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Remembering the Levin J. Marvel

60 years later, this Chesapeake shipwreck remains a cautionary tale

Much has changed in the maritime world in the 60 years since the sinking of the Levin J. Marvel topped the Chesapeake’s disaster charts. The key to maritime safety hasn’t changed — aboard the Levin J. Marvel in 1955 or the recreational craft we use today.
    In spite of all of our technical progress, we still rely on the skills, experience and judgment of the person in charge to keep us safe. A captain’s shortcomings can lead to disaster. Arrogance, inexperience and poor judgment led to the loss of the Marvel, claiming 14 lives, and many of the 12 lives lost on Maryland waters in 2014. The problem continues: Just this past month, a boater in Baltimore harbor powered into an abutment near the Key Bridge, killing two passengers.

The Levin J. Marvel Story
    Everyone knows the story of the Titanic, and many remember the story of the Costa Concordia. But even on Chesapeake Bay, the story of the Levin J. Marvel is mostly forgotten.
    If James Cameron had decided to follow his Titanic blockbuster with the true account of the Levin J. Marvel, you would be shaking your head in disbelief at the incompetence, poor judgment and arrogance. If it had been set in 1755 or even 1855, you might have believed it. But 1955 is recent history, just 14 years before we put a man on the moon, so the tragedy seems like an anachronism.
    Indeed, the Levin J. Marvel went into service two centuries ago, in 1891. Built in Delaware, the Marvel was a wooden sailing schooner of 183 tons, 125 feet in length. For 50 years the Marvel worked the cargo trade from Philadelphia to the Carolinas. By the 1940s, trains and trucks had taken over this market, and in 1944 the schooner was converted to passenger service. In 1954, John Meckling purchased the boat to run six-day Chesapeake Bay cruises out of Annapolis. Marvel never had an engine; a small push boat provided motorized propulsion when required.
    The Marvel’s final cruise left Annapolis on Monday, August 8, 1955. Besides Captain Meckling, only one deckhand worked the voyage. Meckling ran the water-borne equivalent of a dude ranch, with the 23 passengers encouraged to help with the sailing duties.
    Meckling set sail under a small craft warning, which soon became a storm warning, then a hurricane alert and finally a storm warning again. Had the weather been calm … the schooner and its push boat well maintained … or had Captain Meckling used better judgment, August 12, 1955 might have been just another day on the Bay. None was true, and the boat was lost with 14 souls perishing.

An Accident Waiting to Happen
    As with many such accidents, the convergence of multiple factors put the Marvel on a course to disaster. The weather, the condition of the boat and its equipment, the lack of safety equipment and the captain’s decision to leave the relative calm and shelter of the Eastern Shore and make a run for Annapolis all conspired to create a fate from which there was no recovery.
    The Coast Guard — and much of the press at that time and since — has portrayed the sinking as the result of inexperience, incompetence and arrogance, which led to bad decisions on the captain’s part, including failure to maintain the boat and its equipment to reasonable standards. The condition of the portholes, as notes in the official Coast Guard report, is one example among many:
    “Some of the passengers endeavored to close the majority of the vessel’s 22 [portholes] … they were successful in closing some, but that a large number of them had dogs missing, latch bolts frozen, or both, or were warped, all of which factors precluded the [portholes] being watertight.”
    A litany of failures and shortcomings continues, including an uncooperative forward bilge pump and the lack of safety gear like life rafts and flares.
    Not everyone agrees that blame should fall on Captain Meckling. Bill Verge, an 18-year-old deckhand on the Marvel that summer, missed the final voyage.
    “He made a reasonable assumption that he could make it,” Verge told Bay Weekly.
    “At the time, the public and the press were like a lynch mob. Nobody had all the facts,” he explained.
    “The Coast Guard was on a mission. They wanted to get legislation that would give them the power to inspect vessels smaller” than the then-700-ton threshold. “They were looking for a scapegoat to help prove their point.”
    Verge’s viewpoint gets some support from the findings of the criminal case brought against Meckling. The first count was misconduct, which could have resulted in 10 years in prison. Judge R. Dorsey Watkins was “unable to find beyond a reasonable doubt that there was misconduct, negligence or inattention.”
    On the second count, “I do find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was negligent,” Judge Watkins wrote in his opinion. He imposed one year of probation instead of the maximum allowance of a year in prison.

Today on the Bay
    Many recreational captains taking passengers on the water today suffer the same afflictions as Captain Meckling. The Coast Guard reports that in 2014, 610 people died in recreational boating accidents. Property damage was estimated at $39 million in the U.S. Alcohol use was the most prevalent factor in fatal boating accidents, being the leading factor in 21 percent of the deaths. Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol use ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in the accidents. Locally, the picture is similar.
    In 2013, Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported 14 fatalities and 89 injuries in Maryland waters, costing more than $700,000. Just five categories accounted for 54 percent of those accidents: operator error, alcohol, excessive speed, improper lookout and passenger/skier error.
    We keep making our boats more comfortable and efficient, equipping them with the latest electronics. Those advances help. But finally, captains hold our lives in their hands.


Shipwrecks of the ­Chesapeake

    Like the Levin J. Marvel, thousands of boats have foundered in and around Chesapeake Bay. Twenty-four-hundred have been mapped by marine archaeologist and author Donald Shomette, of Owings. See them in coastal and bathymetric detail on Shipwrecks of the DelMarVa, the map designed in 2010 by cartographer Robert Pratt for the National Geographic Society.
    These shipwrecks span the centuries of Chesapeake navigation, from galleons in the 17th century to naval ships in the 20th. Mapped here are ships lost to military conflict, bloody mutinies, pirate raids and treacherous shoals as well as to foul weather and human error.
    Noted in symbol at each wreck site is the date of sinking and the name, class and type of vessel.
    Inset maps, drawings and captions highlight notable points of historic interest, including the 230 wrecks composing the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay, surveyed by Shomette, and German U-Boat offensives.
    Find it at Wimsey Cove Maps in Edgewater.

–Sandra Olivetti Martin

For a detailed story on the last few days of the Levin J. Marvel, see Bay Weekly’s 1993 story by Bruce Bauer: bayweekly.com/old-site/1993/93v09.html.

Watch a reconstruction at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyvmIduvZsk.