Ericofrockport’s Weblog

The Conte Bianco Rides out Hurricane Carla
August 1, 2016, 7:24 pm
Filed under: Commerical Fishing, Family, History

In the fall of 1961 I began the seventh grade. September had always been my favorite month. The weather was still warm, but the crowds of summer had left by Labor Day afternoon.  The only problem was that school began the next morning.  A small consolation was Junior High Football.  We were practicing hard, but that year our season had no sooner started than it was interrupted by a little tropical disturbance that popped up in the southwestern Caribbean Sea .  However, no one seemed too worried about this ill-defined area of squalls at first.  Most of the big storms that had threatened us in the past had formed in the Atlantic, a thousand miles east of the Lesser Antilles, like the big storm of 1919 that my friend Mr. Charlie had told me about.


 Mister Charlie’s Place  (Hurricane surge receding in 1940s)

Charlie Silberisen was one of the first waterfront characters I met when we moved to Rockport in 1951. I was only three when my family had moved from El Cajon, California, where my Dad had made a living fishing for tuna in the Pacific.  This had been very profitable for a time since the Japanese tuna fleet had been crippled by the Second World War, but by 1950 the Japanese were back in production, the price of tuna had fallen dramatically, and most of the tuna boats were laid up.  Proud white tuna clippers were tied up together like derelicts with the same two or three day growth, but for these once noble vessels the whiskers were the red stains of rust  that streaked down across names such as United Victory, Conte Bianco, and Jennifer B.

Dad had heard of the shrimping industry on the Texas gulf coast and decided to come down and give it a try. By the late 1940s’ people had begun to accept and eat the deep water brown shrimp instead of thinking they were rotten white shrimp from the bays.  I liked Rockport because my dad allowed me to go with him to the harbor.  I spent many hours playing at Jackson’s fish house and watching the boats unload their catch.  Now I was thirteen; that meant I’d been hanging out around the water front for almost ten years.  I had a long string of acquaintances, all with their own unique salty flavor.  Among them were Tom Cat Shelby, a net fisherman who stayed with Mr. Charlie when he wasn’t fishing, and Don Sellers, a very intelligent young man whose hobby was building scale models of three masted lumber schooners.  Between jobs Don would occasionally bunk with Mr. Charlie, too.

I had spent many hours at Charlie’s place over the years listening to stories of the old days in Rockport. He’d been a young man at the turn of the century and described a Rockport of grand hotels and frequent passenger trains full of tourists from San Antonio.  He spoke of a prosperous water front that included a large railroad pier and several bathing pavilions.  But today I especially remembered the time he had told me about the great storm of 1919.  I had been on my way home after seeing my father off on a fishing trip.  He was to be out in the Gulf for five to seven days trawling for shrimp in about 30 fathoms of water.  I always felt sad when dad left, partly because I knew I wouldn’t be hanging around the fish house while his boat was not in port.  However, as I rode my bike out of the shell drive way, I saw Mr. Charlie coming back from his afternoon walk around the harbor.  He waved and invited me in for a coke. It was late summer—the season of the storms, and I was always uneasy when dad departed during hurricane season.  Mr. Charlie and I talked as we he poured me a coke and himself a hot cup of coffee, and I had asked him about the worst hurricane he had ever experienced.  He sipped his coffee and began to paint a fractured verbal picture of a small fishing resort devastated by a very large hurricane, the storm of 1919.  This one had been so large that in its early stages it was said to have been noticed off the west coast of Africa.  He recalled wading through waist deep water just south of the Aransas County court house and ultimately seeking shelter in the school building, on North Live Oak. After the storm he and his uncle worked with others searching for bodies of those who had drowned. During the search he had a close brush with a 15 foot alligator and had been knocked head over heels by a blow from his large tail. San Antonio had not heard from Rockport for five days after the storm hit.  Mr. Charlie had created quite a painting in my imagination, one I often thought about during hurricane season.

Today it was warm and calm, but the whole town was bustling with excitement. School had been canceled, no football practice today! The undefined area of squalls had intensified and had been upgraded to a hurricane.  Since it was the third storm of the year it would be given a name beginning with “C”:  Carla; just a woman’s first name.  Little did I know what that name would mean in just a few short days.

My dad had been back in port for a week or so, watching the unsettled weather, looking for a break; boat payments don’t wait just because the weather is stormy. My dad had a reputation for fishing in bad weather; he had no choice. In addition to boat payments his second daughter was beginning college. My mom and younger sister had left only that morning to take her to TWU in Denton. Dad and I left the house early and made our usual visit to Brocado’s Cafe.  He drank coffee with the other fishermen and talked about the storm.  Which way would it go?  Would it continue to strengthen?  What would they do with their boats?

My dad sought advice from some of the old-timers as to where the best holding ground was in Aransas Bay. It was probably Jimmy Frandolig or old Mr. Alvin Brundrett who told dad that the best anchorage in the bay was between the Intracoastal Waterway and the north end of Mud Island.  Dad said that since the insurance deductible on his boat was so high, he really couldn’t afford to have any damage due to the storm.  He was planning to take the Conte Bianco, out into Aransas Bay and anchor on the other side where the best holding ground was.  He would stay aboard in case the anchor line broke.  Since school was canceled because of the storm I wanted to go with him, but my Mom had made arrangements for me to stay with my friend Jack Gwynn while she was away.  Jack’s mom owned the Sea Shell Shoppe, and while she spent the morning preparing her store to weather the storm, Jack and I were running around the harbor and down town area watching all the activity. We saw a large crane down at the turning basin removing the mast from the ARGO, Mr. Bailey’s 50 foot yacht.  Later we walked down to the beach to watch the rising tide.  The sky was cloudy by now; the bay was rough and the same leaden color of the sky.  The wind began to increase in strength as we watched the ARGO motoring north from Rockport harbor.  She looked naked with out her tall mast.

Shrimp trawlers were moving out as well, seeking refuge away from the short pilings that lined the boat slips in Rockport harbor. As the tide rose and the wind increased the pilings would become the demise of any vessel that broke her moorings.

The larger gulf boats sought a good holding ground somewhere in Aransas Bay. Others were heading north to seek shelter in the Victoria barge canal.  Jack and I ran and played on an empty beach.  We watched Mr. Bailey anchor the ARGO in Little Bay and row ashore in the dinghy, then noticed Jack’s mother waving at us to come.  As we drove back down the beach and through the empty boarded up downtown she scolded us for running away with a big hurricane headed toward Rockport.  We made on our way to Taft, where we stayed for two nights with Capt. Jones’ wife Mildred.  It rained so hard most of the time that I was sure the roof must be about to cave in.  It seemed like the boredom would never end.  Finally, driving back into Rockport on the third day, we saw that many buildings had been severely damaged by wind and high water.  Most of the down town stores had at least 6 inches of sand and mud.  As we neared the Shell Shoppe there were bay boats blown up on the road next to the harbor. The area between the Navigation District office and Little Bay was strewn with smaller shrimp boats, up to about 30 feet in length.  At last my anxious glances found the Conte Bianco, tied up at the ice dock, right where she was moored when we fled the storm.  She looked as though she had never left her berth.


First Light – Steven Russell  (Courtesy of the artist)

I hurried down the driveway to the fish house, scampered out the ice dock and jumped aboard. My dad was there, and I eagerly listened as he told me about his trip.  He had run across the bay between the intracoastal canal and Mud Island.  About 2 miles west of the ranch house he put out his standard anchor and cable.  He used a north hill anchor with two fathoms of 5/8 inch chain attached to 100 fathoms of inch and a half nylon line.  This line was connected to another chain that was rove through the anchor davit and shackled into the forward bit.  There was no way that line was going to chafe!  My dad had always told me that a sailor who let his lines chafe was no seaman.  Then, dad did one thing he didn’t ordinarily do when he anchored in the gulf: he attached one of his towing cables to the anchor, shackling it into the same chain beside the inch and a half nylon.  He let out 115 fathoms of the 5/8 inch steel towing cable for safety.  As night approached dad said he thought he could make out a dark wall of heavy clouds on the eastern horizon, the bar of the storm. Fully Clingman had been decking for dad and he was aboard, along with Sam Thompson and his wife.  After battening down all hatches and securing all loose gear the four settled down to a supper of beef stew and hot coffee.  After dinner Dad talked by radio to a few fishermen who were holed up in the Victoria Barge Canal, and then listened to the latest weather reports.  Carla seemed to be drifting toward the north; landfall was predicted between Aransas Pass and Port Lavaca.  The wind was from the north at 40 knots with gusts up to 50.  Dad had kept the main engine idling, but the sound of the big 6 cylinder “jimmy” was slowly eclipsed by the howling wind and pounding rain.  The Conte Bianco began pitching sharply to the increasingly short, but steep sea. In the shallow bay the waves became like a series of thick water fences cascading over the bow.  The barometer had fallen sharply since sundown, a sure indication of the approaching bar of the storm.

It was difficult to see anything now, the night was too dark. The rain continued and the wind increased to fifty-five knots, gusting to seventy.  Dad was wedged in his chair in front of the wheel watching the anchor line through the beam of the spotlight.  The steel cable that initially drooped down below the main anchor line was now beginning to come taught, meaning the inch and a half nylon was stretching.  One hundred fathoms of nylon was now one hundred fifteen fathoms.  Still, he was safe.  The rope manufacturers claimed nylon would stretch at least fifty percent prior to parting.  Dad eased the main engine into gear and increased the RPMs.  As he watched the anchor line, the steel cable slowly began to sink with the engine easing the strain on the nylon.  By midnight the wind was up to seventy-five knots gusting to one hundred and the glass had dropped over one inch.  Dad had to slowly increase the engine speed to relieve the strain on the anchor line.  Fully was attempting to sleep and Sam and his wife were playing cards in the galley. Dad would occasionally refresh his coffee and look out at the back deck.  The wind shrieked through the rigging and even though the engine speed was more than half, the engine noise was no longer audible.  It was an eerie loud sort of quiet.  The tops of the seas were being blown into the air.  Then on the port bow a ghostly shape appeared: a big gulf boat, adrift, rolling heavily broadside to the short steep waves.  Which one was it? Three other boats were anchored in the same area and left to ride out the storm alone.  Was it the Dorothy M., the ARSCO or the Butch B?  Dad and Fully were not sure, perhaps the Dorothy M.  She was the only one painted white and left to ride out the storm alone.

By three AM the wind seemed to back slightly, coming more out of the northwest, indicating that the storm was moving north of Rockport, as predicted.   This meant that the Conte Bianco was in the navigable semicircle of the cyclone, which was some consolation.  The glass stopped falling and remained steady almost a full inch and a half below normal.  By five A.M. the wind was blowing out of the west northwest and the speed had decreased to 60 knots gusting to 70. Carla had probably already made landfall.  Dad gave the watch to Fully and explained the need to reduce the engine speed as the wind decreased.  He had just gotten to sleep when he felt the Conte Bianco roll heavily to port.  If the bunk had not been athwartship it would have easily pitched him to the deck.  At once dad was up and in the wheel house.  It was beginning to get light. Fully was at the wheel and had increased the engine speed.  He was steering to port and he pointed to starboard. Dad looked to see another gulf boat that had broken loose and was drifting, though not rolling as much as the first one.  The ARSCO was so close you could almost read her name.  If Fully had not veered to port the vessels might have collided.

By now it was time for breakfast. Mrs. Thompson prepared a hearty one of scrambled eggs, sausage and oven toast. Dad ate, and went to sleep. After six fitful hours, he woke up.  Two P.M. It had been almost 24 hours since they’d left the dock.  The wind was now out of the southwest at about 35 knots.  It smelled of pastures, cattle, and sage grasses, reminding him of his boyhood in west Texas.  Time to heave anchor and head in! Except for an occasional waterspout, hurricane Carla was no longer a threat.  The rain fell less steadily as the Conte Bianco approached the Rockport harbor, but the level of the water on the jetty indicated that the tide was still over three feet above normal.

They tied up, Sam and his wife went home, and dad and Fully had a deserved rest on board alongside the ice dock. The next morning he walked home and checked on our house, no damage there either.  Then I had arrived, relieved to learn that everyone was safe and sound and that dad’s boat was not damaged.  After hearing the account of his adventure, I asked dad if I could have a look around, and headed home to get my bike.  It seemed extra still and quiet as I made my way to Water Street. Yes, the town was for the most part still evacuated, but there was something more: it was the proverbial calm after the storm. As I passed the old warehouse where Mr. Charlie lived, I thought about the 1919 storm and his experiences.  Now I have my own almost firsthand account of the Conte Bianco riding out hurricane Carla, and I told myself, when I’m old enough to have spare time I will tell this story to some young boy who has time to listen, and I’ll tell Charlie’s stories too, about a special little town named Rockport on Aransas Bay.


2 Comments so far
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Sounds like a crazy ride! I can only imagine the steepness of the waves in the swollen bay

Comment by Ronjohn

Hey Ronjohn, I hope you are doing well; are you working on your Grandpa’s farm?

Comment by ericofrockport

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