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The Surf Men of the Outer Banks

June 22, 2009

The Graveyard of the Atlantic refers to the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean along the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Here the cold waters of the Labrador Current collide with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The confluence creates Diamond Shoals, a series of sandbars that extends out into the sea off of Cape Hatteras.

The resulting hazards have caused the loss of thousands of ships and an untold number of human lives. More than 2,000 vessels have sunk in these waters since record keeping began in 1526.

Before the United States Lifesaving Service, the people of the Outer Banks felt compelled to organize lifesaving stations to respond to shipping disasters.  These stations operated much like volunteer fire departments function now. Islanders were trained as surf men respond to sailors in peril at sea.

I have enjoyed visiting the Lifesaving Station at Chicamicomico. Built in 1878, the old structure is a symbol of the heroic lore of the Outer Banks. Seven such stations became part of the United States Lifesaving Service, formed in 1848.

It was in December of 1884 that a shipwreck on Diamond Shoals gave the courageous men of the United States Lifesaving Service what many consider to be their most severe test.

A merchant ship named the Ephraim Williams, her decks loaded with lumber, was traveling north past Cape Hatteras.  Through his massive telescope, Captain Benjamin Daley, keeper of the Cape Hatteras Lifesaving Station, could see the ship five miles out to sea. 

By the morning of December 21, the temperature had dropped to 23 degrees.  A gale was blowing, and sleet was falling.  The ship was laboring against the wind and the sea.

A beach patrol reported cargo washing ashore.  The six-man crew of the ship sent a signal of distress.  Captain Pat Ethridge brought his crew from the Creeds Hill Lifesaving Station six miles away and joined the Hatteras crew four miles north of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 

Four strong oarsmen were selected to accompany Captain Daley and Captain Ethridge into the Atlantic.  They rowed five miles to the schooner.  In surging waves awash with floating timber, they hauled all six crew members of the Ephraim Williams into their boat and rowed the five miles back to shore. 

His hands were so swollen and blistered by the ordeal that it was nine days before Captain Daley could write his report.  These six surf men were the first to be given the Congressional Medal of Honor for Lifesaving.

Less than five years after the rescue of the Ephraim Williams crew, the most devastating hurricane in memory hit the Outer Banks.  The three-day hurricane began on August 16, 1899, packing winds of 150 miles an hour.  During those three days fifteen vessels wrecked between Oregon Inlet and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 

The islands of the Outer Banks were almost completely under water.  Among the islanders themselves, there was no loss of life.  Every man in the lifesaving service was doing round-the-clock duty.  It was this storm that presented the occasion for another surf man to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for Lifesaving because of his single-handed heroics.

Rasmus Midgett was working alone at the Gull Shoal Lifesaving Station on the morning of August 18.  He and his horse, Gilbert, patrolled the beach. 

Two miles south of the lifesaving station, Midgett thought he heard a human voice above the roar of the wind and the surf.  He inclined his ear toward the dark ocean and heard the unmistakable cry of a woman.  There were no other surf men at the station, nor was there any equipment left.  All boats and supplies had been dispatched to the scenes of other wrecks. 

Rasmus Midgett and his horse, Gilbert, did not hesitate.  They turned and headed into the sea.  In the dawn of the August morning, he could barely make out the form of the three-masted ship Priscilla. She was wrecked on the shoals 100 yards from the beach. The vessel was beginning to break up.  Gilbert and Rasmus toiled toward the distressed ship. 

Coming alongside, Midgett could see a woman on the deck.  He shouted to her encouraging her to jump to the horse.  Instead she handed her child over the ship’s railing.  Midgett tucked the boy under his arm and struggled to the shore placing the toddler high on the beach. 

Nine more times Rasmus turned back into the teeth of the gale, riding Gilbert through the tide. Each time he brought another of the shipwreck victims ashore.  The lone surf man on horseback saved nine from the sea.

In 1915, the United States Lifesaving Service became the United States Coast Guard.  When President Woodrow Wilson signed the Act to Create the Coast Guard, there was a network of more than 270 stations covering the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes.

The hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” is often referred to as the “Navy Hymn.”  It is more properly called the “Sailor’s Hymn.”  The Coast Guard uses it as well.  The words to the song express the prayer of all those who know the sea.

           

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2009
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