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‘Perfect Storm’ Schooner Docks

June 17, 2000

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Willi Bank won’t have to see the upcoming film adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s book ``The Perfect Storm″ to learn what happens.

He lived it.

Bank was an engineer on the historic schooner Ernestina when it set sail from New England to Bermuda in October 1991 and got caught in rough seas when an Atlantic hurricane met with a second storm charging south from Nova Scotia.

The collision created what mariners dubbed ``The Halloween Storm,″ what lay people called ``the storm of the century,″ and what Junger made famous in his novel as ``The Perfect Storm.″

``We were running away from Hurricane Grace,″ recalled Bank, 36. ``When things got better there, we were told about the other storm. I said, ’What do you mean there’s a more severe storm out there?‴

Junger’s book describes how the fishing vessel Andrea Gail vanished while battling that second storm after setting sail from New England.

Today the Ernestina _ as it was in nine years ago _ is a floating classroom that allows students a chance to experience life on a turn-of-the-century vessel. It sailed into Penn’s Landing on Friday, and will be open to the public over the weekend.

The 106-year-old schooner began its days as a fishing vessel, has braved 20 expeditions to the Antarctic, and at one time carried load after load of hopeful immigrants to the United States from Cape Verde, Africa.

It made it through the Halloween Storm, but not before some tense moments at sea.

``We were in terrific seas, but nothing as bad as the people who perished,″ said Willi Bank’s 65-year-old father, William, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who served as the ship doctor on the 1991 voyage.

The storm set in three days after the 24 students and crew of 10 left the Ernestina’s home port in New Bedford, Mass.

Instead of passing quickly, it stalled for several days, leaving the crew to work around the clock to try to save the ship.

While they initially used their 8,323 square-feet of sails to run ahead of the storm, when the winds died down, they turned to the ship’s 6-cylinder engine, only to find it flooded.

Huge swells had caused water to back up in the exhaust system. Willi Bank spent 2 1/2 days below deck, taking the engine apart and getting it running again.

Despite the physical labor and emotional strain, the worst part of the trip was listening by radio as two other boats _ including another century-old schooner, the Anna Christina _ went down.

``We knew people on board. The captain had sailed as a mate on the Ernestina,″ said Gregg Swanzey, 47, then the Ernestina’s captain. ``All we could do was just listen. It was awful to hear.″

The Coast Guard was able to pick up the passengers of those vessels before they sank. The Andrea Gail, meanwhile, was lost, its six crew members never heard from again.

The storm was just the latest adventure for the Ernestina, which by 1991 had survived several groundings in the Antarctic and a fire in a New York harbor.

The Cape Verde government gave the boat to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1982 to thank the United States for helping it gain independence from Portugal.

The schooner was named a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Today, the state of Massachusetts runs educational programs aboard and welcomes visitors at its home port or at ports around the country where it docks.

The stately vessel is 114 feet long, with a majestic 76-foot-high Douglas fir main mast and a 74-foot foremast. It takes 20 people to raise the main sail.

While the crew uses computers for forecasting and communications, the living conditions have changed little from the 19th century _ no running water or air conditioning, for example.

Willi Bank is now the ship’s captain, though he hasn’t faced many days like he did as the engineer.

``Some days are pretty long, but the sailing is wonderful,″ he said. ``The students, no matter what the weather, always come away with a novel experience.″

``The Perfect Storm,″ which stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, opens June 30.


On the Net: http://www.ernestina.org/

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