The Capitol

Annapolis, MD

Houdini, resting on creek bottom for year, to disappear

By JEFF HORSEMAN, Staff Writer


The Houdini is on the verge of disappearing.

A Navy salvage unit based in Virginia expects to be in Annapolis the week of Aug. 23 to raise the 43-foot sailboat, which sank off the Naval Academy seawall last September during Tropical Storm Isabel.

Since the storm, the Houdini's rigging has protruded out of Spa Creek near the USS Maine memorial. While the boat has been a source of embarrassing questions from many an out-of-town boater, its removal has floundered in a sea of bureaucracy.

To speed up the salvage effort, Baltimore County resident Gregory Barnhill has taken the boat's title from Bruce Ekstrand. Mr. Barnhill heads a committee bringing the Volvo Ocean Race to Annapolis in 2006.

After seeing the Houdini on a evening cruise aboard a friend's yacht on July 23, he asked Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. about it.

"This is something that's been there for a while and it should be taken out," Mr. Barnhill said.

His goal led him to talks with the Navy, academy, city and state Department of Natural Resources about raising the boat. Eventually the Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two out of Little Creek got involved.

The salvage operation is not yet a done deal, Mr. Barnhill said. He estimated the removal would cost $10,000; who will pick up the cost is still being worked out, he said.

Academy spokesman Judy Campbell said Wednesday that the academy was still considering its options.

But Lt. Sara Olsen, the salvage unit's operations commander, said the same day that she's just waiting for formal permission from the academy to remove the Houdini.

She expects about 16 divers to spend four to five days raising the boat. The unit's previous experience includes salvaging items from the sunken Civil War ironclad USS Monitor off the North Carolina coast at depths of 240 feet.

Mr. Barnhill said reports from a Navy diver indicate the boat is beyond repair, because the hull is broken into three pieces. He plans on salvaging whatever he can and auctioning the parts off for charity.

With all the phone calls and conferences with various agencies, raising the Houdini reminds Mr. Barnhill of his work bringing the internationally renowned Volvo race to Maryland.

"It was like putting a puzzle together," he said.

The puzzle seemed hopelessly jumbled following last Sept. 18, when the Houdini slammed into the seawall along with Mr. Ekstrand's live-aboard vessel, the Windscape.

Mr. Ekstrand, who had ignored warnings to leave the area prior to Isabel's arrival, jumped to the seawall as the 30-foot Windscape slipped beneath the waves.

He later spent $8,000 to raise and haul away the Windscape. In May, Mr. Ekstrand said he didn't have the money to recover the Houdini.

"I have just kind of written it off as a loss and put it pretty much out of my mind," he said at the time. Mr. Ekstrand could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Lt. j.g. Sean Robertson, an academy spokesman, said in May that the academy didn't have a plan to remove the wreck and that it didn't present a safety or navigation hazard. The state and Annapolis Harbormaster Ric Dahlgren said they couldn't intervene since the Houdini was in federal waters.

Wood from a historic King George Street tree felled recently by disease will be used for plaques to mount the salvaged items, the mayor said. The groups benefiting from the items' sales are Ocean Race Chesapeake, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

Ms. Moyer expressed relief the Houdini might finally be leaving.

"We've been looking for ways to make this happen," she said. "Greg Barnhill really came up with a fantastic idea."


From the depths of the sea... comes the sunken Houdini!

By JEFF HORSEMAN, Staff Writer


With its tilted mast abutting the Naval Academy seawall, many people called the Houdini an eyesore. And to think they were looking at the pretty part.

The hull of the sunken sailboat inched silently above the opaque water yesterday morning, revealing a foul-smelling wreck caked in 11 months worth of muck.

The 43-footer managed a final insult to Annapolis' sense of decency as the starboard aft section fell off and sent an unrecognizable mess of debris splashing down.

"I can't believe how bad it looks," gawked Annapolis resident Dick Callahan, a former city recreation director who saw the Houdini every day on his morning walk.

The salvage - if you can call the boat worth saving - ended a controversy that began last September when Tropical Storm Isabel slammed Houdini and another vessel against the rocks.

The owner of both boats, Bruce Ekstrand, paid to remove the Windscape but said he didn't have the money to raise the Houdini, too.

The academy wasn't immediately inclined to remove the boat because in its view, it wasn't a safety or navigation hazard. The city and state couldn't act since Houdini was submerged in federal waters.

The removal effort intensified in July when Baltimore investment firm partner Gregory Barnhill saw the boat's mast while cruising on a friend's yacht.

He used his political connections and a lot of phone calls to spur the Navy to raise what had become an embarrassing curiosity for America's Sailing Capital.

Mr. Barnhill was attending the Republican National Convention in New York yesterday and wasn't present for the salvage. Mayor Ellen O. Moyer was on hand and lauded the teamwork between the Navy, city, state and Mr. Barnhill.

"That's the way good things happen most of the time - people working together," she said.

The salvage was scheduled for Friday. But a crane's transmission problems pushed back the operation to yesterday.

A special Navy dive unit from Virginia was considered. In the end, divers and crewmen from Naval Station Annapolis and a contracted crane outfit did the work.

The Navy paid $10,500 for the crane. Mr. Barnhill will pay for disposal costs after the boat is stripped of anything salvageable.

Divers sawed most of Houdini's mast off last week. They attached slings to the hull yesterday morning.

Before the salvage, the station's commander, Capt. Brian McCormack, said the damage appeared confined to the hull's starboard aft portion, which had been bashed against the seawall repeatedly.

Workers also surrounded the wreck with a boom to contain any fluids or debris and cleared onlookers from a safety zone. A diver worked to secure the 175-ton crane's cables to the boat.

Just before 10:30 a.m., he surfaced and gave the OK signal. Not long after, Houdini crept above the water, revealing its ugliness with excruciating deliberateness. The only parts not covered in brown were white and aqua patches on the port side.

The boat rotated counterclockwise until its bow pointed at the Severn River, water raining down from the 19-ton vessel.

A crashing noise came and like a seasick landlubber, Houdini heaved its possessions from a massive starboard hole. The only discernable item was a cooler that workers later fished out from the mess.

Because the bottom fell out, the boat couldn't be placed on a flatbed tractor-trailer waiting nearby. A barge from Naval Station Annapolis was called in to carry away Houdini, a task accomplished about 12:15 p.m.

Mr. Barnhill took title to the boat and plans on auctioning off salvaged items to benefit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Ocean Race Chesapeake, which he chairs.

Mr. Barnhill received an update on the salvage via his cell phone.

While he lamented missing Houdini's raising, he said, "I'm just glad it's out of the water, with or without me."


Our say: Editor's notebook By THE CAPITAL EDITORIAL BOARD 08/16/04 GOODBYE HOUDINI -- The city owes Gregory Barnhill its gratitude.

The Baltimore County resident, the chairman of the committee bringing the Volvo Ocean Race to Annapolis in 2006, is leading an effort to remove the sunken sailboat Houdini from its all-too-visible grave near the Naval Academy seawall. The 43-foot craft was slammed into the seawall by Tropical Storm Isabel; its owner abandoned it when he could not come up with the money to salvage the vessel.

Mr. Barnhill's persistence in climbing over bureaucratic obstacles - the wreck is in federal waters and outside the jurisdiction of the Annapolis harbormaster - should remove a visual blemish from the sight of the city's visitors.

We're hoping he gets the academy's permission to allow a team of divers to begin work. We also hope he can get financial help in raising the $10,000 the effort is estimated to cost. Surely, the city and the academy can help him. So far, no government and no one besides Mr. Barnhill has taken the initiative.


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