Friday, April 1, 2011

No. 18 The "Booze Yacht," a journey, and the "sweetest fumes I ever smelled."

Almost everyone who has grown up in Carteret County has heard. the story, and almost as many know the song. The late Grayden Paul helped to preserve and popularize them both. "The coming of The Adventure,” two weeks before Christmas in 1923, gave birth not just to Ralph Sanders' song, but to such a host of stories that it has assumed the status of legend. For that very reason, some blithely assume the whole account to be anecdotal, dismissing the fact that there are real men and women who can still recall the event, and especially its aftermath.

My father, Charlie William Hancock. was fourteen at the time, and vividly recalled the real thing. It was assumed that he was too young to go with the others to the scene, but he still tells of watching as older-men dropped overboard sacks full of illegal whiskey attached to buoys for hiding and safekeeping. He described how he stood on his father's shoulders to reach overhead and stash bottles between the attic floor and the bedroom ceiling. He recounted how his uncle dug holes in the ground of his chicken coup, deposited his bottles, and then allowed the chickens to scratch over the fill to hide all traces. He could even recall the name of those unlucky ones who were caught with the illegal contraband and ended up serving time for violating prohibition.

My uncle, Louie Hancock, who died in 1985 at the age of 95, was another of those who-had lived through and "enjoyed”  the Booze Yacht experience. One of the stories he loved most to relate was of how he, then in his twenties, gathered his own cache from the booty left by the rum-runners.

Like many of the other Islanders, “Big Buddy" as we called him (see Post no.6 "The closest I ever come to having a job"), scurried to get to the Cape as soon as he heard from Clayton Guthrie that some lucky fishermen had hauled in a net full of whiskey. Along with Clayton, and his uncle Dankey (Dannie Willis), they dropped everything they were doing and made for the Banks. In his little boat, the Best Bug, they hurried across Back Sound and into Banks Bay and on to the shores of what had been Diamond City. He knew the area like the back of his hand, for his father, Charlie, still had a fishing camp there, very near where the homestead had been before the storm and exodus of 1899.

The spot was as practical as it was convenient. Once ashore, it was a mere half-mile walk across the banks to the Cape shore where burlap sacks full of liquor now lay awash in the surf under the late fall sun. This was about the best that the scavengers could hope for. Barden's Inlet as a quick water access to the Hook of the Cape and the south shore of Shackleford was still a decade or more from reality. A boat trip all the way down the Banks toward Fort Macon channel and back east to the Hook was nearly as impractical. The cargo of The Adventure was illegal, that's why it had been dumped overboard in the first place. Loading and hauling that stuff back through Beaufort Inlet and under the nose of local, state, and federal officers, would have been foolhardy, even for rugged and carefree fishermen.

But the most compelling reason for the straight-shot route that necessitated walking across the Banks was that neither Big Buddy, nor most of the other pillagers, had more than enough fuel to make only the shortest of excursions. In fact, it was customary, when time was of no essence, for the watermen of the Island to turn off their newly acquired gas engines and hoist a sail, just to save their precious fuel. So substituting a fifteen minute walk for a two hour boat trip was no great concession for the eager young explorers.

Arriving at the shoreline of Diamond City the group found the bay already crowded with the boats of others who had come with their same intention. In fact, Big Buddy would often remark, the trip across was almost like a parade, as an ever increasing flotilla headed for the Cape, either to claim their share of the booty or just to watch others do the same.

The Best Bug was left anchored far enough off shore to assure that she would not be stranded by the ebbing tide, and the eager young pair ran off swiftly across the banks and through the sand dunes. As the made it to the Cape Shore they found a veritable circus as the throng rummaged through the strewed bags and sacks to find just the cache they were looking for. Louie and his companions picked up the first two unopened containers they could find and headed swiftly back northward towards their boat. About halfway across on their return, Dankey decided to open the sacks to inspect, and sample what they had collected. To their disappointment they saw that they had picked up "quarts," rather than "pints" as they had supposed. They immediately decided to leave the bags right where they were and return to the shore to get what they had wanted in the first place. So large had been the stash of bottles that even by the time they returned, there still was plenty to choose from. This time they made sure they had the size they wanted and once again headed for their boat.

Within a less than an hour they were back aboard the Best Bug. But to their disgust they learned that their boat had been relieved of its fuel supply, most likely by one of their fellow travelers who had come along without checking that he had enough for the round trip excursion. If necessity is the mother of invention, it can also be the mid-wife of improvisation. For having sampled the whisky in the quart bottles an hour earlier, Big Buddy had noted that it was some of the strongest he had ever drunk. "If alcohol can light a flame he thought, "why can't it power an engine?"

Thus began his experiment with the combustion powers of distilled liquor. With Dankey at the helm, Big Buddy held his thumb over the open mouth of a bottle of Caribbean Rum and allowed it to seep into the down-draft carburetor of his six horsepower Bridgeport engine. Sure enough, the engine fired up, perhaps from the residue of gas left in the fuel line. But.as the trio made their way back across the Sound towards the Island, the motor held its fire and never cut off, not once! As Uncle Louie stood to the back of the engine box holding the bottle, he could feel and smell the exhaust as it fumed from the straight iron pipe that extended from the manifold. He said that he positioned himself so that the exhaust vapors would blow directly into his face. He did so, he insisted, because it was "the sweetest smelling fumes he'd ever smelt in his life!"

So they made it back with their booty, except for the two bottles they had been obliged to use as fuel for their engine. Big Buddy never found out who had stolen his gas tank that day, and really didn't much care to investigate it. But he never forgot how he had improvised to make it home, nor the smell that lifted from the pistons of that six horse motor as she "put-put-putted" across Back Sound. The "Booze Yacht" was much more than a legend to him, and to those of us who heard him tell his stories. It was just another part of what life had been like in the early days of Harkers Island.

Originally printed in "The Mailboat" 1994 Annual Edition

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