In late September, 1837, a particularly violent hurricane known as "Racer’s Storm" had blown up south of Jamaica, crossed Yucatan, struck the Gulf coast of Texas, curved to the east to move over Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, George and South Carolina, and arrived off the North Carolina Coast on October 9.
Before the hurricane passed, it was credited with sinking two more ships, seriously endangering a third and taking some 90 lives in one of the worst maritime disasters in Outer Banks history.
First of the three vessels to encounter the wrath of Racer’s Storm was the brig Enterprize, of Warren, RI, which was within 20 miles of the Virginia Capes on a passage from Wilmington to Georgetown, when she was beaten back by the storm of October 8. “I hauled offshore while the gale continued increasing,” said Captain William Brayton, “On the 9th hove to under close reefed main topsail and at 8 p.m. a heavy sea boarded her and started the deck load. Sounded the pumps and found 3 feet of water in the hold; set both pumps to work and commenced heaving over deck load.”
The following morning, according to Capt. Brayton, the Enterprize “got into the breakers running masthead high and the wind blowing tremendously swept everything by the board, the vessel striking heavily in going through the breakers.” Soon after she hit, the waves were washing over her to such an extent that the crew members were obliged to jump overboard to try and gain the shore through the breakers. In this attempt one seaman was lost, but the others reached the beach on Bodie Island.
At the same time the Enterprize was first encountering difficulty off the North Banks, two larger vessels, elegant steam-packets, were proceeding along the same coast in the face of the hurricane winds: The steam packet Charleston, with a full crew and passenger list, was enroute from Philadelphia to her home port in South Carolina; and the steam-packet Home, bound from New York to Charleston, the same run on which she had just recently broke all speed records. The following letter is from a passenger who was aboard the Charleston:
Extract of a letter from a passenger on board the
Steam Packet Charleston, from Philadelphia
during the same storm in which the Home
First day afternoon, 10 mo. 8.—The wind and swell of the sea have increased considerably, and the appearance of the ocean is awfully grand. The waves tower above the upper deck, while the gulf which yawns below seems as though it would swallow us up. Our course is in the trough of the sea, with the winds and waves on our side, which makes the boat roll excessively, and the force of the waves striking the boat makes her tremble from end to end. We have shipped some seas on our forward deck, which covered it several inches in water, and altogether, it may be considered quite a storm. The seamen are now reefing our square-sail to be ready for rounding Cape Hatteras, where we are to expect a rough time. The boat rolls so that I have to hold on with one hand, while I write with the other.
10 mo. 11.—The gale, of which I spoke in what I wrote on first day, rapidly increased in fury towards night, and the terrific appearance of the billows, with the howling of the wind, convinced me that our situation had become the most serious and dangerous. We were off Cape Hatteras, between 20 and 30 miles from land, in one of the most dangerous parts of the coast of North America. I retired to my berth very late, and was so fully impressed with our danger that I could not sleep, and the tremendous lurching of the boat would hardly allow me to lay in my berth. A little before two o’clock in the morning, a sea broke over the stern of the boat like an avalanche; the concussion was so great as to break in the bulk heads, and shatter the glass in some of the windows, far from where it struck. It broke in the sky-lights in the after cabin, and pouring into it in torrents, made a clear sweep over the after deck, as deep as the bulwarks, nearly four feet. The violence of the sea, lifted the deck fore and aft of the wheel house, making an opening about one inch wide the whole length of the boat, through which the water poured into her sponsons every time she shipped a sea, and she rolled like a log in the water. The weather side, moreover, took so much more than the other, that it occasioned her to list over very much, and deranged the workings of the engines. Had these failed, all hope would have been at an end. The Captain behaved with remarkable coolness and decision. He had been on the upper deck, at the helm, all the day and night, exposed to the fury of the winds and waves without any shelter. When we shipped the sea, at 2 p.m., he ran down into our cabin, said he could not be absent from the helm, and that if we wished to save our lives, we must turn to bailing out water, or he greatly feared the boat would be swamped, she was so loaded with it.
At this moment four sky-lights, each eight inches by thirty, were pouring down columns of water, the whole cabin afloat, and trunks, settees, bonnet boxes, etc., were dashing from side to side, as the vessel heaved in the trough of the sea. Buckets were procured, and we commenced as fast as we could, but every sea we shipped brought in vastly more than all of us could bail out, and the water soon became so deep as to run into the top of my boots. It was evident some other means must be resorted to. The passengers and crew behaved with great calmness and propriety—none, who were able, refusing to work. We took our matrasses and pillows and stuffed them into the lights, but the returning waves washed them out. We then barricaded them with settees, stationed men to hold them in; this succeeded in part, but no sooner was this accomplished, than a tremendous sea struck us on the other side, and opened a way for the water in there, and into the ladies’ cabin. It now become necessary to put some stopping on the outside, but the boat was shipping such tremendous seas, that it was a work of great hazard. A man, however, was procured to go, who was lashed to the stanchions by a strong rope, but such was the depth of the water on the deck, from the continual washing of the waves, that he could do but little. The boat rolled and pitched so dreadfully that we could scarcely stand even when holding on, and she had shipped so much water that she leaned on the side toward the sea, exposing her to its full action. I stood bailing and handing water from the time it first broke into the cabin, until eight o’clock in the morning, wet to the skin, and nearly ready to sink with fatigue. As the day dawned, the storm raged more furiously, the billows rose as high as our smoke-pipe, and as they curled and broke, fell on us with amazing power. About 10 o’clock the engineer told us he thought the engine could not hold out much longer, she was so disarranged and injured by the heavy shocks of the sea. We knew that, as far as regarded outward means, this was our only hope of safety, and this intelligence was appalling. Our Captain was collected and energetic, but the winds and waves laughed at the puny power of man, and defied all his efforts.
At half past ten, a.m., a sea of immense volume and force, struck our forward hatch, towered over the upper deck, and swept off all that was on it. It broke the iron bolts that supported the smoke pike, stove in the bulwarks, tore up the iron sheathings of the engine, and made almost a wreck of the upper works. On the main deck it tore away the guards several inches square, demolished the windows of the main hatch in the men’s cabin, and poured down a torrent of water which filled it nearly two feet deep. It engulfed the fire under the boiler of the engine on that side, and lifted the machinery so as to permit the escape of a volume of steam and smoke, that nearly suffocated us, and so shifted the main shaft of the engine that it no longer worked true, but tore away the wood work, and almost destroyed its further usefulness. It swept all the rooms on both sides, and threw them open to every succeeding wave. The crash was awful, the boat trembled and quivered as thought she was wrecked, and the big bell tolled with the shock, as though sounding the funeral knell of all on board. I never had an adequate idea of a storm before the whole sea was white with foam, and the wind blew up the water in such quantities that the atmosphere was thick with it. Every sea stove in some new place; windows and doors gave way with awful crashes, and several times the fires were nearly extinguished. The captain, who had stood at his post near the helm, now came down from the upper deck and told us the fury of the storm was such that he feared he could not save the vessel, that her upper works were fast becoming a wreck, and as soon as they went she would fill and sink; therefore, if it met the approbation of the passengers, he would endeavor to run her ashore, in the hope of saving our lives. He said all would depend upon the character of the beach, and on our self-possession and calmness to act with judgment at the trying moment, and assured us he would lose his life to save ours. He told us to continue working at the pumps and buckets, and in handing wood for the engines, as long as we could possibly stand; and to avoid giving way to improper excitement; that when the vessel should strike, we must make for the bow after the first sea had swept her decks. He also directed us where to place those articles we should most want if we survived. He then went to the women’s cabin, and calling them all together, stated his apprehensions that the vessel could not be saved, giving them much the same charges he had done to us. All this was done with as much apparent calmness as though all was well. He then ordered the carpenter to be ready with the axe to cut away the mast the moment she should strike, and having made these arrangements, resumed his station at the helm. The boat now rolled more than ever, shipped nearly every sea that struck against her, and swung round from the shock, so as not to obey the helm. An almost constant stream of water swept the decks, and at every stroke of the sea the boat groaned, and the bell rung with a sound that seemed peculiarly awful.
We all procured ropes and fastened them around our bodies, for the purpose of lashing ourselves to the wreck, and having embraced each other, prepared to take our part in the work, and to meet the awful impending catastrophe. T.G.D., B.W.W., and myself, stood together for a few moments looking on the terrific display around us, and both secretly and openly, I believe, putting up our prayers. After this deeply affecting scene, I went to work and continued at it until eight o’clock at night, pumping, bailing, or handing out water, and carrying wood for the fires. As we were then 25 or 30 miles from shore, the captain’s anxiety was, to put the boat in as soon as possible, before she became unmanageable or began to sink. He steered for Cape Lookout, in North Carolina, though he could not tell certainly where he was, but concluded it must be the nearest land, and that it would be as good a place to be wrecked on as any. But a merciful and kind Providence knew better than we, and at that awful moment was watching over us, and frustrating our designs for our good. The land lay N.N.W., and the gale blowing heavily N.E., so that he could not steer her in; finding this, he came down and desired the engineer to raise steam with wood. To enable him to steer in, or otherwise all hope was gone. Accordingly we all went to handing wood for the engine, but so much had been washed over that we had hardly enough for three hours; the sea had broken down the doors and windows, etc., on deck, and we carefully collected these and put them in to keep up the fire. But with all the steam we could raise, we could not steer for shore, the wind and current carrying us down along shore, but not in towards it; and this proved our safety, for with the tremendous sea, which we afterwards saw setting on the coast, near which we aimed to ground, we must all have perished had we succeeded in our attempt. As it was, the wind, current, and steam, just served to carry us, under the guidance of a gracious Providence, we knew not whither, but into stiller water. About 9 o’clock at night the sea began to be more calm, though the fury of the storm was not lessened, by which the captain was induced to believe that we had doubled the cape and were coming under its lee. By incessant exertions we now nearly cleared the hold and cabin of water, and as the boat shortly came into comparatively smooth water, the captain thought he would try to weather the night at anchor, thinking the storm might abate by morning. Some protested against this and insisted upon running on shore at once, but the captain would not, as he thought we should all perish in the dark. He therefore steered in towards it, and after running two hours dropped two anchors which held the boat. On weighing these in the morning, we found that the largest one had broken short off, and our safety during the night had depended on a small, and, as we should have thought, very insufficient one. Thus a succession of merciful providences attended us, which I shall rejoice to recount when we meet.
Our captain called a consultation of the passengers on third day morning, in which nearly all agreed that we should run into Beaufort, to refit. As he did not know the channel, it was necessary to sound continually; but after a few hours a pilot came off to us and steered us in handsomely.
After refitting at Beaufort they proceeded on their voyage and arrived in Charleston on fifth day—10th Month, 1837.