200 Plus

Lifesavers Tackle Impossible Task

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 28, 2018

In early January 1903, newspapers across the nation published stories about the heroic lifesavers from U.S. Lifesaving Service station number 20 at Ship Bottom, and their daring rescue of the crew of the stranded Spanish ship Remedios Pascual. Several years, before the Camden Courier had painted a picture of winter on Long Beach Island.

“Long Beach, January 12. – To reach this dreary strip of broad beach … is a day’s journey. The beach at this time of the year is only inhabited by the vigilant but poorly paid crews of seven life-saving stations, a stray lumberman being seen once in a while. The nearest place that is inhabited is the village of West Creek, and to reach the treacherous beach one has to make the hazardous trip of seven miles across Barnegat bay in a surf boat.”

As the stories about the Pascual disappeared from the papers, the crew of the Ship Bottom station was again about to be tested. On Jan. 20, Long Beach Island was hit by a severe winter storm, and off the coast of New Jersey the barkentine Abiel Abbott was caught in its grip. The official lifesaving service report explained.

“The Abbott was 27 years old, heavily loaded with a cargo of salt in bulk, and bound from Turks Island, West Indies, to New York City. Including the master, Captain Israel B. Hawkins, she carried nine men. About 4 p.m. of January 20 the captain took note of a light-house which he erroneously supposed was Barnegat, New Jersey, but undoubtedly was Absecon, and as a result of this error he steered a course which carried him ashore.”

The captain’s mistake became apparent when “A little past 8 o’clock, while doing very well in view of the amount of sail she carried, and of the fact that she was drawing 17 feet of water the Abbott suddenly took the bottom outside the bar, and slid broadside on. The wind was from the southward and eastward, and she held fast. Sails were furled at once, signals of distress were burned.”

In an era before radar and wireless communications, members of the life saving crew on the Island would actually walk the beach in storms to the halfway point – 2½ miles – between the stations, and then back looking for ships in distress. “Almost instantly the red Coston light of the life-saving patrol answered back. As soon as the patrolman, Surfman Pharo, of the Ship Bottom Station, burned his signal he started off to alarm the crew, but as he had to travel a mile and a half in heavy sand and stormy weather, it was about 9 o’clock when he arrived. Keeper Truex at once called his crew for wreck duty, and while he telephoned to the Harvey Cedars Station on the north and the Long Beach Station on the south for assistance, the horse was harnessed to the beach cart and started up the beach with the crew.”

There was no time to waste.

“After the sails had been snugly furled, the Abbott rested comparatively easy, and the men sat down to wait for aid from the shore; but the tide was making, as well as the wind and the sea, which soon began to drive the vessel farther on the bar and caused the waves to break over the deck. This was the situation when the Ship Bottom crew reached the beach abreast of the wreck and prepared for action, all of which they accomplished in excellent time, in view of the severity of the storm, the distance, and the condition of the road.”

Leslie M. Shaw, a Treasury Department official, in a letter wrote of Truex.

“As soon as he arrived the Lyle gun was placed in action, but the first projectile did not quite reach the wreck, as stated by those on board who heard the shot fall a little short in the water, A second projectile, however, landed on board, but nevertheless they could not avail themselves of it because it fell about amidships, while the sea was so rough as to confine all hands to the extreme after part of the vessel. The whole hull save the quarter-deck was submerged and the waves were rolling deeply over it. Two more shots were fired, but the wreck could be located only by the faint glimmer of a light in the rigging, which was scarcely perceptible, and whether the projectile landed on board or not the shipwrecked men were unable to leave area of comparatively safety which still remained to them.”

Horace O. Horner had traveled up to the beach 5 miles from the Long Beach station.

“By the time we arrived at Ship Bottom they had lost sight of the ship. Before we had arrived, they had shot several lines, and after we came, two more. They failed, so we went to the Ship Bottom Station and got out the surfboat. But then it was too late to strike off for the wreck. It rained, hailed, snowed and turned into sleet all night long, the worst night I ever put in on the beach. … Our oilskins froze to our boots and we felt like icicles, cracking when we moved. All night long we tramped on the beach, fighting the cold and trying to keep from freezing.”

James Butler was the second mate on the Abbott.

“We sheltered ourselves as well as we could behind the deckhouses, but even there we were in danger of being swept overboard by the big seas that were roaring over her every minute. … The ship was breaking up fast now, bits of spars, booms and spare gear and loose planks from the deck were going overboard all the time. The stuff must have swept up to the beach and come back to us on the undertow, for every once in a while a big spar would come smashing against her lee side and help to break her up.”

Shaw continued in his letter.

“The night was so dark that only the break of waves close on shore could be seen and all the conditions were so adverse that no sane man would have attempted to launch a boat before daylight. So, the survivors testify, was their opinion although they devoutly prayed for assistance. Under these circumstances you and your comrades of the three crews now assembled were obliged to wait and fret inactive on the beach until there should be sufficient light to justify an attempt to push out into the heavy breakers among the dangerous masses of wreckage which already encumbered the water.

“Between 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning the main mast fell but hung alongside for an hour or more. Then the foremast fell but hung alongside for an hour or more. Then the fore and mizzen masts also gave way.”

Butler remembered on board the Abbott, “After the mizzenmast went by the board and the main was beginning to weaken Capt. Hawkins saw that the ship would soon begin to break up. So, he ordered us to lash ourselves to the cabin hatch. We passed a spare main sheet around the uprights at the corners of the hatch, taking several turns around each one, and then passed the ends of the sheet down through the galley hole and made them fast to rings in the lower side of the hatch.

“Every one of us hitched a line around his body and made it fast to the main sheet on the weather side. We were all dressed in the warmest we could put on and over that our sou’westers and suits of oilskins. We wore rubber boots.”

Less than three weeks before, the Long Beach lifesavers had been called heroes. If they were able to do it again, they would become legends.

Next Week: A dark and stormy night.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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