The 488-ton Richard S. Spofford was a three-masted schooner built in 1890 at Newberryport, MA. On December 22 she sailed in ballast from Boston, MA for Darien, GA under the command of Captain Richard R. Hawes with a crew of seven.
As they were passing off Cape Hatteras the afternoon of the 26th, they ran into gail force SSE winds. The captain ordered the crew to reduce sails and, in anticipation of a shift in wind, stayed as near to shore as possible until reaching shallow water where he planned to anchor until the storm passed. Instead of abating, the wind increased to hurricane force driving the vessel faster than Captain Hawes realized. He later noted, "... at midnight I would gladly have put the vessel on the offshore tack, but did not dare to make the attempt for fear of lising the mainsail."
At 3:30 a.m. the Spofford struck bottom without warning and her large centerboard soon became solidly wedged in sand. With sails flying, the vessel swung broadside, ripping the heavy centerboard from her belly. This allowed her to slowly drift over the outer bar. The crew quickly got anchors out but the doomed vessel soon found her final resting place about 300 yards from the beach.
The villagers gathered on the beach at daybreak, but nobody made a rescue attempt, nor did they send word to the fully manned Ocracoke Station 14 miles up the beach. However, across the inlet and 7 miles away, keeper Ferdinand G. Terrell was on duty at the Portsmouth Station. Although not yet operational, the station had only recently been completed and Terrel was in the lookout tower, where he spotted the Spofford. As visibility improved he could see their distress signal flying and was able to muster the help of six local volunteers: Joseph W. Robinson, George Dixon, Dennis Mason, Jacob Swindell, Joseph Styron and Martin Dixon.
In the meantime, the crew of the Spofford had decided that assistance was not coming and launched the ships yawl into the turbulent sea. The mate and four of the crew boarded the vessel and headed for shore, only to be swamped as soon as they got out of the lee of the vessel. Though they were thrown into the raging breakers, they all managed to reach shore.
Upon arrival keeper Terrell tried to enlist a crew to assist in the rescue. He had already sent three of his men by sailboat to the Ocracoke station for help. Donald S. Tolson was the only one to respond. Terrel made a complete failure in getting other volunteers from the onlookers, and in despair headed down the beach in order to meet keeper Howard and his crew. Howard had come on horseback and when the two keepers met, still three or four miles from the wreck, they resolved to hasten to the wreck sight in order to survey the scene by daylight.
The going was extremely hard with the beach almost impassable. One of the mules balked after a few miles and the lifesaving crew arrived pulling the beach apparatus themselves with the help of one completely fatigued animal.
By now it was 8 p.m., dark and cold, with the storm still raging. The remaining three men had long since taken refuge on the bowsprit, where they lashed the injured steward to the rigging, wrapped themselves in the jib and huddled together for warmth. The schooner was rolling bad and the surf was breaking all over her. It was decided to wait until morning.
At daybreak, on the second try, a line was successfully fired to the vessel and Captain Hawes and the remaining crewmen were run ashore in the breeches buoy. The steward, Sylvester H. Chase of Cape Cod, who had suffered a fall from the quarter-deck the previous afternoon, did not survive the night and was left, lashed to the capstan. During the following inquiry there was some question concerning his death but was dismissed. Captain Hawes remained long enough to see the recovery of Chase's remains and to sell a few items which were salvaged from the Spofford.
The following month Terrell chose his first lifesaving crew. One of the volunteers, Dennis Mason, was chosen to fill the important position of #1 Surfman.