A year after the thrilling work of the Coast Guardsmen aboard the Hudson, another little band of these heroes wrote heavily into the book that records some of the thrilling sagas of the sea. In August, 1899, a vicious hurricane swept northward along the coast and today there remain jagged timbers of the various ships which were wrecked by this catastrophe. At low tide the hulk of the three master schooner Aaron Reppard may still be seen on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, a few miles below the Gull Shoal Coast Guard Station.
About a week before the wreck of the Reppard, this hurricane had swept over the island of Porto Rico, wreaking untold damage and killing hundreds of persons. In the intervening time, it had slowly moved northward, slightly diminished in intensity, yet still maintaining its tremendous destructive force. On August 13, when the storm's center was off Jupiter Inlet, Florida, shipping interests had already been advised of its approach up the coast and vessels were warned to seek shelter.
p38 It is not known whether Captain Wessel of the Reppard was actually aware of impending danger. He had left Philadelphia on the morning of the 2nd, and was now, at this time, the 14th, off the capes of Delaware, standing south with an easterly wind for Savannah. By 8 P.M., the increasing easterly wind had made necessary the taking in of all light sails and the setting up of preventer stays.
The trim little vessel rode easily through the night, and by the morning of the 15th, while the hurricane was raging around the port of her destination, she was somewhere off Cape Henry.
The signs of the advancing storm were fully discernible now to the Reppard's crew. The sky was of a heavy slate color, and sea gulls were flying swiftly northward. The glass in the captain's cabin was low, indicating that a disturbance of a violent nature was at hand. Several of the crew went to Captain Wessel and asked if he intended taking the schooner into the safety of nearby Chesapeake Bay. Wessel's replies are not known, but later events proved that he held to his course until at 4 P.M., when he was compelled to heave his vessel to, and try as best he could to ride out the storm, with all possible chances of reaching calm waters gone. Two hours later, the wind reached tremendous force, blowing so hard, in fact, that the tops of the waves were blown completely away, and the sea became comparatively calm.
p39 But this was not to last. The center of the storm shifted slightly; the sea started making up again, building towering waves that roared down upon the luckless schooner. She became badly strained in fighting these seas, and the crew was ordered to the pumps. All that night, the Reppard remained hove to on the starboard tack under fore staysail and reefed mainsail, with her helm lashed hard down. Giant combers swept the decks, beating her bow down, and on Wednesday morning the mizzen storm trysail was set to hold her up.
The weather had become very thick, mist from the sea and a heavy rain mingling to reduce visibility to zero. Realizing that his vessel was being driven constantly shoreward, Captain Wessel tried every way possible to haul her away from this danger, for he had reason to believe that the Reppard was not far off the beach, and would strike before long.
At 1 P.M., when breakers were sighted astern, Wessel immediately ordered the staysail to be taken in and both anchors let go in an effort to stop the Reppard's drag toward destruction. •Ninety fathoms of chain were let out, and the ship shivered and staggered as the anchors dug into the bottom. But it was of no avail. The anchors could not hold her against the tremendous seas. Within a short time, she was in the first line of breakers, with grounding imminent.
The crew now let go the mainsail halyards, and p40all hands were ordered into the shrouds to escape the gigantic breakers which were sweeping the decks. The crew numbered seven men and there was one passenger — a Mr. Cummings, from Charleston, South Carolina.
The Reppard had long since been sighted by the surfmen on the beach. Surfman William G. Midgett, who was on beach patrol at this time and the first to sight her, wrote in his official report: "I sighted her masts through the murk for the first time when she was •about a mile and a half off the beach. The schooner was heading north, now making a little headway, then dropping back. She came into the breakers in a few minutes, and I left immediately to notify my station."
The distance Midgett had to travel was •about two miles, and although he was mounted and rode his horse hard, the weather conditions were such as to require twenty-five minutes for him to make the trip. As later events proved, however, he was in ample time to effect a rescue. Keeper Pugh, in charge of station (who, by the way, would have been known by the title of boatswain in these days), immediately telephoned Little Kinnakeet Station, the nearest southern station; Chicamacomico Station, the nearest northern station to Gull Shoal; and requested the keepers to join him with their crews abreast of the wreck.
Then Keeper Pugh attached horses to the beach p41carts, loaded life-saving equipment and set out for the wreck. Within ten minutes of his arrival, the crews from the other surf stations arrived, and preparations were at once begun to bring ashore the Reppard's crew.
Keeper Pugh says in his report of the rescue operations: "The schooner was by this time about 700 yards offshore, stern toward the beach, riding to two anchors, but slowly dragging shoreward. This portion of the beach consists of two banks about 50 yards apart with a gulley between them, and the seas, which were as high as they could be, were sweeping completely over the land from the ocean side of the sound. It was my opinion, which was concurred in by Keepers Hooper and Midgett, that the use of a boat in these conditions was clearly beyond all realm of possibility. No number of men, however skillful, could have launched a boat in those seas."
As the wind was blowing in from the beach, chances of getting a line over to the Reppard were slim indeed. The Lyle line throwing gun was set up, however, and several unsuccessful attempts to get a running line across to the doomed vessel were made. Again, when the Reppard was some 500 yards off the beach, another attempt was made to fire a line across to her. This time, the line carried almost to her, and then parted from the force of the shot. Keeper Pugh ordered a second charge set up, but p42with a heavier line, and these precautions resulted in success. The line went sailing into the shrouds of the schooner, to which a number of men could be seen clinging.
No attempt was made by the distressed men to reach the line. Van der Graaf, one of the survivors, said that it was fired perfectly and came directly across the ship, but that it was impossible for any of them to reach it. Indeed, it was all they could do to hold on.
It was evident now that the wreck was about to go to pieces, and the only thing that the life-savers could hope to accomplish was to rescue the survivors from the surf as they came in. The Reppard was breaking up. The deck house went first, then the hatch coamings and the bulwarks. While this was taking place, Cummings, the passenger, aloft in the mizzen shrouds, was caught by one leg in the ratlines and slammed back and forth against the mast, until his life was beaten away. Suddenly, the mast fell, and Cummings was not seen again.
The mainmast went next, breaking into two pieces, and throwing the seaman Tony Nilsen into the debris. Badly hurt, the man screamed in pain as he lay in the wreckage. Then, some measure of strength returning to him, he crawled to the side, dropped into the sea, and was washed away.
Captain Wessel was the next victim. Just before the mainmast fell, he leaped into the sea and made p43a brave effort to reach shore. The men in the shrouds watched as he fought his way shoreward, now making a little progress, now falling back, sorely baffled by the whip-like lash of the seas, until it was apparent that his strength was failing. Desperately, he turned back toward the ship, his face twisted and strained with the agony of his efforts. His struggles carried him within •five feet of the Reppard's side. The men aboard her were shouting encouragement when, suddenly, a peaceful look came over his face; he closed his eyes, raised his arms above his head, and sank quickly from sight.
Four men remained alive aboard the Reppard — the mate Stewart Robinson, seamen Pedro Lachs, James M. Lynott and Van der Graaf. These men knew that it was only a question of minutes before they, too, would be hurled into the raging sea. They were in the foremast rigging, and the foremast itself was straining and weaving with the motion of the wrecked schooner. Suddenly, the mast snapped off, and the men went hurtling down with it. Lynott fell upon the stump and was impaled upon it. For a few minutes, his screams rose above the howl of the wind, then, mercifully, a boiling comber washed him into the sea.
Fortunately, the mast had fallen over that side of the schooner which was nearest to the shore, and the three men in the water had a bare fighting chance for their lives. A number of the surfmen at once p44donned cork jackets, and each taking about 50 yards of shot line, waded as far as possible out into the surf, while each line was held by two surfmen on the beach.
These operations were attended by great peril to the surfmen in the water, for pieces of wreckage from the schooner were constantly being driven ashore with express-like speed, so that the men had to move with great skill and rapidity to avoid them. The veteran keeper of the Little Kinnakeet Station, ignoring the advice of his brother officers to leave the hazardous work to younger men, was struck by a heavy timber while rushing in to steady a reeling surfman. He was pulled from the surf almost drowned, with fractured bones in his leg.
Clinging to wreckage, the three men from the Reppard were being gradually driven into the surf. One of them, too weak to hold on any longer, slipped away in the rolling breakers. A surfman quickly tied a line around his own waist and managed to get a hold on the drowning man. Both were pulled ashore, more dead than alive.
By dint of diligent effort, all three of the shipwrecked men who escaped alive, were rescued from the surf. Too weak to stand, they were taken in beach carts to Gull Shoal Station, and were given stimulants, wrapped in blankets, and placed in bed. One of the rescued men, Van der Graaf, suffered p45pneumonia from his terrible experience, but recovered to spend many more years at sea.
The names of the rescued men were Bernard Johnson, Pedro Lachs and John Van der Graaf; the five who died were James M. Lynott, Tony Nilsen, W. Robinson, Oscar Wessel, and the passenger, Cummings. Only one body was recovered, that of W. Robinson, which was buried on the beach near Gull Shoal Station.
Lieutenant C. E. Johnston, who investigated the circumstances of the wreck and subsequent rescue for the Revenue-Cutter Service — as the Coast Guard was known as in those days — said in his report to Headquarters:
"There is no doubt that the surfmen did everything humanly possible under the adverse conditions to save the lives of the people on the schooner. The storm was the worst in the recollection of any one now living on the Carolina coast and it is little short of a miracle that any one now lives to tell the tale of the wreck. If the master had not anchored, or if he had slipped his cables as soon as he reached the breakers, it is probable that all hands would have been saved, as the schooner would not have stopped until she was right up against the bank. Three other schooners, a barkentine, and a lightship all went ashore in the same general locality and in the same storm without anchoring, and the only loss of life from the five vessels was occasioned by a tremendous p46sea which boarded the barkentine when she first took bottom and washed four persons overboard. All the rest were rescued by the life-savers."
Perhaps one of the most unique rescues in the history of the Coast Guard occurred when the barkentine Priscilla, bound from Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro, was blown ashore and broken up by the same hurricane that wrecked the Reppard. As a matter of peculiar coincidence, the Priscilla went ashore only a few hundred yards away from the dismal remnants of the Reppard, following the latter vessel to destruction but a few hours after the rescue operations just described.
The hurricane did not reach its full violence until the 17th, at which time the Weather Bureau recorded a high of •120 miles per hour. The Priscilla had 14 persons aboard, 12 of whom comprised the crew, officers and men. The remaining two persons were the captain's wife, Virginia, and their twelve year old son Elmer.
On the morning of Wednesday, the 16th, the Priscilla was somewhere off the Virginia coast. The weather was clear, with a hard wind blowing from the southeast. Light sails were taken in, and by midday, it was found necessary to furl the spanker and upper topsail. With the wind still increasing, the foresail was hauled up and furled, the lower topsail, mainsail, and main staysail having blown away.
p47 Commanded by the veteran Captain Benjamin E. Springsteen, the Priscilla was now hove to under bare poles and being rapidly driven south-southwest. Although Captain Springsteen had been unable to take any observation within the previous twenty-four hours, he knew that he was only a little to the northward of Cape Hatteras — which jutted out into the ocean in a myriad finger-like shoals, a graveyard of many a ship. He did every thing in his power to bring the vessel clear of these reefs, although, at the time, he must have entertained little hope of accomplishing any measure of success.
Around ten o'clock on the 17th, one of the officers reported that the water about the ship was discolored, indicating that they had been driven into the Gulf Stream. The master immediately ordered soundings to be taken, and when only •"twenty fathoms" was reported, he realized beyond doubt that the vessel was rapidly being driven ashore.
At regular intervals, soundings were taken, and at each sounding, the depth of water decreased. At 8 P.M., when •ten fathoms were reported, Springsteen ordered the soundings to be discontinued and directed that "all hands prepare to save themselves."
At ten minutes past nine, the time when the Weather Bureau reported the hurricane to be at its highest velocity, the Priscilla struck ground, lightly, but shipping enough water to smash the cabin skylights and deluge all below. The vessel did not strike p48again for about twenty minutes, at which time the impact was so terrific as to carry away the foremast and make of the deck a shambles.
Captain Springsteen immediately ordered all hands to the topside, as the vessel was pounding heavily and rapidly becoming filled with water. Breakers sweeping over her from bow to stern made it difficult for the people on deck to hold on.
The ship's boy, Fitzhugh Lee Goldsborough; the cook, Leon Navens; the first mate, and Mrs. Springsteen were holding on to the deck house. Mrs. Springsteen was singing and comforting her small son, Elmer, whom the captain was holding. The ship gave a sudden lunge; the deck house dissolved into a mass of whirling green water and flying wreckage, the four persons holding onto it being swept overboard. Not one of them was ever seen again.
At the same time, Elmer Springsteen was torn from his father's arms and literally thrown into the sea. By some strange quirk of fate, his body was found later in the water-filled cabin, having been washed back aboard the Priscilla in some unaccountable fashion.
A short time later, the ship broke entirely in two, and each section continued to rake and pound along the beach in the breakers. Fortunately, the survivors were crowded upon the larger of the two sections, and they managed to lash themselves together to keep from being washed away. For five horrible p49hours, this nightmare of torture continued, with the wrecked hull disintegrating bit by bit. The weather was so thick as to make visibility zero, thus rendering any possible means of signalling to the shore ineffective.
At three o'clock that afternoon, Surfman Rasmus S. Midgett, of the Gull Shoal Station, was patrolling this section of the beach. The wind was blowing so hard that he found it hard to stay on his horse. Finally, dismounting, he placed cloth around the animal's head to protect it from the driving sand. At this time, he discovered various objects — buckets, barrels, boxes, and other articles — coming ashore in the surf. All this satisfied him that a vessel was breaking up somewhere in the vicinity and that it was up to him to find it.
The surf was sweeping clear across the narrow strip of land which separates the ocean from Pamlico Sound, and the water at times reached his saddle stirrups. The day was so dark that Midgett could barely see, but he drove his horse on, finding more and more wreckage along the beach.
Finally, •about two miles from the point where he had first seen signs of the shipwreck, he thought he heard cries over the pound of the surf. Stopping his horse, he dismounted, and, protecting his head against the animal's side, listened carefully. Yes, he was right. Cries for help came weakly with the howl of the wind.
p50 Midgett prepared at once to get back to his station for help, but stopped when the pall suddenly lifted from the sea and a portion of a ship was visible a few days hundred yards away. Men were crouching on the hulk, which would disappear under a spume of spray and green water one moment, the next appear again a little closer in.
Here, Midgett was faced with the problem of making a tremendous decision. He knew that it would take too long to return to his station to secure help; on the other hand, if he were to lose his life in a fruitless attempt to rescue them, the men on the doomed vessel would be left without any one on the beach being aware of their critical situation. Here, then, was a moment which called for sound judgment and unerring courage.
Midgett spent little time in deliberation. The saving of lives in these moments depended upon him alone. He rose to the demand.
Waiting until a wave receded, the surfman turned and headed his horse toward the wreck, driving the animal through the surf as hard as he could. Before the sea came rushing in again, he made it down to the wreck, his horse swimming against the pull of the tide. He called instructions to the men crouched on the hulk, telling them to throw themselves, one by one, into the sea, and that he would pull them out. Then he retreated to the beach to await an opportune moment to begin his rescue work.
p51 On the wreck, the sailors were in a quandary. They knew that they couldn't remain aboard the hulk much longer. Nor could they bring themselves to trust the surfman. It seemed impossible, the thing that he had promised to do. Then Captain Springsteen made up his mind.
"That surfman means what he says," he declared to the rest of the survivors. "If he has the nerve to come down here to help us, I'll do as he says. Here goes!"
Captain Springsteen crawled to the rail and, waiting for the sea to recede, dropped over the side.
Instantly, Midgett pounded into the sea, drove his horse down close to the wreck, and pulled Springsteen out to the beach, reaching safety only a step or so ahead of a wall of roaring water.
Following their captain's example, all but three of the remaining sailors threw themselves, one by one into the sea, and Midgett pulled them to safety. Each trip, the surfman risked the grave danger of being caught by the breakers and swept out to sea with his burden. But now, having rescued seven of the shipwrecked sailors, he faced even greater demands upon his courage and physical stamina. There remained aboard the wreck three men who were so badly bruised and exhausted that they were unable to throw themselves into the water as their companions had done.
Surfman Midgett was not dismayed, despite the p52fact that his horse was now exhausted and would prove of no further use to him in rescuing the three remaining men. Leaving the animal on the beach, he grasped the line that is a part of every surfman's equipment, and plunged into the surf again.
It was a hard battle, one that taxed Midgett's superb physical prowess to the limit, but he reached the wreck and managed to clamber aboard. With his line, he lowered one of the injured sailors to the water; then, selecting an opportunity when the breakers had receded, he took a hold on the injured sailor and struck out for safety.
Disaster almost caught them. The surf came back just before they reached the beach, and tumbled them over and over in the sand. Captain Springsteen, with two of his men, ran out and helped them ashore.
But the surfman's task was not finished. Exhausted though he was, he knew that as long as there remained a single person aboard the wreck, he must carry on. Resting for a few minutes, he regained a measure of his strength, and twice more went aboard the wreck. Each time, after laborious exertions, he brought a man to safety.
Ten lives were in this manner saved. Three of these sailors were so grievously injured, a physician determined later, that they could not have withstood the exposure for another hour. The seven men who were able to walk Midgett sent toward the station; and taking the horse, rode on to summon help.
p53 He met his superior officer, Keeper Pugh, on the beach in front of the station, and the veteran officer could scarcely believe the amazing story that Midgett related. Beach carts were sent to bring the shipwrecked men into the station, where warm clothing and a doctor awaited them.
Midgett's exploits in this day's work made headlines in many of the nation's papers. The Secretary of the Treasury, under whom the Life-Saving Service operates, presented the surfman with a gold life-saving medal of honor, and transmitted with it a long and highly commendatory letter, describing in detail the story of this brave man's harm.
Midgett's reaction to these honors was typical of the Service. He said, "Any one would have done what I did. It was my job. I don't deserve any medal."
During the night of January 20, 1903, the barkentine Abiel Abbott, bound from Turks Island, West Indies, to New York City, with a cargo of salt, encountered a sleet-laden storm. She carried a crew of nine men, and was under the command of Captain Israel B. Hawkins.
At four o'clock that afternoon, Captain Hawkins had taken bearings on a light-house, which he supposed to be Barnegat light, off the New Jersey coast, but which was in all probability Absecon light. The captain set his course by this erroneous bearing, p54which, consequently, carried him ashore on the outer edge of Ship Bottom Bar.
At 8 P.M., the Abbott went broadside up on the bar, and held fast. Sails were furled at once and signals of distress burned. Almost immediately, the red Coston signal of the beach patrolman, Surfman Pharo of Ship Bottom Station, answered this plea for assistance. Pharo started off at once to notify his station keeper; he arrived at the station a little after 9 P.M., when Keeper Truex immediately assembled his wreck crew, notified the neighboring life-saving stations (Harvey Cedars Station and Long Beach Station), and asked that their crews be sent to the scene of the wreck.
Meanwhile, the Abbott was resting comparatively easy, with her sails neatly furled, her men awaiting help from shore; but conditions were growing worse. The tide was making up, as well as the wind and sea, and the force of the waves soon drove the vessel farther on the bar, causing breakers to wash over the decks.
The life-saving crew from the Ship Bottom Station arrived on the scene and the Lyle gun was quickly set up. The first shot did not quite reach the Abbott, although her crew stated later that the projectile landed near them. Another charge was fired; and this time, the shot landed aboard her. However, her men could not find the line for the reason that it fell amidships or forward, where the seas made it impossible p55for them to move to that portion of the ship.
The entire hull, with the single exception of the quarter deck, was completely submerged now, and the constantly increasing waves rolled with great force over it. A single glimmer of light denoted the position of the wreck, making it difficult for the surfmen on the beach to fire a line over it. Finally, when the men on the Abbott had failed to draw in any of the lines, these operations were discontinued with the disheartening knowledge that, although help had been sent across to the wreck, the crew had not, for some reason unknown at the time, availed themselves of it.
By this time, the crews from the adjacent stations had arrived, but there was nothing to be done in the darkness. The single light on the Abbott had become extinguished and the night was as black as ink. Only the faint whiteness of the breaking surf could be made out. No surf boat could be launched successfully under such conditions. The keepers decided that it would be best to wait until daylight before resuming rescue operations.
Accordingly, huge fires were lighted on the beach in order to let the wrecked men know that they had not been abandoned. Back on the Abbott, those fires did a lot to hearten the stranded sailors, who thought that if the old hulk would only hold together until morning, they might all escape. Sheltering themselves p56as well as possible, they prepared to wait the night out, listening anxiously to the ominous creak of the timbers as tons of water pounded against the wreck.
Between three and four o'clock in the morning, the first sign of approaching disaster came. The mainmast fell with a loud crash, and, held to the other two masts by stays, tugged and pulled until these remaining masts, weakened by the constant roll of the ship, fell at about five o'clock.
When the mainmast fell, seaman Timothy Brandt stripped to his waist, and despite the protests of his shipmates, jumped over the side with the intent of swimming ashore. His mind must have become unbalanced from the strain of the night's ordeal, for the survivors related that he paid no attention whatever to their advice, but merely insisted over and over that someone wanted to see him on the beach. He never reached shore, and later his body was found at the surf's edge •five miles below the wreck.
Eight men were still alive under the lee of the cabin, but were subsequently washed overboard by a huge breaker. The masts were down in the water, and were held to the ship by a wild tangle of stays and gear. Five of the eight men managed to climb back aboard by means of these lines, and remained huddled on top of the cabin. Unable to get back to the masts, the mate and the cook were drowned.
One of the seamen, Henry Carter, succeeded in grasping the end of the spanker gaff, which hung in p57the water; but evidently he was injured by falling wreckage. He called weakly once or twice, begging his shipmates to throw him a line with which to secure himself. No one could aid, and he was soon swept away.
Five men remaining on top of the cabin — which was exhibiting signs of breaking up itself — prayed for daylight. Soon dawn came, a muddy gray light that revealed a dismal scene. On the beach, the surfmen heard faint cries and immediately jumped for their surf boat. Wreckage filled the breakers; launching was a hazardous job. Nevertheless, one crew manned the boat, with the two keepers in the stern, while the other two crews took their places in the water, one on each side of the boat, watching for an opening in the debris filled surf.
Finally, an opportunity presented itself, and the life boat was shot out, the oarsmen bending their backs with a will. The spectators on the beach, even the surfmen themselves, hardly believed that the little surf boat would be able to get through. But by dint of powerful oar work and skillful handling the craft was brought around to the bar and sufficiently close to the wreck for the life savers to make out the crouching survivors.
All around the Abbott, however, a jumble of spars and timbers made it impossible for the surf boat to get through to the ship's side. The surfmen tried to force their boat through this network of wreckage, p58but finally were obliged to return to the beach, their strength spent, their life boat badly battered.
Scarcely had they landed when the cabin of the Abbott toppled into the sea and drifted slowly toward the beach. The surf boat was manned by a fresh crew. This time, the life savers managed to get in close to the men — one of whom floated on a hatch covering, the other four still atop the cabin.
All five were pulled into the life boat and quickly brought to shore. One of the men, Frank Laven, had a fractured skull and died before medical aid could reach him. The rest were in fair shape, considering the terrible experience they had undergone.
Captain Hawkins said in his letter to Headquarters: "With the mass of wreckage in the water being tossed around in all directions, I do not see how the life-savers launched their boat at all, but they did, and even then, they could not get to us. Finally, when the cabin top broke adrift, they launched their boat again when no man could have expected it. I did not think it possible for them to get to us, but somehow they did, and got us ashore, and I think it a miracle that I am alive to tell the tale. No men could have done more than the life-savers did."
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