Vincent Tangorra and his Polaris were just outside the Cape May sea buoy; when last heard from, it was Thursday evening December 5th 2013.
“Vincent Tangorra was living out his dream.” This according to Paul Dolderer the new owner of the 37’ sailboat Polaris. For almost three years Polaris sat high and dry at Canyon Club Resort Marina waiting for a new owner and then Paul Dolderer happened along. Paul fell in love with Polaris.
First of all, the Pennsylvania resident needed a place to live and Polaris had plenty of space. Second, was Paul’s love of the sea and of Cape May Harbor in particular, and finally there was the cost…..FREE….to whoever could and would take the derelict away. The back-story of the Polaris didn’t seem to bother him a bit, despite its similarity to other mysteries of the sea, such as that of the Mary Celeste.
The true story of the Mary Celeste, of course, is one of the most enduring sea mysteries of all time. Sailing out of New York on her way to Genoa with a cargo of industrial alcohol, Mary Celeste was discovered off the Azorean Islands 143 years ago on December 4, 1872 by the crew of the brigantine Dei Gratia. Erratic movements and an odd set of sails hinted that the Mary Celeste was no longer under manned control. Upon closer investigation, it was discovered that even though her sails were set and the crew’s last meal on the table, she was indeed deserted. She was also missing one of her lifeboats.
Then there is the 2013 film, All is Lost, where Robert Redford portrays a solo sailor, who deals with one setback after another and finally, through no fault of his own, is forced to abandon his foundering sailboat and take to his life raft. The story is told without benefit of dialogue or monologue; rather it is a stark and moving film that challenges some viewers to ponder, “What would I do if I found myself alone, far out to sea on a sinking vessel.” Other viewers might ask, “Why was he out there alone in the first place?”
Which brings us back to the Polaris which was found abandoned and drifting 9 miles off of Cape May not quite three years ago on December 7, 2013. Registered to a retired New York City bus driver from the Long Island town of Bethpage, New York, 56 year-old Vincent Tangorra was an experienced and capable mariner who had been attempting a solo relocation of his sailboat to North Carolina for the winter, something he had done in the past. However, this time, Polaris only made it as far as Canyon Club Marina here on the Other Side. Like the Mary Celeste, erratic movements despite a full set of sail prompted a Coast Guard inspection which discovered a boat abandoned for no apparent reason. And, like the crew of the Mary Celeste, Vincent Tangorra had disappeared without a trace.
How do these things happen?
In the fictional “All Is Lost,” Redford’s sailboat had collided with a mostly submerged steel shipping container that had become separated from its hauler. This is not at all an uncommon occurrence given the prevalence of 20 and 40 foot steel containers adrift in the world’s oceans at any one time. Today’s mega-container ships often each carry the equivalent of over 20,000 twenty-foot steel containers, and are designed so as to automatically “shed” or shear-off its top tiers of containers in order to correct a dangerous list that might develop due to high seas or flooding. These wayward containers often fail to sink completely, instead stabilizing just inches above or below the water.
In the case of the Mary Celeste, a prize crew sailed her into Gibraltar where a salvage hearing considered several theories which could be attributed to the mystery of her missing crew. Scenario’s such as foul play, piracy, mutiny, murder, water spouts and giant octopus were all considered. One popular theory had it that alcohol fumes rising from the cargo interfered with the rational thinking of the crew who then became so disoriented that they abandoned ship despite being far from shore. More recently, a popular theory among actuarial professionals is that the Mary Celeste was the victim of an insurance fraud. What was known at the time and exists today as a constant in the mystery was that her Captain, Benjamin Briggs was a skilled and experienced sea captain well deserving of is excellent seafaring reputation. It was also known that on this voyage he was accompanied by his wife, Sarah and their infant daughter, so he had multiple incentives to ensure that the ship, her cargo, crew and his family arrived safely in Genoa. The Gibraltar hearings were inconclusive; decades of speculation followed, and continue to do so to this very day. What is not in dispute is the fact that all were lost.
Why do these things happen?
Vincent Tangorra had been in touch with his family, specifically his brother, Ray, by text and phone. According to Ray Tangorra, after setting out from New York on its way to North Carolina, Polaris encountered engine problems causing Vincent to consider turning back. Even so, Vincent was unconcerned. “I’m good. I’m going to make the trip slowly but surely,” he had told his brother. When last heard from, Vincent and his Polaris were just outside the Cape May sea buoy; it was Thursday evening.
The next morning, a personal watercraft was found adrift off Cape May. This was the first indication that something was amiss with the Polaris and its one-person crew. According to his brother, Vincent used the PWC as his life raft, so the fact that it was found unmanned and adrift was a clear warning sign and prompted a massive air and sea search by the Coast Guard who quickly located the Polaris by tracking Tangorra’s cell phone which was on board. However, no trace of Vincent was ever found. Polaris was towed to Cape May Harbor where it was lifted from the water at Canyon Club where it sat until Paul Dolderer happened upon it this year.
Today, Polaris is homeported at Cape May Inlet Marina (formerly Dolphin Cove) near 2-Mile Landing. Paul has hung two outboard off of her transom which push her along at a respectable 4-5 knots against the current. Dolderer has opted not to invite a mariner’s bad luck by renaming her, and in fact he claims a unique kinship with her previous owner. After all, as Paul says, “He was living his dream, and now, I’m living mine.”
Nevertheless, the Polaris, like the story of the Mary Celeste and the fictional“ All Is Lost” serves as forlorn reminder to mariners everywhere that even if you do everything right, the sea is a jealous and unforgiving mistress who keeps her secrets to herself…..secrets and mysteries unique to the Other Side.
Guest contribution by Mark Allen of South Jersey Marina. Other Side contributor to the Cape May Star and Wave.