Photograph courtesy Sarah Conover
. . . begin to welcome back / all you sent away, be a new annunciation, / make yourself a door through which / to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you.
—David Whyte, “Coleman’s Bed”
The heart of my family vanished on January 2, 1958, in a shipwreck—a fleeting event of upheaval whose fallout continues decades later. When there are no survivors and no meaningful recovery of wreckage, what’s left is only speculation. And the long legacy of unresolved grief. Not yet two, I was the youngest orphan of the downing of the Revonoc.
The gale blasting from the northeast on that day was the worst winter storm in the 47-year history of the Miami weather office, and no one had predicted its coming. At 8:30 that morning, a mild squall warning went out for the Miami area. Six hours later, a northeast wind sprang up, blowing out storefront windows and hammering boats with 70 mph gusts and 40-foot waves. Scores of commercial boats and ocean yachts were caught unaware, and many went missing. But by January 8, six days after the storm, all had been accounted for. All except for my family’s boat, the Revonoc.
My grandfather, Harvey Conover, Sr., then 65, had been at the helm. One of the country’s most esteemed skippers, he had aboard his wife, my grandmother Dorothy, age 60; his son, my father, Larry, 26; my mother, Lori, also 26; and Bill Fluegelman, 29, a friend who had served in the US Coast Guard with my father. Since mid-December, my grandparents had taken a leisurely cruise through the waters of the West Indies and rendezvoused with my parents and their friend in the Florida Keys just before New Year’s. On Wednesday morning, January 1, they set out from Key West for Miami, where my grandfather had an appointment with a sailmaker on Saturday, January 4. The trip from Key West to Miami was just 110 miles, and the Revonoc should have easily made port by midday Friday. The storm struck on Thursday afternoon.
Since no one was expecting the Revonoc until Saturday, the day after the epic storm, Friday, January 3, wasn’t considered. A number of large boats caught in the gale had also not returned. The sea had yet to settle; all rescue efforts were delayed. When the Revonoc did not show up for the appointment on Saturday, Miami yacht broker Richard Bertram, a good friend of my grandfather’s, called the US Coast Guard. Radio dispatches went off to ships in the surrounding area in hopes of a sighting. Sunday arrived with no word from anyone. It was on the morning of this day, Sunday, January 5, three days after the gale, that the Coast Guard called to inform my Conover relatives that the Revonoc was officially missing. The remaining Conover children, my two aunts and uncle, were swept into a miasma of disbelief, panic, and impotence. They focused on the immediate urgency of finding the lost ship, speculating that our family could yet be clinging to wreckage, or washed up, injured and needy, on some distant island shore.
The Revonoc Jr., the only debris found from the disappearance, with the author’s sister, circa 1956
Publisher of Yachting magazine and a sailor for over 55 years, Harvey Conover, Sr., had, as competitive sailors say, “collected a lot of silverware.” Rated among the top dozen ocean-racing yachtsmen of his time, he named all his boats Revonoc—Conover spelled backwards—and with them he won 23 firsts, 14 seconds, and 6 thirds in major races ranging from Long Island Sound to the Bermuda Cup to the sometimes deadly Fastnet Race off the Irish coast. Everyone who knew my grandfather understood that he would neither give up nor fail.
Continuing stormy seas hampered official Coast Guard rescue efforts on Sunday and Monday, but on Tuesday, January 7, five days after the storm, one of the most intensive sea searches in American history was initiated, involving the US Coast Guard, the US Navy, the US Air Force, and the Cuban Navy. The New York Herald Tribune reported: “Fourteen Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force planes, five Coast Guard helicopters, a Navy blimp, the big Coast Guard cutter Sebago, three civilian planes, eight vessels of the Cuban Navy and two of their military aircraft combed the shores, reefs, islands and waters in all directions.” The rescue soon widened to encompass thousands of square miles. For months afterward, as the official and unofficial search parties scoured every last possibility, the Revonoc’s disappearance was followed by the nation in newspapers from The New York Times to the Fresno Bee, and was featured in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Boat…