The Human Face of Shipwrecks -June 2008

An excerpt from “Throw Out The Lifeline,” by John Stanton, due out late this summer.

“Throw out the lifeline across the dark wave.
There is a brother whom someone should save.
Oh, Who then will dare, to throw out the lifeline
His peril to share?” 
– A Baptist hymn written by Rev. E.S. Ufford, after reading about the wreck of the schooner W.T. Witherspoon, in January 1886.

The list of ships and shoals, the home ports and ports of call, the names of captains and of Nantucket wreckers included in Arthur H. Gardner’s book “Wrecks Around Nantucket,” has a sense of nautical propriety to it. 

It marks the coming and going, and sometimes the fate, of vessels in the gray language of longitude and latitude. It is the plains-poken tally of what happened, to whom, and how the tide was running.

Gardner made it clear in the introduction to his 1915 version of the book he originally compiled in 1877 exactly what kind of prose it would be: “The compilation of this work had called for patient and careful research, rather then literary effort.”

He went on to say that his books were “a chronological effort of a single line of events.”

Sometimes, however, a bit of literary effort is needed to make things more clear, the marshaling of hard facts into a narrative that breathes some life into the past. Here is what it felt like to actually be in the middle of a shipwreck:

“In attempting to clear away the long boat, a sea struck her, and washed him away; he clung to her and in a very short time found himself on the shore. After reaching the shore he heard the dying shrieks of the crew. The arm of one of the men, lashed to a piece of the quarter rail, had drifted ashore and the beach was strewn with fragments of the vessel.”

That description comes from a story in the Republican Herald newspaper, of Providence, Rhode Island, on Saturday, Dec. 15, 1828. The man who washed ashore was the first mate, and the only survivor of the brigPacket, which had left St. Petersburg for Providence with a cargo of hemp and iron. They never made it. The ship was cast ashore near Miacomet Pond and immediately broke into pieces.

Burdeck Berry, from Bristol, Connecticut and mate of the three-masted schooner T.B. Witherspoon, also described the terror and horrible loss of shipwrecks, especially ones cursed with the irony of being lost so close to shore. He had taken his wife and 6-year-old son with him on the ship and was below deck when the vessel ran hard aground on the Miacomet Rip just off the beach on the south shore in the teeth of a howling gale. He later described this scene to a newspaper reporter, likely Edouard Stackpole during his time at The Inquirer and Mirror.

“The cold told upon my wife and boy rapidly. The steward tried to help me but he was not used to such cold, and early in the forenoon he succumbed. The cabin was full of water and the furniture and doors were floating about in the greatest confusion, and each succeeding sea would dash them about in a manner that threatened to injure us all, so I put my dear little boy on a wash stand, secured my wife and then standing in the waist-deep water kept back the floating stuff as well as I could.”

“My poor wife soon felt the effects of the water as it dashed over us, as did my little boy who was crying bitterly all the while . . . she kissed me goodbye and in about five minutes expired. Her face had been somewhat bruised by the debris, but I did what I could to protect her remains.”

“Then I looked after my boy, who clung tenaciously about my neck crying, ‘Oh, Papa, won’t God save us?’ The brave little fellow soon chilled and drowned as had his mother.”

The mate then ran up onto the deck, determined to commit suicide by letting himself be washed overboard. Once he was on the deck, however, his training and sense of duty took over and he began to help the crew hang on until rescuers arrived.

Even today, there is nothing like being on this little island when it is being hammered by a storm, when the weather determines the pace of daily life. The T.B. Witherspoon had the bad luck to be heading past Nantucket on one of those nights that can only be described by the weather. Even in town the storm had been on everyone’s mind on the night of Jan. 8, 1886. A gale raked the island with gusts of wind high enough that people couldn’t sleep, thinking that there might be a fire. Some even pulled themselves out of relatively warm beds, dressed and headed to the street to join the night watch. The next morning there was a small break in the weather. The steamer Island Home tried to make a run to the mainland, but was forced to turn back. The weather only got worse as the day wore on. The wind stayed constant and the snow was now a solid wall of white. 

The T.B. Witherspoon found herself in the teeth of that storm. She was a three-masted schooner heading to Boston from Surinam, with a load of sugar, molasses, cocoa, limes and spices. A wind from the east-northeast forced Captain O.H. Anderson to order all sails taken in and by midnight he was being pushed along by the storm under bare poles.

Through the snow squalls Captain Anderson and his first mate both saw the timed flash of a lighthouse. They decided it must be Montauk Light. It was not. They made a course that might have been appropriate if, indeed, the light was Montauk and not Sankaty. But soon a lookout called out that he could see breakers and the crew began furiously trying to work through the ice on the sails and ropes to turn the ship offshore. Moments later the schooner pounded into the sandbars of the Miacomet Rip and came to a crashing halt.

Sunday morning had not yet dawned as the T.B. Witherspoon sat helpless in the snow and frigid temperatures, just 100 yards from shore near Little Mioxes Pond, battered by the high winds and rough seas.

At six o’clock that morning a police officer on patrol spotted the ship and made his way to the Surfside station of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. A rescue team using a mortar gun tried three times to send a line out to the boat. All three times it failed. The first man to been seen from the shore falling to his death was a sailor named Jack Mattis, who plunged into the ocean while trying to secure one of the rescue lines.

By now the men on the ship were freezing and losing their strength. Three who had climbed into the mizzen rigging lost their grip and all fell into the sea, as a crowd that had gathered watched helplessly from the shore.

A crew tried to get a rescue boat belonging to the Massachusetts Humane Society into the water, but the surf was so rough they had to turn back. In the afternoon the rescue crew was finally able to fire a line across the ship’s bow and secure it to the rigging. Berry and Charles Wuff, of Boston, were the only two men left alive on the ship, out of a crew of seven plus Berry’s wife and son. They were finally brought to safety on the beach by a breeches buoy. 

The Rev. Edward S. Ufford wrote the Baptist hymn “Throw Out The Lifeline,” for his Westwood, Massachusetts congregation after he read about the wreck in The Boston Globe. The harrowing final days of the ship and her crew now stood as a metaphor for offering a helping hand to those whose souls were in need. Being a preacher, Ufford painted the scene on the beach that day with biblical imagery: 

“Winds of temptation and billows of woe. 

Will soon hurl them out, where the dark waters flow.”

Throw out the life-line with hands quick and strong.

Why do you tarry? Why linger so long?

See, he is sinking, oh, hasten today.

And out with the lifeboats, away, then, away!”

In the days that followed the rescue, the ocean pounded what was left of the T.B. Witherspoon into pieces. Six of the bodies were recovered. Berry’s wife and son, along with Anderson’s, washed up onto the beach. One crewman was found by a wrecking crew that boarded the ship the next day, encased in ice and still lashed to the rigging. 

Every shipwreck, of course, is about loss and recovery of a different kind as well. Eventually the hull of theT.B. Witherspoon sold at auction for $55 and other pieces of the ship and cargo that washed up on the beach were sold for $225.

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