Monday, June 4, 2012

Graveyard of the Atlantic

 Roll on, thou deep dark ocean, roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Thy wrecks are all they deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.
~Apostrophe to the Ocean, George Lord Byron

Alexander Hamilton coined the nickname that has stayed with the seas of North Carolina for over 200 years: Graveyard of the Atlantic. In 1773, a 15 year-old Hamilton was caught off Cape Hatteras in a furious storm which nearly sent his ship to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Shipwrecks have occurred of the North Carolina coast since European settlement of the New World. For nearly 300 years, ships grounded on the shoals, pitchpoled in the enormous breakers, encountered sudden knockdowns outside Cape Hatteras or simply disappeared from the gray, heaving sea without a trace.

While men and women carved a new country out of the North American frontier, fighting the Native Americans, the French, the Spanish, the English and each other almost no effort was made to save the countless mariners, merchants and passengers who found themselves clinging to the tattered shrouds of shipwrecks.

Though the origins of organized lifesaving are rooted in the experiments and efforts of the Northern coastal states, for decads untold numbers of ships have been coming ashore on North Carolina beaches. The Henry, the Horacio and the Islington all foundered in the winter of 1820. The elegant steamship Home, which sailed right into the terrible "Racer Storm," was one of 16 wrecks recorded in 1837. Grounded just 100 yards off Ocracoke, the Home's shipmates realized they had only two life preservers on board. 90 people perished in the surf.

The Pulaski in 1838, the Congress in 1842 and the French bark Emilie in 1845 were all victims of the shoals off the Outer Banks. And the toll continued to mount. The Mary Anna, the Ocean, the Magnolia. During some storms, such as the brutal gale of July 24, 1850, that took five vessels at Diamond Shoals alone, miles of beach would be strewn with debris and bodies. It can never be known how many lives were lost during this period.

The alarming loss of life off the Outer Banks prompted Congress to allocate funds to station surfboats at Bodie Island, Ocracoke and Wilmington in 1852, for use by volunteer crews. Despite the great need for more, North Carolina lacked the political influence for appropriations comparable to those allocated to New Jersey and Massachusetts.

In the late 1850s, a small majority in Congress finally acknowledged the need for a publicly funded organization of well-trained lifesavers to safeguard against maritime catastrophes and to respond when trouble struck. The outbreak of the Civil War delayed their efforts, but in 1871, amid continued debate, the United States Life-Saving Service (LSS) was born as a branch of the Revenue Marine Service of the Treasury Department and the age of volunteerism was over.

Found at Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers  by David Wright & David Zoby

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