The Day the Amazon Went Aground at Montauk

No GPS and one long island spelled trouble 35 years ago
Bryce Muir of Maine, Amazon’s captain, stood on the beach in front of the yacht after she ran aground just west of Ditch Plain Beach in Montauk on May 8, 1978. Kevin McCann

    On the foggy early morning of May 8, 1978, a strikingly beautiful sailing yacht went hard aground on the rocks just east of Ditch Plain Beach in Montauk. She was Amazon, a steel-hulled, 72-foot, yawl-rigged ocean racer designed by Sparkman and Stephens.
    “It was a very disheartening sight to see such a beautiful classic sailboat lodged in the rocky bottom. Montauk has a long history of shipwrecks with an unfavorable history for salvage,” wrote Kevin McCann, a photographer and writer who grew up in Montauk. He witnessed the triumphant rescue of Amazon, which took the blessing of Lloyds of London and nearly a month of ingenious engineering to achieve.
    Mr. McCann chronicled the Amazon’s salvage at the time. He has posted his photos on his Web site, snatchingphantoms.com, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the yacht’s grounding and the seat-of-the-pants ingenuity that saved her from ruin just seven years from her launch.
    John B. Goulandris, a Greek shipping magnate, was a close friend of George Coumantaros, a legendary ocean yachting champion who set records in the Newport-to-Bermuda race aboard the Baccara, a Sparkman and Stephens design that inspired Mr. Goulandris to commission one like it. Amazon was built at the prestigious Camper and Nicholsons shipyard in Southampton, England, in 1971.
    Amazon cruised and raced the Eastern Seaboard until she was sold in 1977. On the day of the grounding, the yacht was en route to Maine from Florida. At the helm was Bryce Muir, whose family had purchased the yacht.
    It was a foggy spring morning, the kind of eerie weather common to Montauk in the spring. Fortunately, the ocean was calm. As Mr. McCann points out in his description of the wreck, Long Island sticks out into the ocean like a foot ready to trip vessels moving up and down the coast. Captain Muir did not have the advantage of GPS in 1978. He wasn’t the first to misjudge the length of Long Island’s South Fork.
    According to Mr. McCann’s research, the Coast Guard alerted Chesterfield and Associates, a marine construction company from Westhampton Beach, shortly after the grounding. At about the same time, Mr. McCann’s brother, Roger, contacted Pat Bistrian, an operator of heavy machinery from East Hampton. The two came up with an ambitious plan that was approved by the yacht’s insurer.
    Because Amazon came aground at high tide on a rock reef that extended perhaps 50 yards offshore, it was not possible to pull her off. The first step then was for a 100-ton crane to lift and manipulate the 105,000-pound vessel off the rocks and onto the beach beside the dirt and clay bluff.
    After Amazon’s 105-foot-high mast was removed, a road was built using steel I-beams and concrete supports. A few of the supports remain to this day.
    It cost $40,000 to construct a combination cradle/sled for the boat. Using bulldozers, Amazon was nudged and towed 300 yards to the sand beach at Ditch Plain where a tug pulled her out to sea. She was taken to Derecktor’s shipyard in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where she was made whole again. Mr. McCann relayed that in a recent conversation David Allen of Chesterfield and Associates had said Amazon’s successful rescue was mostly due to the fact that her steel hull was able to take the strain. And, after 30 days of lifting and pushing by cranes and bulldozers, there was almost no damage to beach or bluff.
    Amazon changed hands a few times but continued racing in the North Atlantic and off southern Europe through the 1980s. In 1992, her German owner, Klaus Lower, refitted Amazon in the Netherlands, maintaining her original yawl design and sail plan. In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Amazon sailed the Caribbean as a luxury charter boat owned by a Scandinavian company.
    In 2009, she was purchased by Olivier Pecoux and refitted in La Rochelle, France. Amazon is still owned by Mr. Pecoux, a member of the British Classic Yacht Club. The handsome yacht, whose life might well have ended on a rocky Montauk beach 35 years ago, is currently cruising the Mediterranean.