Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1913:
The wreck of the schooner John Maxwell in the early morning of November 2, 1912, three-fourths of a mile southeast of the New Inlet Life Saving Station, coast of North Carolina, furnished the most serious casualty of any that occurred upon our eastern seaboard during the year within the scope of operations of the service.
When overtaken by disaster the Maxwell, a 532-ton vessel, carrying a crew of 7 men, was on her way from Norfolk, VA, to Savannah, GA, with a cargo of coal. Capt. Fred Godfrey, her master and the only survivor, states in his testimony, given at the official investigation of the wreck, that the weather previous to the time of the stranding had been thick and rainy, and that when the vessel struck the wind was blowing about 20 miles an hour and rapidly increasing, with a rising sea. Asked as to the cause of the disaster, he declared it to have been the fault of the mate in not obeying his orders to get a cast of the lead. As all hands except the master perished his charge of disobedience made against his first officer must stand unsupported and unchallenged.
According to Capt. Godfrey’s story of events aboard ship the above-mentioned dereliction of the mate was not the only shortcoming on the part of the latter that brought disaster upon his shipmates. The schooner had scarcely grounded before he and four of the crew, in defiance of Capt. Godfrey, abandoned her in the ship’s boat, leaving only the cook to keep the captain company. What befell the 5 men after the boat struck the water and the darkness that swallowed them up will never be known, for none of them was afterwards seen alive. Had the mate obeyed his superior officer in the second instance he might in a measure have made amends for his fatal disregard of instructions given earlier, as the master expresses the belief that, with all ands assisting, the line that was finally laid across the schooner from the beach could have been hauled out and the breeches buoy apparatus set up, thereby making possible the rescue of the entire company.
Following the desertion of the 5 sailors, Capt. Godfrey and the cook (named Alexander Tillman) climbed into the mizzen rigging. A few moments later, namely at 3.10 a.m., the vessel was discovered by surfman P.L. O’Neal making the patrol south of the New Inlet Life Saving Station. Half an hour later the crew of the New Inlet Station (P.H. Etheridge, keeper) was abreast of the schooner with their beach apparatus. The Chicamacomico and Gull Shoal crews were soon also upon the scene, each with a surfboat, news of the stranding having been communicated to them by telephone from the station first named.
When the New Inlet crew appeared the Maxwell lay approximately 350 yards off the beach, wind, sea, and current having worked her some distance farther in from the spot where she first struck. Keeper Etheridge at once began operations looking to a rescue by firing a No. 7 line across the forward part of the vessel. The shot proved ineffective, however. The line fouled at the shore end and broke, and the projectile carried it away. The second shot, carrying a No. 9 line, was equally well aimed, but the life savers hauled it back to the shore without feeling any answering pull from the schooner. Still a third line (a No. 9) was sent off with no better result. As it was apparent from the efforts made that nothing could be accomplished with the beach apparatus, owing to the distance to the schooner, the strong set of current southward, and the lack of cooperation aboard ship, the three station keepers decided that it would be best to discontinue operations until daylight, when it was hoped a rescue might be effected by boat.
The wind, blowing strong when the schooner stranded, had become a full gale by dawn. The sea, also, which had risen during the latter part of the night, had become very rough. Giant waves were leaping clear over the schooner, while between her and the shore the water was a turmoil of furiously racing whitecaps. When it was sufficiently light to get a good view of the vessel, the two men on board were for the first time observed in the mizzen rigging. A shot now fired from the shore put a line within reach of them. They got hold of it and endeavored to haul off the whip, but, exhausted as they were by their long vigil, and their movements being circumscribed, moreover, by their position, their combined strength was not sufficient to overcome the united force of sea and current tugging at the line between the schooner and the shore. When it appeared that they could do nothing with the line, the life savers hauled it taut and bent on two cork lifebelts, it being plainly seen that they were without such protection. The line was cut on the beach and a signal made to the imperiled men to haul away. But the current again defeated their efforts—they could not drag even the belts through the water.
As the work so far performed held no promise of ultimate success the life savers now turned to their boat. Eight oarsmen, picked from the three crews, were chosen for the venture, with keepers Etheridge and J.A. Midgett (the latter of the Gull Shoal Station) to handle the steering oar. It required the efforts of every keeper and surfman on the beach, supplemented by the assistance of a number of spectators, to get the boat into the water and stated on its way.
Recourse to the surfboat, however, like the efforts previously made with the line, was doomed to fail. The craft safely passed the inshore breakers with fair speed, but 100 yards from the wreck it encountered the powerful current previously referred to, and its progress was precipitately stopped. So far as getting ahead was concerned the strength of the seasoned men at the oars might as well have been exerted against a stone wall. Referring to the efforts of the boat’s crew to proceed, keeper Etheridge testifies that in all his experience as a life saver, covering a period of 26 years, he never saw the tide running stronger. Perceiving, after a determined attempt to get on, the utter impossibility of reaching the ship, keeper Etheridge, who was in command of the crew, passed the word to the oarsman to run for the shore. A landing was made 500 yards leeward of the place where they had launched.
On getting back to the beach keeper Etheridge shot another line over the wreck. The sailors secured it and fastened it to the mast. In a few moments Tillman grasped it and swung from his position with the evident intention of trying to make shore. He succeeded in working his way along the line a distance of perhaps 20 feet when he lost his hold and fell into the water. After making a desperate effort to regain the vessel he sank.
During the forenoon of the 2d, with the force of the gale rapidly increasing and the sea steadily growing rougher, the schooner began to break up. The service crews had reached the end of their resources, however, ad could do nothing but look helplessly on in momentary expectation of seeing the single remaining survivor go down with the swaying mast. They stood thus impotently by watching the closing scenes of the tragedy throughout the afternoon of the 2d and a part of the night. The end came shortly after midnight. By the aid of two searchlights that played upon the wreck from a revenue cutter and a warship standing by offshore they saw the schooner riven apart and were able to follow the movements of the man up aloft as he lowered himself to the deck and made his last stand at the vessel’s stern. They were soon to learn, however, that the good fortune which had permitted the master to live long enough to witness the death throes of his ship was destined to attend him throughout the still darker moments to come, in the fight for his life amidst wreckage and overwhelming seas, and finally to see him safely ashore.
When the dismemberment of the vessel took place the master found himself on a fragment of the schooner’s stern. He still had enough strength left to cling to his unstable support and enough voice to halloo. His shouts, faintly carrying to the wearied men on the beach, gave them renewed energy and put them on the alert. The part of the broken hull that supported him was providentially borne by the swift tidal current in toward the land. When it came within throwing distance one of the watchers waded down into the surf and cast a line to the man, shouting to him to tie it around his body. He did as directed and was soon hauled ashore.
Capt. Godfrey was cared for at the New Inlet Station, until fully recovered from his terrible experience. A letter from him expressing his appreciation of the services of his rescuers may be found under “Letters of acknowledgment.” In said letter he expresses the opinion that his crew also would have been saved had they remained by the ship and assisted in the work of hauling off the lines dent out by the life saving crews.
As previously indicated, a revenue cutter (the Onandaga) and a naval vessel, standing by the wreck outside during the night of November 2, threw their searchlights on the schooner. Capt. Godfrey was of the opinion that the illumination thus afforded actually saved his life, as it enabled him to change position in time to keep him from going overboard with the mast.
NEW INLET LIFE-SAVING STATION, N.C., November 4, 1912
MY DEAR SIR: I wish to express my appreciation of the efforts of the crews of the New Inlet, Chicamacomico and Gull Shoal Life-Saving Stations in saving me from the wreck of the schooner John Maxwell on the 2d instant. If my crew had not deserted me in the yawl boat, I think we would all have been saved. I got the line the life-savers shot out to me, but on account of the strong current I could not haul it off alone. I wish also to express my thanks for the kind treatment I received from the captain of the New Inlet Station during the time I remained. J.D. LLOYD, Captain, Schooner John Maxwell
HOTEL ST. GEORGE, Brooklyn, N.Y., November 8,1912
DEAR SIR: Although I was not present while the John Maxwell, wrecked on he 2d instant, was breaking up and while Capt. Godfrey was on the wreck, I arrived there so soon afterward that I am very well acquainted with the conditions you faced and overcame. I have seen quite a number of wrecks on the Cape Cod coast, and I could see that you faced practically the same difficulties and dangers that are so often encountered there. It is true that you and Captains L.B. and John A. Midgett, of the Chicamacomico and Gull Shoal Stations, were able to save but one an from the wreck, but I know that no set of men without powerful power boats could have done more than you and your associates did. Please give my compliments to the two other captains and their men. If any of you are ever in New York I would be glad to have you look me up so that I may tell you in person how much I admire your conduct. Sincerely yours, J.D. LLOYD
New York Times, November 3, 1912
New York Times, November 3, 1912