Lambert family lived on historic ‘53 T-boat for the past 15 years
Editor’s Note: Any readers that have access to a means of pulling The Cumberland from the bottom of the Intracoastal, please contact the Mullet Wrapper (info at top of page).
By Fran Thompson
Up until Sept. 16, The Cumberland, a beautiful US Army T-Boat built by Higgins Marine in New Orleans for use in the Korean War, was the only home Les and Tammy Lambert’s two teenage children (pictured below) have ever known.
For the past 15 years, the Lamberts have been from Brunswick to Miami and The Bahamas to Port Charlotte. But nowhere did they find a more beautiful setting or folks as nice and accommodating as Perdido Key Restaurant & Oyster Bar Marina owner Emile Petro and his staff.
The quality of life on Perdido Key was well worth Les Lambert’s 90 minute drive to his job in West Mobile. And like everybody else in Perdido Key, he thought he was driving away from Hurricane Sally when he came home on Sept. 15.
“We were watching crazy Sally out there looking like it would come in west of Mobile. But Sally seemed to be a little intoxicated,’’ Lambert said. “She was doing a little dance and we realized we were stuck between a rock and a hard place.’’
Lambert ran out a few more lines and put his main engine in reverse to hold The Cumberland in place when he realized the storm’s eye would pass over Orange Beach. He said he would have powered out into the Intracoastal at that point, but he feared his 95 ton steel boat would ram into the huge power catamaran that had boxed his boat into its spot at the end of the marina dock.
Even battling winds he clocked at 116 MPH, Lambert kept his boat steady while other boats were piling up against the condos on the west side of the marina and the first floor of the Oyster Bar Restaurant.
When the adjacent catamaran crashed against the SeaTow dock west of the marina, its emergency generator kicked in and the boat lit up like a cruise ship. After battling eight ft. swells for the next half hour, a wave broke over The Cumberland’s stern and turned it sideways to the dock.
“The power catamaran took the dock out and we were an island onto ourself. I realized that if we didn’t do something, we’d wind up piled up with all the other boats,’’ Lambert said.
He motored the boat into the Intracoastal Waterway hoping to beach it at Banana Bay Resort and wait for daylight. But the storm was swinging the boat around and it was very dark on the Intracoastal.
The fender he planned to tie up to under Theo Baars Bridge was almost entirely under water. So, he put the boat in forward gear and headed west looking for a beach, with his son standing watch for debris and his wife and daughter tracking the storm below.
The Intracoastal was already full of docks, pilings and other debris, some of which eventually fouled The Cumberland’s prop.
Its flood lights were still working, but the boat was now at the mercy of the current and the wind. After barely missing another boat adrift in the Intracoastal, the Cumberland came to rest on rock jetties behind a home on Innerarity Point. The first thing the family saw on land was a pool belonging to homeowner George Scapin’s neighbors in front of them.
The family was able to remove its most cherished belongings from the boat. But after the storm blew through, Lambert was denied access back to Perdido Key. So, he pulled a dinghy from The Cumberland and rowed back to the Oyster Bar to retrieve the family truck.
With Scapin and his retired Navy friends offering to help, Lambert did everything he could to try to dislodge his home from the jetties. But it was to no avail.
He sent his wife and children into Pensacola so they wouldn’t have to see their home slowly sink as it continued to list throughout the day.
At around 4 a.m., The Cumberland sank to the bottom of the Intracoastal, with only its roll chalk visible above the water.
“The poor old girl didn’t have any choice but to list over and sink right there,’’ Lambert said.
In just 24 hours, life changed for the Lamberts. The Cumberland was more than a family home. It was an easily recognized conversation starter. It was a 67 year old part of American history.
A couple broken fingers and a few stitches were the total of Lambert’s injuries, and the family was able to find accommodations closer to Les’s job. But he will not let The Cumberland’s odyssey end this way. As soon as he can find somebody with a crane barge to help him bring The Cumberland to the surface, the will take it to drydock and start restoring it again.
“We are trying to get her up, resurrect her and get her back in use. It is a piece of history. I do not want it to die because of crazy Sally,’’ Lambert said.
Lambert said he is not even sure it will be his family that lives on The Cumberland. But somebody will keep it alive.
“She’s not going to the scrap yard. We are going to bring her back. Boats such as this outlive several owners,’’ he said. “It is a stewardship, not an ownership. You have to be cognoscent of what it needs and listen to what it tells you. They don’t make things like this anymore. It’s still alive at 67 and deserves to be kept alive.’’
At no time during the storm did Lambert think he or his family were in danger, even when they realized that Sally’s feared northeast quadrant was coming straight at them.
“When we finally gathered around the dinner table, we made jokes and cut up about how there was no way Disney World could make a ride that was that awesome and intense at the same time,’’ he said.
“I’ve been through a dozen hurricanes and storms. We have been through bad seas. We knew the boat was going to save us, just like we saved her from certain death,’’ he added.
“We gave her love and she loved us back. She took care of us in all of our travels and she kept us safe. Even in her last effort, after she lost power, she put us onshore where we could step off with all the belongings that were important to us. She allowed us time to gather our things together before she succumbed to the effects of Hurricane Sally.’’