Wednesday, March 30, 2011


In 1889 Robert Lee Garnett was one of 8 men comprising the crew of the three-masted schooner Henry P. Simmons, a 650-ton vessel engaged in the coastal trade. In mid-October that year, the Simmons took on a cargo of phosphate rock at Charleston, SC and on the 17th put to sea for Baltimore.
     By the 23rd, the Simmons was well past Cape Hatteras and nearing the entrance to Chesapeake Bay when, with no prior indication that a storm was approaching, a sudden strong easterly gale struck the schooner and by 8 o’clock that evening was blowing in gusts of hurricane intensity. As the Simmons plunged through huge seas, the captain ordered his men to take in the already close-reefed mainsail. But the strong wind and furious sea made it impossible to comply forcing the captain and crew to lash the helm and take to the rigging.
     By 10:30 that evening, left at the mercy of the wind and waves, the vessel was driven on shore on the lower end of Pebble Shoals, the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina. She bilged and immediately began to fill with water. The top of her cabin was swept away by one of the first breakers that stuck and she soon settled in the sands until her hull was completely submerged—nothing but the three masts was left above water. The torrential rain continued through most of the night, limiting visibility to only a few yards so that the 8 men clinging to the rigging were unable to determine their general location.
     At 3 a.m. on the 24th, four and a half hours after they struck the shoal, the steward fell from his perch on the mast and was swept away. When lifesavers appeared on the beach that morning, they spotted the Simmons more than 1,000 yards from shore. As they were setting up their gear, a second man was swept from the rigging to his death; soon after the first line was unsuccessfully shot fired in their direction a third man met the same fate; and long before that day ended another fell from the mast, to disappear forever.
     At dawn the next day the lifesavers attempted to launch a surfboat from the beach but were thrown back. As a last resort they dispatched a telegraph message to Norfolk, asking for the assistance of a tug. The tug started from Hampton Roads and got as far as Cape Henry before it was thwarted by the terrific sea offshore and forced to return to its berth.
     At noon another man fell from the rigging leaving only three alive. Three attempts were made on the 25th to launch a surfboat from the beach with lifesavers from four stations on the Virginia and North Carolina coast taking part. But each time they were tossed back on the beach. That afternoon, another man fell from the rigging and drowned. Still later another of them lost his grip and disappeared in the turbulent sea. Only Robert Lee Garnett remained alive.
     By dawn the next day the wind died down and shifted to westward, breaking the force of the waves which had pounded across Pebble Shoals for four nights. In the early morning darkness, keeper Malachi Corbel rowed the thousand yards to the sunken ship, waited until the first light of day appeared and pulled up close beside the wreck. Miraculously, Garnett was still alive, wrapped in the tattered remnants of the sail. He climbed down swiftly from the rigging, made his way slowly toward them, dropped into the boat and, after 80 hours through which few others could have lived, was returned to shore.
     The terrible storm of October 23, 1889 in which Robert Lee Garnett’s 7 shipmates lost their lives, continued its destruction all along the North Carolina coast. At Nags Head, 35 miles to the south, the beach patrol from Kill Devil Hills station discovered the upside-down hull of a vessel in the breakers the next morning. There was no sign of life, but a body was found on the beach soon after, and a second one recovered after the storm subsided. The vessel was the Francis E. Waters, a 147-ton schooner from Baltimore enroute from Georgetown, SC to Philadelphia a few days previous with a cargo of lumber and crew of 6 men. After the storm, the Waters was found upside down on the beach at Nags Head by the crew of the Kill Devil Hills life-saving station. There were no survivors.
     At about the same time, some 25 miles further south, the three-masted schooner Annie E. Blackman of Somers Point, NJ, enroute from Philadelphia to Jacksonville with a cargo of coal, was thrown on her beam ends and sunk three miles off New Inlet. Seven crewmen were tossed into the sea—six of them killed. The captain had donned a cork life jacket the day before and so floated toward shore, eventually making his way to the beach where he tethered himself to a telegraph pole and was discovered by lifesavers the next morning.
     Hardly had the captain been carried to the lifesaving station, when the schooner Lizzie S. Haynes was discovered in the same vicinity. Her three masts broke off near the vessel’s deck and, with a crash that was heard above the roar of the wind, fell into the ocean. There had been 7 men aboard when she stranded though only two could be seen from shore. A line was quickly fired on board and the two men—the captain and steward—had pulled most of it out to the vessel when it suddenly caught in floating debris and broke in two. Another line was fired, and yet another, and not until four o’clock that afternoon was the breeches buoy finally put in operation. A third man, a mate who was seriously injured when the mast fell, violently resisted all efforts by the captain and steward to place him in the breeches buoy. With the approach of darkness, he was at last left on board while the other two were pulled to safety. Later that night a lifesaver went out in the breeches buoy and found the body of the mate yet warm. The body was quickly drawn ashore, stimulants were administered, and the lifesavers tried every way they knew to revive him, but to no avail.
     That afternoon the 250-ton Busiris, of St. John, New Brunswick, stranded and was lost 200 yards north of Poyners Hill Station.

Click HERE for the Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1889 with details on: Henry P. Simmons / Page 25; Lizzie S. Haynes / p. 32; Busiris / p. 188.

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