The crowd leaving the Orange Bowl in Miami on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 1 congratulated itself on a day to remember—euphoric 72° weather enveloped them and an awesome demonstration of football, Oklahoma-style, was behind them. It was of little moment to the crowd that the Miami office of the Weather Bureau had issued a 1 p.m. report showing a menacing cold front lying across the central Gulf of Mexico—or that, hundreds of miles away on Cuba's Isle of Pines, the weather watchers were soon to discover a low-pressure area saturated with warm, moist air. The workings of nature were of life-and-death moment to yachtsmen in the summerlike seas, but the sailors, most of them escapees from winterlocked offices up north, did not know that yet.
One famous boat at sea on that day was the 39-foot 8-inch ocean racer Hoot Mon, which had been chartered for a run through the Bahama cays. Aboard were two marine officers from Parris Island, together with their wives, the 9-year-old daughter of one couple, the 6-year-old son of the other, and two enlisted marines, also from Parris Island. Another craft in the area was the sturdy old ocean racer Amberjack II, a 46-foot schooner first introduced to fame when Franklin D. Roosevelt chartered her for a post-election-year cruise with his sons in 1933. Amberjack, under the command of her paid skipper, was in Key West getting ready for a return cruise to Fort Lauderdale. Another ocean-goer, the spanking-new, 43-foot Revonoc, had set out from Key West at 8 a.m. New Year's morning. Revonoc (Conover spelled backward) bore her sea-wise skipper-owner, Harvey Conover of New York, a publisher of technical magazines, Conover's wife, their son Larry and his wife Mary, and a textile executive, William Fluegelman, of Scarsdale, N.Y., a friend of the younger Conovers. Miami was thought to be Revonoc's goal, since Conover had had an appointment scheduled there on Saturday morning, January 4, with Colin Ratsey, the New York sailmaker, who had cut some sails for an America's Cup racer and wanted to try them on Revonoc. Later it appeared Revonoc's intended goal might have been Nassau, in the Bahamas, but the exact destination Harvey Conover had in his mind may never, now, be known for sure.
By 4 p.m. on January 1 the Miami office of the Weather Bureau made a further evaluation of its 1 p.m. data. Projecting the effect of the cold front in the Gulf of Mexico, the bureau signaled a small-boat bulletin:
"Gentle to moderate southeasterly winds tonight becoming moderate to fresh north to northeast during Thursday. Slight seas becoming moderate to rough Thursday. Increasing cloudiness with scattered showers beginning tonight."
January 20, 1958
At this hour, the Miami forecaster knew nothing of the low-pressure area sweeping up from the Isle of Pines toward the Straits of Florida.
But incoming reports kept building up. By 4:30 a.m. Thursday, January 2, the Miami weather forecaster spoke again: "Fresh to occasionally moderate strong 20- to 30-mph northerly winds gradually becoming moderate-to-fresh northeasterly tonight."
It was the first serious warning, and it was an understatement. At 8:30 a.m. Thursday the bureau reinforced the warning, adding: "Fresh to strong 25- to 35-mph northeasterly winds with occasional gusts to 40 mph in squalls extreme southeast Florida coastal region and in the straits."
By 2:30 p.m. Thursday the real evidence was coming in and the Weather Bureau crackled out:
"Hoist gale warning 3 p.m. Thursday, Palm Beach southward to Dry Tortugas."
Up went the gale warnings—two red pennants—over every Coast Guard station as far south as the Tortugas. Out over the radio waves went the same alarm. Gale. Winds of 39 to 54 mph.
By that time the cold front from the Gulf of Mexico and the low-pressure area from the Caribbean collided, and after that things, moved fast. A northeast wind of almost hurricane force sprang up and set the straits boiling. Within hours the northeaster had reached Miami, where it shredded street awnings, blasted out store windows and tormented heavy shipping. Gusts up to 70 mph turned the sea south of Miami into a witches' cauldron. It was the worst winter storm in the 47-year history of the Miami weather office.
In Cuba, too, the storm was having its effect. Waves piled up on Havana's Malecón Drive, dashing anchored craft against retaining walls and confining holiday vacationers to their fancy Havana hotels. Two new ones—the Riviera and the Capri—had a busy, days-long rush at their casino tables.
In Miami, distress signals began to flood district Coast Guard headquarters. Sturdy, 55-foot boats of the shrimping fleet were being hammered by 40-foot seas.
Hoot Mon fared relatively well. The marines who chartered her anchored on New Year's Day in a spot called Honeymoon Harbor, a small cove on Gun Cay. When the storm blew up during the night, Hoot Mon, lashed by winds of 50 mph or more, pulled loose from her anchors. The marines struggled to keep the famous racing boat from blowing against deadly coral. Eventually they maneuvered her into a sandy stretch, where she was blown against the beach and heeled over.
Survivors—and the search
Hoot Mon's plight first became known on Saturday, January 4, after the northeaster had begun to spout itself out, when a passing ship spotted signal fires on the beach. The Coast Guard sent a helicopter and picked up the wife of Marine Captain Morton Riley, who had suffered painful burns when a can of lighter fluid exploded. The rest of the party, men, woman and children, stayed with the ship and were hauled off by Navy helicopter three days later.
The famous Amberjack, which incautiously put out to sea January 5, also survived. Caught 20 miles off Key West, taking heavy seas and appearing to be sinking, she was abandoned by her party when the freighter SS Alcoa Pioneer, headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico, came by with an offer of salvation. Amberjack herself washed up on the Marquesas Keys.
But Revonoc was overdue, alarmingly overdue, for a craft with an appointment in Miami. Where was she? The search began.
Save for the storm, Revonoc would have made Miami by Thursday night or Friday noon at the latest. In addition to her sail she carried a tidy little auxiliary power plant: a 37-hp Mercedes-Benz engine which would push her along at about six knots.
When Saturday morning came and no Revonoc, Yacht Broker Richard H. Bertram, a friend of the Conovers, checked the Coast Guard. Radio signals went off to ships at sea, asking hopefully for word of a rescue or a sighting. By Sunday the return signals were all in: no rescue, no sightings. Out went fresh orders from the Coast Guard. As recorded in the laconic language of the Coast Guard log:
Jan. 5. 8:06 a.m. Directed Coast Guard Air Station Miami dispatch aircraft search, and the first area assigned was Key West south to 24° 30' north, thence east to axis of Gulf Stream, then northeast along axis to 25° north, then southwest to point of origin.... At 9:11 a.m. Coast Guard Air Station Miami advised a second plane departed to Key West search area.... 12 noon: First plane assigned completed search area with negative results. The probability of detection on that search 70%. At 3:31 p.m. second plane completed assigned search area, was directed to Cape Sable vicinity en route to station. At 4:51 p.m. second plane returned to station with negative results.
The second day's search was also a two-plane affair and produced negative results, but according to the Coast Guard log:
At 7:38. p.m. Jupiter Inlet Lifeboat Station advised local source (a Mr. Barnes) had found 12-foot sailing skiff with name Revonoc Jr. Subject found on beach one mile south of Jupiter light.
Jupiter Inlet is 80 miles north of Miami. The Coast Guard, theorizing that the skiff, sunk in the water to the gunwales, would have been carried north by the Gulf Stream despite the prevailing direction of the wind, got some clue for the all-out search it directed next day.
They also got a pretty good idea of the steep, treacherous seas that must have hit Revonoc as she first met the storm. The skiff's rail was broken at the chock and her bow fitting was bent. Both are points at which the skiff would have been fastened to the ship's cabin trunk. The wave that carried her off must have gone clear across the ship.
"Too good a sailor..."
Harvey Conover's friends made conjectures about his course. A cool man and an experienced sailor, they agreed, he would probably have chosen to run before the wind with sails doused. George Adams, a yachtsman who had raced against Conover, called him "too good a sailor to be fooled by a storm."
On Tuesday, January 7, the Coast Guard mounted its biggest search.
The Coast Guard log for Tuesday:
At 9:30 a.m. assigned Marine Corps a search area.... At 12:33 p.m. Naval Air Station Jacksonville reported planes in search.... At 12:35 p.m. requested 14th Air Force Rescue to provide aircraft.... At 3:15 p.m. the Naval Air Station Jacksonville advised they will launch six to eight planes. Key West searching additional areas.... At 3:30 p.m. Cutter Seoago en route to Guantànamo Bay, Cuba, was directed to take north coast of Cuba route to keep lookout for Revonoc.... Total aircraft—27.
On January 8, 20 planes went out. They found a Navy-type life raft at Elliot Key, which was identified as not belonging to Revonoc. They also sighted a spar washed up on Long Key, estimated from the air to be 25 feet in length. Possibly Revonoc's boom? On ground examination it proved to be 65 feet long—obviously a cargo boom from a freighter.
On January 9 the search was reduced to four planes. The next two entries read:
Jan. 10. At 4:27 p.m. This day canceled hourly broadcasts at Coast Guard radio station Miami and started making one broadcast daily concerning Revonoc. Five planes searched this day. No new clues found....
Jan. 11—Two Coast Guard and one Navy plane searching....
At the height of the official search, private searchers were also at work. Henry du Pont, Commodore of the Cruising Club of America (Conover was a past commodore), supplied three private planes for the search, and they were manned by yachtsmen such as Bill West, Phil Tomlinson and Sandy Hiss. Dr. Luis Vida√±a, first finisher in the last Miami-Nassau race, intervened to get the Cuban navy to dispatch eight cutters and two planes to search the Cuban coast and the Yucatan Channel. By this time word had come from Key West that Conover had spoken of making for Nassau instead of Miami, and Bahamian waters got an extra going over. Rod Stephens, of Sparkman & Stephens, designers of the tough, heavy little ship, flew south from New York to help at search headquarters set up at the dock owned by Yacht Broker Dick Bertram.
In all, the searches by week's end had scoured the area of the Florida Straits, investigated deep up the Gulf Coast of Florida. In addition to the searches in the channel of Yucatan, between Cuba and Mexico, flight runs had been made up the course of the Gulf Stream as far north as North Carolina and Virginia.
Friends of the Conovers and their party trusted that Harvey Conover had indeed heard the warnings and ridden out the storm or that, like Hoot Mon, Revonoc would be discovered safe on a hospitable cay.
In Key West, between Christmas and New Year's, Harvey Conover had talked with a retired newspaperman named Cornelius W. Weaver, who was at the docks one afternoon when Revonoc came in. Weaver took the bow line when Conover heaved it ashore.
Conover said, "I've seen you somewhere before."
Weaver: "I guess you have if you've been here before."
Conover: "No, this is my first trip to Key West. My name is Conover. I'm with Conover-Mast publications."
Weaver: "Well, we might have something in common. I was a newspaperman at one time."
Conover: "Yes, I know you were. You were on the Philadelphia Inquirer and I knew you as Corny Weaver."
Conover invited Weaver aboard for a drink. He told Weaver, "I want to get an electrician. There are several things wrong about my wiring." He also said he was sailing from Key West to Nassau and from there to Miami. Weaver helped Conover shop for $300 worth of groceries. An electrician came and worked over Revonoc's wiring, a matter of fixing the switch on the line to the direct-current batteries, which had not been working properly.
"Revonoc's fuel and water tanks were full when she sailed," Weaver said. "Revonoc carried a radio receiver but no transmitter."
On the afternoon of December 31, said Weaver, Conover phoned the Key West Weather Bureau. The forecast at that time was, "partly cloudy tonight and Wednesday. Low temperature tonight 68; high Wednesday 80. Mostly moderate east and southeast winds."
Weaver said he was aboard Revonoc until about 11 p.m. New Year's Eve. He returned New Year's Day about 7 a.m. for breakfast with the Conovers.
Conover said, "If we get an early start today, we can make Nassau by tomorrow afternoon [January 2]."
Weaver tossed the lines aboard as the Revonoc prepared to sail. Conover said, "When are you coming back to New York?"
Weaver: "I don't know."
Conover: "I wish you were coming with us."
Corny Weaver was the last man to see the Conovers and Revonoc before she kept her grim appointment with the elements.
NE WINDS 40-62 MPH