Skip to content

THE SURFMEN OF THE OUTER BANKS

August 8, 2020

I have the privilege of leading a book club at First Presbyterian Church on the first Tuesday of each month, September through June. The club was begun by Dr. Bill Arthur, beloved pastor and teacher. Upon Bill’s death, I was invited to become the convenor of the group, and what an amazing group of people we have!

Some have thought that because the book club meets at First Presbyterian Church, we read only books that are distinctly Christian. Others have considered the club to be for First Presbyterian members only. Neither assumption is correct. The book club is open to anyone who would like to join us. Bill Arthur used to say, “You don’t even have to read the books.”  But it helps.

The club selects the books to be read. Our discussions are always lively and informative.

In 2018, we read Isaac’s Storm:A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson. The book is carefully researched.  It is a well-written account of the great Galveston hurricane of September 8, 1900. Even Isaac Cline, the resident meteorologist for the United States Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the Texas town that morning. Later that day, Galveston was lashed by a monster hurricane that destroyed the city and killed over six thousand people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history.

In 2020 the first storm, Arthur, brought an early beginning to the official hurricane season. It became a tropical storm on May 16, followed by Bertha on May 27.  The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is the first on record in which nine tropical storms formed before August 1. Hanna, the season’s first hurricane, made landfall in South Texas as a Category 1 hurricane on July 25, leaving at least $500 million in damage.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, officials in the United States have expressed concerns that the hurricane season will potentially exacerbate the effects of the outbreak. Even as I write these words, tropical storm Isaias has become a category 1 hurricane and is making landfall near the South Carolina – North Carolina border. It is forecast to affect the entire East Coast of the United States from Florida to Maine.

Looking ahead, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe that the hurricane outlook for the 2020 season will be above average with eighteen named storms. Keeping that in mind, I reflect on the courageous surfmen of the Outer Banks.

The treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean along the Outer Banks of North Carolina are referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.  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 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 3,000 vessels have sunk in these waters since the keeping of records began. The earliest was a Spanish ship in 1526 at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Before the United States Lifesaving Service was established, the people of the Outer Banks felt compelled to organize lifesaving stations in order to respond to shipping disasters.  These stations operated much as volunteer fire departments function now. Islanders were trained as surfmen to 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 that cargo was 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 surfmen 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 entirely 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 surfman 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, 1899.  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 others 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, the barkentine Priscilla. She was wrecked on the shoals 100 yards from the beach. The vessel was beginning to break up.  Rasmus and Gilbert 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. He went back through the raging sea to rescue the baby’s mother.

Eight 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 surfman on horseback saved ten people 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 appropriately called the “Sailor’s Hymn.”  The Coast Guard uses it as well.  The British poet William Whiting‎ wrote the lyrics in 1860. The music by John Dykes‎ was added in 1861. 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.

By the way, The National Hurricane Center releases the names to be used for hurricanes each year.  In 2018, eleventh on the list was Hurricane Kirk.  Kirk never actually became a hurricane. Kirk was a tropical storm full of hot air that blew itself out over the Caribbean. Sounds about right!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Comments are closed.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: