Heman Gurney and The Little Sailboat

3 Min Read


A dense fog was gathering over the waters of Buzzards Bay Massachusetts. Heman Gurney surveyed it nonchalantly as he prepared the little sailboat for departure. He was living on West Island just off the coast of Fairhaven Massachusetts, helping the Shermans and the Halls with some work. Mr. Sherman had offered young Gurney the use of his sailboat anytime he felt homesick and wanted to visit his folks on the mainland. Feeling a little homesick one afternoon Heman decided to take Mr. Sherman up on his offer.

After making sure that the boat was ready to sail Heman cast one more lingering look at the fog. It was rolling in pretty thickly and visibility was low.

“Maybe I should postpone my trip” he mused quietly to himself but he immediately dismissed the thought. Nonsense he chided himself, how many times have I traveled over these waters? There’s no way I’d get lost making my way over to New Bedford. With that thought, he cast off and was on his way.

The little boat sliced smartly through the fog, dipping, and weaving as it made its way across the face of the calm, familiar waters. Heman enjoyed the feel of the waves beneath the boat and the cool salty air whipping against his face. He’d traveled about three miles when he was suddenly jolted out of his pleasant reverie by a loud voice shouting

“Hard up your helm! Hard up your helm!”

Too late, he ducked under the sail only to make out the shape of another boat which was practically on top of him! Unable to steer away in time his little sailboat slid under the boom of the bigger boat, cleanly wiping off the masts and rigging and unsettling his boat. The sudden tilting of the little vessel threw Heman off balance and he plunged headfirst into the cold water.


He was soon fished out of the water by the sailors from the other boat. He then had to try and explain what he was doing out on the waters in such a small boat on such a foggy day. The sailors on the bigger boat kindly offered to salvage his little sailboat and hooked it up to a tow rope which they fastened to their vessel but after only a short distance the rope snapped and the little sailboat had to be abandoned to the mercy of the elements.

Heman was thoroughly shaken as he realized that he would have to face Mr. Sherman and explain to him what had happened to his boat. He made it home to New Bedford but only had time to duck in to grab himself another hat to replace the one that had been sacrificed in the ocean. He managed to hitch a ride on a small rowboat back to West Island and hurried over to the little boat dock, more out of habit than hope.

To his surprise, he found the little sailboat, tied securely to its moorings without a scratch on its pristine surface. Slack-jawed he walked around the vessel examining it from stem to stern, without finding any damage at all.

Scratching his head in bewilderment he went up to the house and managed to catch a decent night’s sleep before presenting himself to Mr. Sherman the next morning. Hesitantly he enquired about the boat and when Mr. Sherman looked confused at his questions he poured out the entire story. After Gurney had finished they both stood in silence contemplating the gravity of the situation.

West Island is surrounded by a reef which is visible at low tide but covered by the water when the tide is high. There is only a single 11-yard wide channel through which boats can safely navigate the reef to land. The odds of the boat navigating itself, through the reef on its own and managing to end up at the dock were slim to none.

Recounting the event years later Gurney wrote “I can only account for it from the fact that angels are all ministering spirits sent forth to minister to them who should be heirs of salvation”

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