The Salvor: In Menemsha, Lynn Murphy Marks 50 Years

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

Lynn C. Murphy has reason to celebrate this Labor Day weekend. He has marked a business anniversary few single proprietors ever reach: He has operated Menemsha Marine Repair for half a century now.

Mr. Murphy, 76, has salvaged and repaired vessels from Vineyard waters longer than most Vineyard fishermen have known how to walk. "I didn't ask to get in this business," Mr. Murphy says, seated in the smelly old wooden fishing shack that was built after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

Mr. Murphy started his business with the arrival of another unexpected storm, 50 years ago this week. It was Hurricane Carol, a storm that tore into Menemsha, lifted boats from their moorings and placed them uneasily far inland [Original Gazette articles reporting on Carol are reprinted on Pages Eight-A to Ten-A this morning.]

Hours before the storm, Menemsha was a quiet fishing community. Mr. Murphy was a 26-year-old fluke fisherman with a 19-foot fishing boat he called Misfit. "For six years I had been fishing on and off. I spent the summers in Menemsha and the winters in Florida," he says. On that day, like most, Mr. Murphy was happiest out on the water fishing.

That morning the tide started rising and there was no way of knowing why. Herbert Flanders was the selectman and the harbor master. "Before noon the tide was rising and it didn't stop. I asked Herbert what the hell was going on. The Coast Guard didn't even know," Mr. Murphy says.

Among the first words he heard from Mr. Flanders were, "Get the women and children off the boats. Tell them to go to my house."

Mayhem set in. Mr. Murphy recalled that Robert Morgan and Dana Gaines of Edgartown, Peter McGhee and Lenny Jason and maybe a few others helped in securing the boats they could. Yes, there was wind, but Mr. Murphy remembers most the way the boats pulled against their spring lines. To keep some boats from capsizing while tied to the dock, Mr. Murphy took a knife and cut lines. At the height of the storm, boats were lifted by the rising seas and put on what today is the Menemsha parking lot.

It was the beginning of his salvage career.

In 1950 he took the damaged 36-foot lobster boat that belonged to Ernest Mayhew and restored her into a dragger. "She blew up in Menemsha Creek," Mr. Murphy says. He got help restoring the boat and kept ownership of her. Fisherman Daniel S. "Dynamite Dan" Oliveira operated the boat, while Mr. Murphy kept running his marine repair business.

If Mr. Murphy started his career on one of the worst weather days in Menemsha history, he has been trying to make things right ever since. He has rescued people from the water, pulled boats off the beach and salvaged vessels that have sunk, blown up and been crushed by the seas.

A Veritable Museum

His backyard is full of boats with stories.

Anyone standing on the hill of the 4.5-acre property can have two opposite opinions about what they see amid the blueberry bushes and still be absolutely right. Mr. Murphy's yard is a dumping ground or it is a piece of the Vineyard's waterfront history. Mr. Murphy might be construed as the curator of the Island's only living maritime museum.

Some of Mr. Murphy's boats have legendary owners. He has one Brownell wooden boat that once belonged to Dick Hathaway of Edgartown and at another time belonged to Robert Flanders of Chilmark - both respected men on the waterfront. "Nobody knows why a Brownell don't pound when it is moving in rough water. I do," Mr. Murphy says.

The salvor has Emmett Carroll's old 35-foot wooden lobster boat, Karen M. "Emmett wanted me to take it to the dump. I says I will take it home."

Mr. Murphy doesn't have as much compassion for an engine as he does for his boats, though he collects all kinds of engines. "They all work," he says.

The collection isn't limited to the maritime. He has cars, buses, trucks and even a crane that came from Goodale's pit: "That crane built the Martha's Vineyard Airport," Mr. Murphy says.

Mr. Murphy has James Taylor's motor home. "It is great, it only has 19,000 miles on the odometer," he points out.

In his workshop there is the nearly completed renovation of a 33-foot boat that blew up and burned in Edgartown harbor in the summer of 1987.

In the yard there is a 34-foot Trojan sportfish boat called Just Chillin' that blew up while refueling at Menemsha Texaco in the summer of 1999. Even though the explosion occurred five years ago, Mr. Murphy says the lawyers are still bickering over the incident. He can repair just about anything, but in a lot of his boats, there is work begun and not necessarily finished.

Proud of His Family

Mr. Murphy has saved boats as big as 100 feet in length to as small as a dinghy.

He has gotten his feet wet and his clothes dirty plenty of times, and he has an even greater sense than most of the power of human error. In an accident there are those who are lucky, and those who have the worst luck. Each of the fingers in Mr. Murphy's hands bear the signature of a risky life. He has as many scars as he has children.

Mr. Murphy married twice and fathered nine children. Two teenage children died in separate accidents: His eldest son, Jay, died in 1970 in an automobile accident in Pennsylvania; Lee, his youngest son, at the age of 16, drowned in 1978 in the successful attempt to save the life of a schoolmate in Maine.

"I got more scars on me than most people," the salvor says.

Mr. Murphy is proud of his family and he dearly loves his children. A boyish grin comes over his face when he talks about them, and about his second wife, Susan, for 12 years the Chilmark postmaster.

But Mr. Murphy does have a cantankerous side, and his toughness is legendary. "My temper doesn't go any farther than the length of the boat," he says.

"When I yell at you, remember it isn't that I am mad at you. I am yelling so that you hear me," he says.

In July of 1969, Mr. Murphy earned notoriety beyond the town's borders for throwing Chilmark harbor master Phil LeVasseur into the harbor.

Peter S. McGhee wrote about it in the Gazette: ".... Lynn Murphy, it is clear, will not imitate Chilmark society in order to belong to it; he will not stand at the threshold meekly shuffling his feet waiting to be invited in. He will boil and rage and from time to time he will burst, and someone will be catapulted into Menemsha harbor."

‘Outsider' in Menemsha?

Mr. Murphy has certain reservations with the way things are run in Menemsha. He says he has always felt a bit like an outsider. He wasn't born in town, growing up on Mount Desert Isle in Maine.

"You have to be on the ball here," he says. "You have to be weird, or tough or stupid, to live in Chilmark for 50 years."

But if Menemsha were to have a day without Lynn Murphy, it would have a huge hole in it. Mr. Murphy has so entrenched himself among the affairs of the waterfront, his colleagues and townspeople barely get through a day without mentioning either his work or his name. He may not feel as though he is a Chilmarker in the truest sense; but if you haven't had a lively discussion with Mr. Murphy on an issue over the waterfront, you probably aren't a Chilmarker either.

For Mr. Murphy, saving a boat, or the lives of others, is a way of life. There is the adrenaline rush. The immediacy of the moment demands a quick answer and the choices all have significant consequence.

"I stood in front of a boat and watched it blow up," he says. "A half cup of gasoline in the bilge of a boat for 20 minutes is equal to five sticks of dynamite. If you think otherwise, try and prove it yourself," he says.

While he made a living from the bad luck of others, Mr. Murphy has spent a life making bad things right.

As he looks across his career he sees the foibles of boaters who think they know more than they do. Call it pilot error. "It is either an act of God or an act of a goddam fool," Mr. Murphy says.

Salvage work isn't what it used to be. If you saved a boat, the owner might owe you 110 per cent of the value of the boat. Mr. Murphy has spent enough time in court to know the nuts and bolts of salvage long after the boat is saved. "Years ago I used to get 15 a year at least. It was big business. Now I get one a year; and I'll tell you why.

"It is that goddam satellite," Mr. Murphy says. People don't run up on the beach in fog like they used to. "GPS is foolproof," he adds.

Advice to the Children

If there is a legacy to be left it is in his family.

If he were to revisit his decision 50 years ago about going into the business, he says, "I would have gotten a real job." And he has told every one of his children that."I tell them go to school. Learn what you can. Then if you want to mess with boats you can," he says.

Mr. Murphy's mantra is a phrase that comes out of a book: "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats," wrote Kenneth Grahame.

Mr. Murphy's son Lucas has worked for the town as an assistant harbor master and today is an EMT and active in the town fire department. He just graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Another son, Lynn II, worked as a lifeguard at Lucy Vincent and was credited Tuesday for saving the life of a swimmer caught in the surf from the remnants of tropical storm Gaston.

And his son Brian is the chief engineer of the NOAA research fisheries vessel Delaware II out of Woods Hole. Brian's wife is Jo Ann Murphy, the Island's veterans agent who has served as commander of the American Legion.

There are many parts of his life that Mr. Murphy considers finished work: his children and a long list of customer's boats. Of the unfinished boats in his yard, he says he'd like to get to them. More recently, a lot of stuff has been taken off to the dump.