Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1889:
On this date the schooner John Shay, of Port Jefferson, NY, was wrecked on the North Carolina coast in the vicinity of the Cape Hatteras Station (6th District). Her entire crew, consisting of six men, were lost before assistance could reach them.
Loss of the Schooner John Shay
The next loss of life was that of the entire crew of the schooner John Shay, which was wrecked on the North Carolina coast in the vicinity of the Cape Hatteras Station (6th District) April 17, 1889. The vessel hailed from Port Jefferson, NY, and was bound from Hastings, in that State, to Washington, DC, with a cargo of stone and a crew of 6 men all told. It will be seen from the narrative that the fatal results could not, by any effort of the Life Saving Service, have been averted.
The vessel was discovered by the keeper of the Big Kinnakeet Station at about noon of the date mentioned. She was a short distance off shore, coming straight for the beach, flying a signal of distress. A strong wind had been blowing from the eastward almost continuously for several days and had made up a tremendous sea. Throughout this period the weather had been thick, with occasional showers, and during the forenoon of the day in question a strict patrol had been maintained north and south of the station. As soon as the schooner was sighted the life savers took it for granted that she was about to be beached and active preparations were made to start at once for the scene with the breeches buoy apparatus. The adjacent stations were notified by telephone of the situation, though hardly had this been done when the vessel was seen to anchor about three-quarters of a mile off; she swung broadside to and at intervals the sea broke completely over her. The fury of the in rushing breakers, which formed an impassable wall of surf, precluded the use of a boat. In a little while a two-flag International Code signal was hoisted on the vessel, but its meaning could not be made out from the shore. Nevertheless the keeper endeavored to open communications, but, for a time, ineffectually, doubtless because the signals shown could not be distinguished by those on board. At last the weather lighted up somewhat and a signal asking for a tug was read by the station men and immediately answered. Word was at once telephoned to the Signal Service operator at Cape Hatteras, but a reply soon came back that the telegraph wires were down beyond that point and a telegram could not be forwarded.
The keeper, after signaling the master of the vessel to this effect, telephoned to the next station north with instructions to the life saving men to transmit the message as quickly as possible along the coast over the Service telephone wires, in the hope that it might possibly be got to Norfolk. Nothing more was shown on the vessel. The surfmen, after a brief wait, ran up the code signal LM (“The berth you are now in is not safe.”) This was done because it would take at least 15 or 20 hours for a tug to arrive, and with night approaching and no indication of a favorable change in the weather, it was unsafe for the schooner to remain where she was. It was advisable for her to seek an anchorage farther off shore. She was all the while closely watched, but owing to the rain the station men, even with the aid of glasses, could not make out what was taking place on board. The wind meantime had drawn off shore to the west of north. Shortly after 4 o’clock the craft was seen to hoist her mainsail part way up, slip her cables, and stand off the land. She soon set her jibs, and afterwards lowered the mainsail and headed down the beach. The keeper at once had horses hitched to the mortar cart and notified the station to the south (Cape Hatteras) that the schooner had got under way and was running down the coast, and that he and his crew were about to follow with the apparatus. The beach was soft and covered with water, and when some two miles on the way, good progress having been made, one of the axles of the cart became heated, causing a halt. Efforts were made in various ways to remedy the trouble, and a number of citizens of the neighborhood who accompanied the surfmen aided in the work but it was found impossible to get the cart in running order until the axle should cool.
It may be well to state, in order that the explanation of the vessel’s movements may be better understood, that Cape Hatteras makes out about 80 miles to the southward of the Big Kinnakeet Station and that at the point of the cape (just beyond the outer bar) and between it and the Inner Diamond Shoals there is a channel called the Inner Slue. Between the Inner and Outer Diamond Shoals there is another channel known as the Outer Slue. Many vessels pass through these channels during good weather to save the long sail out and around the shoals, while many attempt to do so in heavy weather to more quickly reach a lee and smooth water.
It was evident that the captain intended to seek shelter by trying to go through the Inner Slue, for if he had wanted to beach the schooner he could easily have done so when she first came in sight of the station. The fact that the jibs were the only sails set after heading down the coast supports this theory. Besides, whenever the vessel showed a tendency to head up towards the land the jib sheets would at once be drawn to windward (the wind being a little off shore) when she would immediately resume her course. The captain seems, however, to have finally changed his mind and abandoned the undertaking, for after a while the mainsail was again hoisted and the schooner was steered for the beach. She struck, as near as could be judged, some five or six hundred yards off, at a point about three miles north of Cape Hatteras.
When the cart became disabled and there was no prospect of getting it over the beach, orders were given for the men to hurry along and meet the crew of the Hatteras Station, on whose beach it was now obvious the vessel would strike if she was headed for the shore. The keeper rode one of the horses as fast as he could for a half mile or so in advance, when he dismounted and tied the horse to the telephone pole, so that some members of his crew following after could secure a rest by riding the animal and also hurry the quicker to the scene of operations. The keeper then ran down along the beach, passing the vessel just as she struck the bar, until the surfman on the horse overtook him, when he remounted and galloped on until he met the crew of the Hatteras Station, who were hurrying to the schooner’s assistance as fast as the condition of the beach, the beating rain, and strong head wind would permit. The vessel struck at about twenty minutes of 6 o’clock.
The work of the life saving men now proceeded under the direction of the keeper of the Hatteras Station. The latter, as son as he received word that the vessel was in distress in the vicinity of the Big Kinnakeet Station, ordered out the apparatus cart. Some ponies belonging to the surfmen were caught and hitched to it, and all hands, pushing and helping as best they could, started up the beach with the gear. Before the two crews could join forces the mainmast of the craft was seen to topple and the foremast almost immediately did the same. Both kept gradually going over, and finally fell together into the sea, the vessel entirely disappearing. It was a sudden and unlooked for collapse, and a moment afterwards nothing could be seen in the waves but a confusion of wreckage, most of which began to drift towards the cape. The keeper of the lighthouse, who witnessed the occurrence, testified that the schooner went to pieces just 17 minutes after she struck. The expectation of rescuing the entire crew, which had stimulated the life savers to put forth their utmost endeavors, now vanquished, but they were yet hopeful of saving at least some of them. Their efforts, therefore, were not once relaxed. When they reached a favorable spot the gun was quickly placed in position and a line fired over the floating wreckage. The keeper thought that he could make out two of the sailors amongst the debris and a bystander testified that the line fell across one of them, but that he made no effort to secure it. As soon as it was found that the line was not made fast the surfmen bent on several cork jackets and attempted to float them by the action of the current within reach of some of the shipwrecked people, but the surf was so high that the life preservers could not be sent off shore.
Just at this time one of the schooner’s crew was discovered on the cabin. The gun was, therefore, hurried to a new position and quickly loaded and fired—a No. 4 line (the smallest size) being used on account of the great distance. This went true to the mark and fell within easy grasp of the man, who immediately made it fast and waved his hands to those on shore. The line was then carried by the beach party to windward and held taut so that the wash of the sea might bear the cabin to land, a plan that was considered safer than putting an undue strain on the line which might break it. Notwithstanding the great care that was exercised, however, the line parted. Te gun was now reloaded and a No. 9 line fired. The heavier line was used because those which had already been thrown were still in the surf and for the reason also that the cabin had drifted nearer the shore while the bulk of wreckage had worked farther off and beyond range. The line fell to leeward of the house and had to be hauled in and fired again. It this time fell just out of the man’s reach. It must be borne in mind that much of the time the cabin, which was but a small portion of the schooner, was entirely hid from view by the furious seas which constantly swept over it. The gathering darkness and the varying force of the wind also added to the difficulty of accurately firing the line. Furthermore the object was so small that the line had to fall within very narrow limits to insure the man’s getting it. The wonder is that any line at all was successfully thrown within his reach. The house being unable to long resist the heavy seas was quickly demolished on entering the inner breakers. It is doubtful whether the man was seen after the cabin went to pieces. One of the surfmen, nevertheless, hastily buckled on a cork jacked and fastening a line around his waist plunged into the surf to the rescue, but the heroic effort proved futile. The wreckage of the cabin was carefully examined after it reached the shore but no trace of the man could be found. Meanwhile the rest of the drifting wreckage had been swept to sea and out of sight.
The keeper and crew of the Creeds Hill Station (6 miles to the westward of the Cape Hatteras Station) had arrived during the operation and joined in the work. Darkness had not shut down and nothing remained but to watch the shore. An effective patrol was maintained throughout the night and the two following days, but nothing came on the beach. Many persons of the vicinity had rendered willing and efficient aid in the efforts to rescue the shipwrecked, and a number of them remained far into the night keeping vigil with the life savers. On the 19th the sea had gone down sufficiently to enable the station men, together with a party of wreckers, to go off in a boat to the wreck. The stern of the vessel, which was found fast to the debris, was cut loose and towed ashore. By sawing out some of the planks her name was ascertained.
From a careful investigation of this case, in which exhaustive testimony was taken, there can be drawn no other conclusion that that the Service crews did all in their power to save life. The long continued blow from the east and northeast had produced a fearful sea and surf, the latter being almost if not quite as dangerous as any ever before experienced on this exposed portion of the coast. It was utterly impossible for an open boat to live, or even to be successfully launched from the beach, and so there was no way by which the surfmen could reach the schooner when she first came to anchor off the Big Kinnakeet Station.
The diligence of the crews in their efforts to reach a position abreast of the schooner when she was beached is unquestionable. The accident to the cart belonging to the Big Kinnakeet Station, as subsequent events proved, did not affect the results in any way. The men put forth their strongest endeavors and acted with great promptness and judgment, and the sad loss of life was due to no failure in effort or error in execution. The vessel broke up so quickly that had they been abreast of her when she struck they could not in the limited time at their disposal have effectually set up and worked the beach apparatus.
Three of the bodies, without marks of identification, one of which was supposed to be the captain’s, were subsequently found on the beach between the Big Kinnakeet and Cape Hatteras Stations. They were decently buried by the life saving men.