Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Schooner Aaron Reppard ~ 16 August 1899

Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1900:

Wreck of the Schooner Aaron Reppard

The shattered keel and a few jagged oaken timbers of a ruined vessel lying 100 yards above low-water mark on Hatteras Island, NC, 2-1/2 miles below the Gull Shoal Life-Saving station, mark the locality where the three-masted schooner Aaron Reppard was totally destroyed on the 16th of August, 1899, during the prevalence of a West Indian hurricane, pronounced by the observer of the United States Weather Bureau “the most severe in the history of Hatteras.”
     Eight days before the wreck of the Reppard the same storm had spread almost unprecedented devastation over the island of Porto Rico, and during the intervening period had slowly progressed northward carrying more or less of destruction on its evil wings. By August 13 its center was off Jupiter Inlet, FL, and in the meantime all interests in its line of advance were advised by the Weather Bureau of its calculated movements, and all shipping bound for the South Atlantic was informed of the danger of sailing for that region.
     Whether Captain Wessel of the Reppard was actually aware of the advancing tempest is not known. He left Philadelphia at 2 o’clock p.m., Saturday, August 12, bound for Savannah, GA, and was towed as far as Reedy Island, 45 or 50 miles down the Delaware River, where he anchored and remained until Monday, August 14. At about 5 o’clock in the morning of that day he got under way and proceeded out to the capes of the Delaware, standing south with an easterly wind until past Fenwick Island Lightship, when he hauled to south by east and stood so until 8 p.m., and then kept away south.
     At that moment the coming hurricane was raging around the port of his destination, only a few hundred miles to the southward, and he was sure soon to be involved in its dreadful swirl, if he continued on his course. At 8 o’clock that night the wind was from the east and already of sufficient force to require all the light sails to be taken in and preventer stays to be set up. The next morning, Tuesday, the vessel was by calculation somewhere off Cape Henry.
     If the captain had any knowledge of the weather signals flying when he sailed, the increase of wind and fall of barometer might well have caused him to take refuge inside the capes of the Chesapeake and await developments. At 4 p.m. the hurricane, still sweeping northward, was furious around Cape Hatteras, while two hours prior to that time the wind was so heavy off Cape Henry, where the Reppard then was, that the captain hove his vessel to. She had been so strained already that the crew were kept at the pumps two-thirds of the time, and it was now too late to seek a harbor. She remained hove to during the night on the starboard tack under for staysail and mainsail with the helm lashed hard down, and on Wednesday morning the mizzen storm trysail was set to hold her up. The weather was thick, rain was falling heavily and the wind was blowing fiercely from the eastward during all the forenoon of Wednesday, and the already doomed vessel was constantly drifting shoreward, although the proximity of the land was not definitely known to those on board. At about 1 o’clock p.m., however, breakers were reported astern. The captain quickly ordered the staysail to be taken in, and both bower anchors to be let go, which was done, leaving the mainsail and trysail still set in order to keep the schooner’s head to the wind. Although 90 fathoms of chain were run out on each anchor both of them could not hold her against the tremendous sea, and she slowly dragged them for about 15 minutes, when she reached the first line of breakers, which was very heavy.
     At this juncture the mainsail halyards were let go so that the sail would run down, and all hands leaped into the shrouds to escape being carried overboard by the sea which now swept the decks. Besides the crew, which numbered 7 men, officers included, there was one passenger, named Cummings, who is said to have belonged in Charleston, SC. Captain Wessel, Mate Johnson, Steward Robinson, and seamen John Van der Graaf, Pedro Lachs, and James M. Lynott took to the fore rigging; one sailor, Tony Nilsen, to the main rigging, and the passenger, Cummings, to the mizzen rigging. Van der Graaf was the last man to reach the rigging, and he says that when he got aloft he could plainly see the shore astern, where he counted some 20 people, although he had little idea of the distance.
     The heavy hull, laden with some 700 tons of anthracite coal, pounded with terrific force, and still continued to drag farther and farther into the breakers. The persons visible on the shore were the life saving crews of the stations located at Gull Shoal, Little Kinnakeet, and Chicamacomico, who had assembled with their apparatus to render such aid as the almost hopelessly adverse conditions might permit.
     The Reppard was first seen by surfman William G. Midgett, who was on day patrol south of Gull Shoal Station. He says she was then about a mile and a half offshore, southeast of the station, heading about north, and “doing the best she could,” now making a little headway and then dropping back. He was able to make her out for an hour, at intervals when the weather would lighten up, before she anchored. “As soon as she did that,” he says, “I knew she would come ashore, and I then made my way to the station and reported her,” leaving the patrolman of the Little Kinnakeet Station on the beach to watch her. The distance he had to travel was about a mile and a half to the northward, and so heavy were the conditions that, although he was mounted and drove his horse as hard as he could, it took him 15 minutes to cover the ground. He was in ample time, however, so far as movements to effect a rescue were concerned.
     Captain Pugh immediately telephoned Little Kinnakeet Station, next to Gull Shoal on the southward, and Chicamacomico, next to the northward, requesting keepers Hooper and Midgett to join him with their crews abreast of the wreck. Then he attached his own horse to the beach apparatus cart, and those of surfmen G.L. Midgett and D.L. Gray to Service cards loaded with additional equipments, and in 5 minutes after the wreck was reported set out vigorously for the scene, where he and his crew arrived within half an hour and found the position of the vessel and men on board as above described. Within not more than 10 minutes later in either case, the other crews, who had also utilized their own horses to insure speed, also arrived.
     Captain Pugh testifies that the schooner then lay about 700 yards distant, stern toward the beach, “riding to two anchors, but slowly dragging shoreward.” This portion of the land consists of two banks about 50 yards apart with a gully between them, and the sea, which is described as being “as high as it possibly could be,” was frequently sweeping completely over the land from the ocean side into the sound. In view of the fact that the survivors and the members of the lifesaving crews agree that the employment of a boat under the conditions was clearly beyond all possibility, that question need not be here considered. No number of men, no matter how many or how skillful, could have launched a boat.
     Where the schooner then was no life saving ordnance in the world could reach her, and therefore all that the life saving crews could do was to make ready their apparatus and await the moment when she should drift within range. When she was within about 500 yards, as nearly as could be estimated, the Lyle gun was fired with a 6-ounce charge of powder and a No. 7 shot line. The line parted, however, close to the shank of the projectile, which went on its way and was lost. A second attempt was then made, and the line stood the test, but the shot fell “at least 75 yards short.” Wisely concluding, therefore, that the line was too heavy to carry the requisite distance, the gun was again charged and fired with a cartridge of the same weight, but with a No. 4 line attached to the projectile, which laid it safely across the head stays of the schooner. Van der Graaf, one of the surviving sailors, says they saw the line perfectly well and knew what it meant, but that by no possible skill or courage could any of them have reached it. He declares in his testimony that if it had fallen close to him he could have done nothing with it. “She was pounding so heavily that it took both hands to hold on.” “This must have been about thirty minutes after we reached the beach,” says keeper Pugh, “and even if they had secured the shot line I am satisfied they never could have hauled off the whip. The only thing they could have done was to haul off life preservers.”
Constructed of 52 individual cork blocks sewn onto a canvas vest with cotton duck tying tapes, this pattern of life preserver was used by the U.S. Life Saving Service, and was an essential item of equipment at stations from the late 1860s through the 1920s.
It was soon evident that the wreck was about to go to pieces, and the only thing the life savers could not hope to accomplish was to rescue the shipwrecked men from the surf when the last desperate moment should arrive. Even in this they were doomed to an extremely painful degree of disappointment. Seaman Van der Graaf says that first the deck house went by the board, then the hatch coamings and the decks, and then the bulwarks. While this destruction was going on the passenger, Cummings, in the mizzen shrouds, was caught by one leg in the ratlines and “slammed back and forth” until dead before the mast fell, which was the first to go, and went over the port side. He was never seen again.
     The mainmast shortly followed the mizzenmast, first breaking in two pieces and causing the sailor, Tony Nilsen, who was in its rigging, to fall among the debris, where he was seen by Van der Graaf, who says that, although he was badly wounded, he worked himself clear of the wreckage and got over the side, but then disappeared. Before the mainmast fell Captain Wessel jumped overboard from the fore rigging and made a brave effort to swim ashore. The men watched him all the time, now making a little progress, and now sorely baffled by the backlash of the seas until he evidently found that he must fail, when he turned around and tried to regain the vessel. In this last struggle for his life he so far succeeded as to get within 5 yards of her, but then threw up his hands and sank out of sight.
     The mate, Steward Robinson, seamen Pedro Lachs, James M. Lynott, and Van der Graaf, all in the fore rigging, were still alive, but the foremast soon broke into three pieces and fell to starboard, carrying all four men with in into the sea. Lynott was severely bruised, and his shipmates, who never saw him after the mast gave way, believe that he was instantly drowned. The steward was also injured by the fall and soon perished. Three men were still alive in the water—the mate and seamen Lachs and Van der Graaf—and fortunately they were on the side toward the shore.
     While this tragedy was being enacted the life saving keepers had decided that three surfmen from the Gull Shoal Station, two from Little Kinnakeet, and two from Chicamacomico, should put on cork jackets, and, each taking from 40 to 50 yards of shot line, wade out as far as possible into the surf, while each line should be held by two surfmen on the beach. The three men just mentioned as alive among the remnants of the foremast alongside the Reppard clung to such pieces of wreckage as they could lay hold of, and were gradually tossed near enough to the shore to be rescued by the life savers in the surf.
     Tame as these operations may seem when stated in cold and formal terms, they were by no means free from great peril to the rescuers. Heavy pieces of ragged wreckage filled the surf—planks, timbers, and broken spars—and were hurled about with deadly force in every direction, so that the surfmen had to move rapidly and with great skill to avoid them. Indeed, the veteran keeper of Little Kinnakeet Station, Captain E.O. Hooper, who refused to head the entreaties of his comrades to leave the hazardous work to younger men, rushed in at a critical moment, nearly losing his life, and suffering a fracture of one of the bones of his right leg. However, by dint of courageous and skillful effort all three of the shipwrecked men who escaped from the vessel alive were rescued from the surf. Being too weak to walk, or indeed, to stand, they were conveyed in beach carts to the Gull Shoal Station. There they were treated with proper stimulants, clad in dry underclothing, and placed in bed, where, after several hours, they recovered from their terrible experience.
     The names of the three men saved were Bernard Johnson, Pedro Lachs, and John van der Graaf, and the five who perished were Oscar Wessel, James M. Lynott, W. Robinson, Tony Nilsen, and _____ Cummings.
     The body of only one of the drowned was recovered, that of the steward, W. Robinson, which was buried on the bank north of the Gull Shoal Station.
     The fact that three life saving crews were promptly assembled on this occasion affords excellent testimony to the inestimable value of the telephone system of the Service, which is principally designed for precisely such emergencies. A single crew could not have accomplished what was done, and they could have received no assistance from beachmen, as, to the credit of these ever-ready brave men it should be stated, they often do, for the reason that the storm and consequent furious sea rolling clear across the island compelled the fishermen and other residents to stay at home and devote their utmost energies to the preservation of the lives of their families and themselves. Waste and desolation covered the entire region to an extent hitherto unknown even on that storm-beaten coast.
     Lieutenant C.E. Johnston, a most competent officer of the Revenue-Cutter Service, who investigated the circumstances of this wreck, closes his report with the following paragraph:

“There is no doubt that the surfmen did everything possible under the adverse conditions to save the lives of the people on this schooner. The storm was the worst in the recollection of any one now living on the Carolina Banks, and it is little short of a miracle that any one now lives to tell the tale of the wreck. If the master had not anchored, or if he had slipped his cables as soon as he reached the breakers, it is probable that all hands would have been saved, as the schooner would not have stopped until she was right up against the bank. Three other schooners, a barkentine, and a lightship all went ashore in the same general vicinity and in the same storm without anchoring, and the only loss of life from the five vessels was occasioned by a tremendous sea which boarded the barkentine when she first took bottom and washed four persons overboard. All the rest were rescued by the life savers.”

     The opinion of the survivors regarding the conduct of the life saving men appears from the following letter written by one of their number and signed by all, which was handed to keeper Pugh before they left the beach:

GULL SHOAL, August 21, 1899

This is to certify that the loss of the lives of the captain, three seamen, and one passenger of the late schooner Aaron Reppard wrecked near the above-named station was not because of any failure on the part of the life-saving crews to do their duty. They were at the scene of the wreck promptly, and put a line over her head stays, but we could not get it, and if we had we could not have done anything, as we had all we could do to hold on, as the vessel was rolling heavy and fast going to pieces. The life-saving crews did what they could to save our lives. BERNARD JOHNSON, First Mate ; PEDRO LACHS, Seaman ; JOHN VAN DER GRAFF, Seaman

Newspaper Articles:

Virginian Pilot, August 17, 1899
Virginia Pilot, August 20, 1899

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