Old Hampton Tales of Sea and Shore: A Brave Attempt At Rescue

By Thomas Leavitt

Part 4

The Exeter News-Letter, January 6, 1899

A Brave Attempt At Rescue

The severe storm of November 27th last, reminds me of a similar one which occurred in December, 1839. As that was the first time I ever saw the ocean lashed to fury by a gale, or a vessel wrecked -- and also saw at that time the bravest attempt at rescue, though unsuccessful, which I have ever witnessed, the storm, the appearance of the ocean, the wreck and all its incidents are as fresh in my mind as if it was but yesterday.

That storm was very destructive to shipping on the Massachusetts coast, and the loss of life was fully equal to that attending the storm of November last if we except the frightful loss of the steamer Portland.

A Gloucester newspaper of that day stated that there were sixty vessels which sought shelter in Gloucester harbor the afternoon and night preceeding the culmination of the storm the next day, and that in the forenoon of that day twenty of them were on shore wrecked, and that thirty-two were riding their anchors dismasted.

The storm began in the afternoon, and by morning the wind was blowing almost a hurricane, accompanied with sleet which froze at once to everything it fell upon.

I remember I was awakened in the night by the noise, and listed with startled wonder to the slamming of the windows, the swishing of the sleet against the panes, and the rumble and roar of the surf.

During all the morning, taking only time enough away to get my breakfast, I stood at a chamber window looking out upon the sea, fascinated by the sight. It is with me now, but who can describe it? I cannot, and will not attempt it. All I will say is the whole ocean seemed to be convulsed.

Towards the latter part of the forenoon, a group of nine or ten men had gathered upon the bank in front of our house -- two or three of them belonged at the house, and the others had collected from along the shore and from the village. They were all fishermen and young men except one, who was a man of forty or more. Suddenly I noticed that there was a commotion among them; they were talking with animation, pointing and looking towards the point of Boar's Head. Their behavior excited my curiosity and soon I ran out to them to see what it was all about; and I saw a large vessel, to me large, emerging from the mist of the storm. She was a schooner of a hundred tons. All her sails but one, the flying jib, were split into shreds and fluttering in the wind. She was moving slowly. Her one small sail did not help to steady her or to ease her before the waves, and she was rolling and sheering, and when she sheered exposing her quarter, I could see the seas strike her and fly aboard of her.

From the time I first looked upon that disabled vessel I think I have appreciated the feeling said to exist in sailors that there is life in their ship. For to my imagination she was some huge creature, beaten and wounded, staggering away from the blows she could not resist.

As she came on she was heading directly for the rocks running out from the point of Boar's Head, where the surf was breaking at a prodigious height. All felt that if she kept on she and her crew were doomed. At last, and none too soon, she changed her course further to the south and cleared them. She moved on into the cove, and when about opposite the house, she swung round broad side to the wind and dropped her anchors. Drifting a little, suddenly she turned head on to the seas, and dashing against the first that came on buried her bows in water and spray that flew nearly to the top of her masts.

She was evidently in light ballast and sat lightly and high, and she swung and dashed as if infused with fresh spirit. She was a magnificent sight to behold. To escape the deluge of water that flew on board, the drew, four in number, climbed into the after shrouds and lashed themselves there, and the sight of them, drenched with spray and pelted with sleet, excited the pity of all.

The conviction grew that they had made a mistake in anchoring, that if the anchors held they would perish with cold, and the opinion was expressed by the younger men that an attempt should be made to get on board of the schooner and slip her cables that she might go ashore.

The older man, opposing this view, said that a Peter Wherry (that was the best boat they had) could not live in such a sea, and if she did they could not get on board, as they could see, and the boat would be crushed or swamped. But the young men persisted and he yielded.

There was a Peter Wherry lying bottom up under the side of the house, and they went and ranged themselves four on a side of it, and raised it till the gunwales rested on their shoulders, and started to carry it up the bluff. The ninth man followed with the oars and steering gear. They carried the boat up to and down the gangway that leads down the bluff to Dumas' landing -- down over the rocks to the water's edge -- and set her down. Then five of the men left the boat, walked up to the edge of the bluff and turned and stood looking to see what the other three would do. They realized more fully the danger of the undertaking they had urged when they got down close to the sea. It looked differently. One of the men who still stood holding the boat was an English sailor, at home in a boat, and thoroughly acquainted with the art of rowing; another was the late Oliver Nudd, equally skilled. They were both under twenty-five, stalwart and strong. The older man said to them: "Well, men, what will you do?" They said they would go, if he would take command. Then they launched the boat and started. For a hundred yards or so they had no difficulty, because the tide, being only a third flood, the point of rocks broke the sea somewhat, but when they had gone that distance they were exposed to the full force of the wind and the waves. The conduct of the rowers was splendid in every respect. They kept their eyes and attention on the face of the steerer to catch his orders. For that craft they were the engine and the engineer obeying accurately and instantly the stroke of the bell.

As for the steerer, he had to keep the closest watch on every approaching wave, and exercise instant and correct judgment. Sometimes in obedience to his command the boat would speed directly towards a wave to get over it before it would break. Sometimes it would stop to get a section whose crest was forming pass in front, and sometimes facing the sea it would be held in position, yielding a little, taking its chance when nothing else could be done. At such times those on shore could see the inside bottom of the forward part of the boat and the men's legs as they sat there. And so maneuvers continued till finally they reached the schooner.

Arrived there they found it was impossible to get on board of her, she sheered and plunged and rolled at such a rate. Now she would be fifty yards off, now close upon them. And once they had to row with all their might to get away from her and escape being crushed.

Then the steersman stood up and shouted to the crew to slip or cut the cables, but the shrieking of the wind through the rigging, the rattling of the cordage, the clanking of the chains, and the dashing noise of the waters was such that they did not hear even the sound of his voice, as they afterward said.

Failing to make them hear, he made signs to them as well as he could to do the same thing. They understood his signs to mean for them to lower their own boat from the davits, and come down, and crept aft and did so. He succeeded in making them understand that that was not what he wanted, and so after a while failing to understand what it was wanted they should do, they crept back in the shrouds and lashed themselves again.

Failing to accomplish anything the men in the boat reluctantly turned to get back to the landing -- if they could -- for the waves had not lessened in size now the gale abated. And so, slowly and with great difficulty, by the same maneuvers they had used in getting out, they at last reached the shore.

They had hardly got upon the bluff before the schooner was seen to be dragging her anchors and going ashore, and before they could get to the beach opposite where the Sea View is, she had struck quite a distance out from the shore. And now it was found to be fortunate that the crew had lowered their boat. For when the schooner struck, that was found to be on the lee side and without being filled. They had only to bend a rope to her painter and let her drift to the beach. This they did, and the men on the shore unbent the rope and fastened the end of it to a large rock. Then one man standing in the bow and another in the stern, they pulled by the rope a boat out to the wreck, took aboard the crew and brought them safe to land.