Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1909.
Stranded in thick weather 1-1/4 miles SSE. of Paul Gamiels Hill station, and 2 of the crew washed overboard and drowned. (For detailed account, see “Disasters involving loss of life.”)
Wreck of the Schooner Charles S. Hirsch, October 29, 1908 Paul Gamiels Hill Station
The Charles S. Hirsch was a 4-masted schooner of 530 tons burden owned by the Hirsch Lumber Company, of New York. She left Brunswick, GA, on the morning of October 18, bound for Baltimore, MD, with a cargo of 318 Georgia pine piling, consigned to the Hodgkins Lumber Company. On this trip she carried a crew of 8 men, including the captain, as follows: Frank Wall Hunter, master; Charles O. Olson, mate; Fred L. Hoffses, engineer; Edward J. Christiansen, Albin Julgen, Torres Gundersen, Ludvik Helgesen, seamen; and the cook. Helgesen and the cook lost their lives in the disaster here described. None of the crew interrogated by the officer who investigated the disaster could give the name of the cook. All that could be learned about him was that he was an Englishman, and that he had shipped at Brunswick, the port of which the schooner last sailed. The captain stated that his name was on the ship’s papers, which were lost with the vessel.
The piling the schooner carried consisted of sticks from 80 to 90 feet long and measuring from 18 to 20 inches through their larger ends. They were stowed heads and butts. The deck load of 16 timbers filled up all the space amidships, being stacked well up under the main and mizzen masts, leaving free only the space forward occupied by the forecastle, and that aft taken up by the cabin and quarterdeck. The piling was securely lashed by wire and chains.
According to the testimony of Captain Hunter, the schooner had fair weather until October 20, when she encountered a northeast gale, which lasted until the 22d. After that she had variable winds and calms, there being days when she would not log more than 8 knots in the whole of 24 hours. There was a nasty sea all this time, says the master, and the conditions seemed to indicate that a storm was brewing. About 2.30 a.m. of October 29, when the vessel was doubtless somewhere off the Kill Devil Hills life-saving station, she lay becalmed. The captain had not been able to take an observation for 38 hours, and did not know more than approximately where he was. The crew had been taking soundings since 8 o’clock of the preceding morning, and at the time stated, 2:30 a.m., the lead showing 16 fathoms. About 3:15 a light wind sprang up from the northward, which, within an hour, freshened to 3 or 4 knots. At this time the schooner was heading north-northwest in 15 fathoms. The captain was on deck all the while assisting in taking soundings. Asked if he saw any lights at any time, he replied that somewhere between 12 and 2.30 a.m. of the 29th he picked up two on the starboard bow, which he as first took to be shore lights, but on looking at them through his glasses he found they were steamers.
At 4 o’clock the port watch came on deck to relieve the captain, who was keeping the starboard watch, but the latter still remained on deck to look after the soundings. For some time after 4 o’clock the vessel ran along in 15 and 13 fathoms. When she made 13 fathoms, the captain told the mate that they would soon wear ship, meaning that they would swing the schooner clear around to port, making a look, as it were, and head out seaward on the port tack almost at right angles to the direction in which they were then going. This maneuver was necessary in order to get out far enough to go again on the starboard tack for Cape Henry, inside of which the captain says he wanted to make refuge. Just before the necessary orders were given for bringing the vessel around, a sounding was taken, which showed 11 fathoms. The captain states that he had then no idea that he would go on the beach. He simply thought they were getting as close in shore as was prudent and that the time had arrived to get off in order to come up again on the starboard tack. The necessity for wearing ship, he explains, was the direction of the wind, which was blowing from the northeast. In the opinion of some of the life-savers, if the wind had been a point farther eastward, it would not have been necessary to wear the schooner around, and she would undoubtedly have reached without accident the haven she had in view. It was while executing the maneuver mentioned that she got into difficulty.
When Captain Hunter found his vessel in 11 fathoms, he took the wheel and told the mate to slack away the spanker topsail and stand by. The slacking of this sail, he stated, was to throw the wind pressure more on the forward sails, thereby helping to swing the schooner around more quickly. While the mate was slacking the sail, the captain rolled the wheel hard up and fastened it with the becket. Telling of what next occurred, he says:
“The schooner paid off northwest, but seemed to hang, and as I did not want to lose too much ground or strain my steering gear, I next called to the mate to slack the spanker peak. As she still did not pay off, I then told him to lower his spanker away. I, at the same time, ran to leeward and let go the mizzen sheet. As the vessel still did not answer her helm, I began to suspect that something was wrong with her steering gear, and was doing everything possible to bring her about.”
By this time the wind had freshened up to 20 knots, and it had begun to drizzle, making a mist over the water. Day was breaking, however, and through the occasional rifts in the scurrying fog the sailors could see to windward long lines of foam-crusted seas, which warned them of their proximity to the shore. Up to this moment, it seems, the captain had not been apprehensive that he was dangerously near the beach, and he had scarcely time to realize what was in store for his vessel before she fetched up in the breakers. She struck about 150 yards offshore, nose first, then swung around port side to the beach, headed northward. The seas were running high when she took bottom, and they now broke over her decks and the houses fore and aft, the spray flying high up in the rigging. The captain—a young man just turned 30, and who appears to have acted with great courage and presence of mind through the terrible scenes that ensued, and to have manifested the greatest concern for the safety of his crew—ordered all hands on deck. Two or three of the men were forward in the forecastle and the rest aft. After calling the men up, the captain, the mate, and two seamen undertook to lower all sails, “so that there would not be so much gear swinging about.” The water was coming aboard in such volume, however, that they were unable to finish their work, having to take refuge on the quarterdeck, where they were shortly joined by the men from forward.
The captain next thought to go down into the cabin to secure the ship’s papers and some personal belongings. On descending he found the cabin awash and the furnishings thrashing about so violently as to threaten the safety of any one entering. He succeeded, however, in getting hold of his watch and pocketbook, lying on his desk, but did not dare remain long enough to get the papers, which were in the drawer of the desk. While he was below the cook appeared at an inner door of the cabin, and when he went back on deck, followed him out. All the ship’s crew with whom the investigating officer talked agreed that the cook was so badly frightened as to be incapable of intelligent action. In fact, both of the men who were lost were practically helpless through fear. Their shipmates were of the opinion that had they been more courageous they might have been saved. The captain stated that the rest of the crew never showed the “white feather,” but that they even joked with each other when it seemed certain that they would all perish.
When the cook came up on the quarterdeck, the captain, appreciating his condition, assisted him into the yawl, which hung from her davits over the stern. There he remained until the crew some time later attempted to launch this boat, when he got out of it and tried to take a hand in the launching, but a sea came along and swept both him and the boat overboard.
Some twenty minutes after the schooner fetched up, the deck load began to work loose, and soon the piles stacked under the starboard side were chafing the rigging as they rose and fell with the seas, tearing it asunder. Freed from their fastenings to windward, the masts could not withstand the terrible pounding and the pressure of the piles on the leeward rigging, and three of them—the mainmast, mizzenmast and spanker mast—snapped off simultaneously, the two last named going overboard and the mainmast swinging around against the foremast, where it hung suspended by the rigging.
The first man to sight the schooner from the shore was surfman Andrew Scarborough, No. 1 man at the Paul Gamiels Hill life-saving station. He was at the time standing the 2.30 to 6 a.m. beach watch near the station. About 5.30 o’clock, as it was coming daybreak, he saw her off to the east-southeast. He watched her for a few moments, and then set a stake in the sand near the watch house and took a range to determine in which direction she was moving. He saw that she was falling off toward the beach. Scarborough says that he wasn’t sure that she would come ashore, but that he knew she was where she should not be in weather such as prevailed at that time. When he was watching the vessel surfman Paul D. Beals, the No. 3 man at the same station, came in from the south patrol, and at Scarborough’s request kept an eye on the ship while he (Scarborough) went to the station some 200 yards away to inform the keeper of his discovery.
Keeper Thomas Harris and crew, of Paul Gamiels Hill station were soon on their way to the vessel with the beach apparatus, hauled by the station team, arriving abreast of her even before she struck. Before setting out he had telephoned to Captain Tillett, of the Kitty Hawk station, 6 miles south, to come with his men, and to Captain Snow, of the Caffeys Inlet station, 6 miles north, to hold himself and his crew in readiness for a call. Both keepers came with their crews before the work of rescue was concluded and rendered valuable service.
When Keeper Harris and his crew arrived abreast of the schooner the wind was blowing strong from the northeast and it was raining. The vessel lay broadside to the beach and pounding heavily, with the seas almost hiding her from view. Within fifteen minutes the Lyle gun was fired with 5 ounces of powder, laying a No. 9 line across the vessel just forward of her spanker mast. After the sailors had taken refuge on the quarterdeck, 6 of them, it appears, climbed into the spanker rigging. When the line fell they all came down and, together with the master, who had remained on top of the cabin, got hold of it and began to haul in. They hauled the tail block on board and secured it to the spanker mast, but in spite of the efforts of the life-savers to keep the two parts of the whip separate the tremendous current that swept down the beach twisted the line so that it would not run through the block when they tried to haul off the hawser. The twist extended the entire distance from the ship to shore, and nothing could be done from either end toward getting it straightened out.
Seeing that it would be impossible to untangle the whip, Captain Harris signaled to the sailors to cut the tackle loose, but they failed to understand what he wanted them to do, and did nothing.
The keeper now sent two of his men back to the station for another whip line, and while waiting for it the life-savers carried the shore end of the twisted line sown the beach so that it would be clear of the wreckage and staked it fast that it might later be recovered.;
When the sailors found that the line would not work all hands, except the cook, who was still in the yawl boat, went aloft, the captain taking refuge on the spanker gaff and the others in their former position. By this time the deck load had torn away the rigging to windward, so that the piles on that side, aided by the rolling of the schooner, were pushing over to windward the three masts previously mentioned. This meant that these masts would soon go by the board. Perceiving the danger that threatened, Captain Hunter, from his position on the spanker gaff, called to his men to come down, himself suiting the action to the word by descending to the starboard quarterdeck to windward of all wreckage that would fall. The sailors did not hear him at first, owing to the confusion. Had they done so what followed might not have resulted fatally to one of their number. Shortly the mainmast cracked and the six sailors then started down. They were not quick enough, however, for the three masts went over while two of the men—Julgen and Helgesen—were still aloft, and these two went along overboard. Neither man was apparently injured by the fall. Helgesen succeeded in crawling up on some wreckage hanging over the side of the schooner and getting hold of the flyrail. Here he held for a while only to be swept back and to disappear in the threshing debris alongside. The other sailor, Julgen, was more fortunate. He managed to get astride a spar in the water, where he remained for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then climbed back on board with the help of a shot line that had fallen near him.
After the masts went over the captain and his crew tried to launch the yawl boat, first making the cook get out of it. It filled, however, as soon as it struck the water and turned over, and a sea bore it away, as previously stated. It was afterward found down the beach badly damaged, as was also the schooner’s dinghy, which had been washed from the top of the cabin soon after the vessel fetched up. The sea that took the yawl boat away was the same one that carried off the cook and broke Helgesen’s hold on the flyrail. The engineer says in his testimony that he saw the cook after he went overboard crawl up on the end of a pile, hold on for a moment, and then go under as the timber rolled. The bodies were not afterward recovered, and it was the general opinion of those who witnessed the rescue operations that they were ground to pieces among the piles alongside the vessel.
When the masts came down, Keeper Harris sent surfman Scarborough to the station with 5 men for the surfboat that he might have it at hand ready for an attempt to get to the schooner in case the breeches buoy should fail him. Meantime, the extra whip line had come, and he fired another shot with 4 ounces of powder, laying a No. 9 line where the first one fell—just forward of the stump of the spanker mast, around which the sailors were huddled. The ship’s crew tried to haul off the whip, in which effort they failed, owing to the fact that the shot line had fouled the wreckage. Although this line could not be used as intended, it at least served the good purpose—as already shown—of helping Julgen to get back on the ship. Keeper Harris stated that he tried to send this second shot line within reach of Julgen, so that in case the men on the schooner did not succeed in getting it he (Julgen) would be able to lay hold of it, and the life-savers could then haul him ashore. The line doubtless saved the sailor’s life, although not in the manner the keeper had considered possible.
Failing the second time in their efforts to get the apparatus in operation, the sailors returned to the stump of the spanker mast, around which they clung, some of them lashing themselves fast. Several of the life-savers who were present on the beach testified that while the sailors were in this position the seas repeatedly buried them out of sight. That they managed to hold on was a matter of astounding surprise to the veteran surf fighters.
A third line—also a No. 9, projected by 4 ounces of powder, and sent across the schooner in the same place that the two others fell—changed the fortunes of the shipwrecked men. They had some trouble in getting the whip on board, due to the wreckage and current, but they at last succeeded in fastening both whip and hawser to the spanker stump, securing the hawser some 2 feet above the tail block. After that the rescue was only a matter of minutes. Six men in all were brought ashore, the captain being the last to leave the ship.
The rescued men, barring slight bruises, were in good shape. They were wrapped in blankets as they landed, and when the work of rescue was completed were hurried to the Paul Gamiels Hill station, where they were given restoratives and dry clothing.