubrey Bodine. A beautiful book and a good read, makes a perfect gift.

The first online retailer carrying DEADLY GAMBLE Is BARNES & NOBLE

order by using the link below….


Early Praise for DEADLY GAMBLE

Deadly Gamble weaves a carefully researched and compelling account of the greatest tragedy on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its consequences–not only in the loss of life, but in the regulatory review and changes in the oversight of passenger-carrying vessels. With her deep knowledge of maritime work and law, author Kathy Bergren Smith provides a rich context for the sinking of the Levin J. Marvil in Hurricane Connie. Pete Lester, Chief Curator, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, St. Michaels, Maryland

Available for preorder! Click the link below…


Last Ram Standing

Victory Chimes will tie up for good

It appears that the 2022 season will be the last one for the Victory Chimes. Thousands of visitors have enjoyed sailing the beautiful waters of Downeast Maine in the last of the Chesapeake Ram schooners. Alas, times change, vacationers have many choices and overnight wind jamming is also under further regulation from Coast Guard.

Here is the word from Captain Sam…He is a skilled sailor, shipwright,sailmaker,storyteller…if anyone could have pulled it off, it was he! With some very good luck, maybe another young entrepreneur will come along and give the business another chance!


67 Summers ago…

Bill Verge joined the crew of the Levin J Marvel and changed the course of his life.

The summer of 1955, Bill Verge took a job as a deckhand on the old schooner that was sailing vacation cruises out of Annapolis. He had just completed his junior year in high school and was looking for some adventure. Boy did he ever find it!

Within the course of just a summer, Bill went from being a fairly typical highschooler to a would-be shipowner to a Coast Guard recruit. He never did get around to finishing high school.

Bill wasn’t on board for the last voyage of the Marvel. Instead, he was in Baltimore meeting with a group of investors who were willing to support his purchase of the ship with his friend and fellow deckhand, Steve MacDougall. What had started as a summer job looked like a good business opportunity to the sailors. The current owner and captain, John Meckling was struggling to keep up financially, and had decided to turn over the business to a new syndicate. If the ship had not sunk, Bill and Steve would have taken on the refitting and running of a Windjammer business on the bay. ,

Instead, the ship was lost, along with 14 lives. After this tragedy, there was a Coast Guard investigation followed by a federal trial of the captain on manslaughter charges. As the school year approached, Bill decided his days as a student were over. By the end of September, 1955, Bill verge was in Boot Camp in Cape May New Jersey as a Coast Guard recruit.

Bill at the beginning of his Coast Guard career

After his first four years in the US Coast Guard, heearned bachelor’s degree from University of Miami, where he was accepted without a high school diploma. Four years later, he rejoined the Coast Guard, serving a year in Vietnam and four as commanding officer of the organized reserve training center in Washington D.C. For four more years he worked for Henry DuPont as president of Cytec Inc., leaving to form an aviation company, Skyway Aviation. Two years he got on his boat and sailed to Florida. He spent 20 years operating, then owning marinas in Melbourne, Florida. Finally he moved to Key West, where he served as a city commissioner. He now chairman and executive director and founder of the Coast Guard cutter Ingham memorial museum in Key West.

Bill saved the ship from the scrapyard and has spearheaded it’s preservation for generations to come.


Most days you will find Bill on board the ship. If you make your way to Key West, be sure to stop in and ask about that summer 67 years ago.

For the Victory Chimes, it’s Tails for Good Luck

Victory Chimes

It’s one thing to talk to people who sailed on the Levin J Marvel, listening to their stories of sailing aboard a three-masted schooner in a stiff breeze. It is quite another to experience the heft of the lines, the smell of old wood, the taste of warm coffee in the pouring rain on the deck of her sister ship. What luck that the Victory Chimes is still sailing passengers on cruises from Rockland , Maine, and how lucky the researcher who gets to ride along with Capt. Sam Sikkema in his first season as the vessel’s owner!

The Victory Chimes was built in the same shipyard, for the same owner, for the same service, just after the Marvel, in 1900. The boats were two sides of the same coin, as it would happen. In the flip of that coin, the Marvel lost.

The ships are not identical, the Victory Chimes (christened Edwin & Maud) was a little better looking, with a little more shear and was maintained better after her cargo hauling days. The Edwin & Maud left the Chesapeake for Maine in 1954 and took her name from newspaper headlines on Armistice Day “Victory Chimes!” In 1957, Frederick Boyd Guild took her helm for the next three decades. Under his command, the Victory Chimes was dubbed the “Queen of the Windjammer Fleet.”

The ship left Maine for a Great Lakes sojourn then returned as a corporate yacht of Dominoes Pizza, renamed Domino Effect. She was meticulously restored in Boothbay Harbor at Sample’s Shipyard. But in 1987, the Pizza Magnate, Tom Monaghan, was ready to sell the ship to a Japanese group that planned to convert it to a sushi restaurant far from Maine. The Domino’s fleet captain, Paul DeGaeta and her captain, Kip Files couldn’t bear to see the vessel go to Japan, so they purchased it.

By the ship’s one-hundredth anniversary, Victory Chimes was on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Sailing passengers around Penobscot Bay whose parents had come aboard as children.

After 28 years, Files and DeGaeta found themselves ready to sell. With a price tag of $1.5 million, and a million things to go wrong and need replacing on the 118 year old ship, there were no takers. Once again, a young captain, worried that it would end up as a restaurant, took a chance.

Sam Sikkema, had sailed with Capt. Files on the final voyage of a New England whaler and started filling in on the Chimes. He freely admits to falling in love with the ship. His enthusiasm and plans to bring a new audience to the Chimes with music, yoga and whiskey tastings, convinced the bank in nearby Camden to make him a mortgage loan.

Once again, the old girl won the coin toss, by landing tails, where the Victory Chimes appears on the Maine State Quarter.

Windjamming Lives On

It turns out the John Meckling, captain of the Levin J Marvel, was not all wrong in thinking he could make a go of taking passengers on an old cargo schooner and showing them a good time under sail. Last week, in the name of research, your faithful storyteller took a trip to Maine to experience the “Vagabond Adventure” of sailing on the Victory Chimes. The ‘Chimes,’ is part of the Maine windjammer fleet that sails from Rockland. It is also the sister ship of the Levin J Marvel, built in the same yard, within months of the Marvel.

This summer is the inaugural season for the Victory Chimes’ new owner/captain Sam Sikkema. The veteran of blue water tall-ship sailing is anxious to show the fleet that the Chimes can really sail. He says people have come to view the ship, which appears on the Maine state quarter, as a landmark that “just gets pushed around by her yawl boat,” and he is out to prove them wrong. The 119-year old boat still has a lot of sailing to do and Capt. Sam makes sure everyone gets a good ride when they come aboard.

Schooner Victory Chimes

Victory Chimes, the last of the Chesapeake rams, sails proudly as a National Historic Landmark, the grand dame of Rockland Harbor.

Penobscot Bay chart

Let the Adventures Begin!

After the rough maiden voyage, Meckling took the Marvel to the Booz Brothers Shipyard in Baltimore for repairs. Capt. Meckling was then ready to start his adventure cruises on the Chesapeake. He already had passengers booked for several trips in late summer 1954. But another storm was brewing.

The Coast Guard Captain of the Port of Baltimore had serious concerns about the Marvel and sought to stop Meckling. Captain Alfred Kabernagle, a spit-shined Coastie had 25 years of marine casualty experience under his belt, as head Marine Inspections. His personality was diametrically opposed to Mecklimg’s, who was more of a MacGyver character. Kabernagle, not satisfied with the scope of the repairs, demanded the Marvel stay in port and not carry passengers for hire but Meckling appealed to Coast Guard headquarters and was allowed to proceed because sailing vessels under 700 gross tons were not regulated by the Coast Guard.

Mecklimg was cleared to start business and the old Marvel made its way to Annapolis under sail. In fact, the old ship had been gone over at the shipyard and was certainly serviceable. It was just the vessel for a “dude cruise” to the historic ports of the Chesapeake.

Schooner in Annapolis

The Marvel sailed from City Dock in Annapolis-photo from early advertising

The Marvel sailed from City Dock in Annapolis, Maryland, photo from early advertisements

A Third Chance for the Levin J Marvel

 The old schooner was built in 1891 and had spent a career hauling timber from North Carolina to Baltimore and returning with fertilizer. The three-master had squat lines, like a barge. Shallow draft, with a centerboard, the Marvel was also very slow. It belonged to a class of boats built in Bethel, Delaware, called “ram schooners.” 

As trucks and trains became a faster and more economical option for transporting most cargoes, the freight schooners on the bay needed to find other work. Many were unceremoniously dismasted and converted into diesel powered freight boats, hauling oysters or produce from rural areas to city markets. Fate had very different plans for the Marvel and its sister, the Edwin and Maud. The big schooners were sold to Herman Knust, a former B&O Railroad executive who had a good idea for a new line of business.

He bought the boats for $18000 each in 1944 and took them to the shipyard and had them overhauled as passenger cruise vessels. The spacious cargo holds were piped with running water and built out with 17 staterooms, each with a porthole and sink. There were heads built in and a dining saloon. Knust correctly intuited that there was a market for windjammer cruises on the Chesapeake on the rustic old boats. The idea was a “dude cruise,” with passengers getting a taste of the seafaring life by helping out lines, enjoying evenings on the deck and visiting historic ports of call like St. Michaels, Maryland, a tiny fishing village, now home to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. 

Chesapeake Bay Vacation Cruises had a successful run. Knust sold the Edwin and Maud to a windjammer operator from Maine, who changed the name to Victory Chimes. This vessel, with its long history, is still operating today as a passenger cruise boat in Rockland, Maine. It is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and enjoys a popular following. We will report more on the Victory Chimes later this summer as the blog will be posted from the deck on the anniversary of the Marvel’s foundering. 

The Marvel was not as lucky as the Victory Chimes…Knust laid her up in Salisbury, Maryland, far up the winding Nanticoke River and there she was mothballed until 1954, when John Meckling purchased her for $7500. He had dreams of reviving the dude cruises. 

By then, the Marvel was in quite rough shape. Meckling and his silent partner, short of working capital, made enough repairs to the hull to get the ship back in service. Getting to Booz Brothers Shipyard Baltimore was quite a trip in itself…stay tuned for that story.