Lightships anchored at the tip of Diamond Shoals have had a stormy history since their beginning. Floating tubs with thick hulls, they are small vessels, pointed at both ends like a cigar, ungainly, top-heavy and can barely make it out of their own way. Their sole purpose is to remain at anchor in the most turbulent, dangerous spots which other ships try to by-pass.
A lighthouse had been in operation on Cape Hatteras point for almost 20 years when, on June 15, 1824, the Hatteras Lightship took up her position 14 miles away on outer Diamond Shoals under the command of Naval Captain Jesse D. Elliott. She was over 320 tons, with two lights—one 60’ high and the other 45’ high. After Elliott was transferred to another assignment, he was replaced by Captain Life Holden, a teacher of navigation and maker of nautical instruments. Captain Holden, a married man with three daughters, turned the lightship into a home and brought his family along to live with him.
In late August of 1827 a hurricane moved up from the Windward Islands causing the lights to go out on the lightship. At the height of the storm, a tremendous wave struck the vessel, throwing her into “a perpendicular position”. But she weathered it and returned to an even keel. Then a terrific cross sea hit her broadside—she rolled deep in the trough of the wave and bounced back to the surface. “The concussion,” Captain Holden said, “was equal to the report of a cannon.” Her cable parted and she drifted toward the dangerous shoals.
Though the mainsail was quickly hoisted in an attempt to keep her off, she passed into the shoals with breakers making a clean breach over her. She drifted through those breakers and drifted to the south of the shoals and along the coast toward Ocracoke. The companion slide and doors had been swept away and canvas was nailed over the openings to keep out the breaking waves. She grounded 14 hours later—her binnacle and hatches washed away and the chief mate and carpenter were thrown overboard. Captain Holden, his wife, three daughters and the remaining members of the crew survived the trip and night. The next morning they found themselves hard aground abreast of old Whalebone Inlet on Ocracoke Island where, with the help of local residents, they reached shore safely.
Over the following months, and for many years afterward, unsuccessful attempts were made to launch the Hatteras Lightship.