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  Bob Brooke Communications

by Bob Brooke

Through dramatic historical narrative, this book brings to life 25 tales of shipwrecks along the coast of North Carolina's Outer Banks. 




(Richard S. Spofford - 1894)

Roger Hawes had faith. Perhaps not in the Almighty but faith in the world around him. But some people are just too trusting. Hawes was one of those people. But he trusted the wrong things at the wrong times. He was also the captain of the three-masted centerboard schooner Richard S. Spofford, sailing out of Boston.

It was a week or so before Christmas in 1894, and the loading of the stone ballast in the hold of the 488-ton Spofford had just been completed. With all hands onboard, the captain gave the order to set sail for Darien, Georgia.

The schooner sailed along using every breath of wind, her bow slicing the sea as she made her way south. By the day after Christmas, the ship had sailed passed Cape Hatteras. The wind from the southeast had begun to blow harder. Captain Hawes assumed it would shift to a westwardly flow and decided to sail in closer to shore so that his ship wouldn’t be blown into the Gulf Stream where he might possibly lose control.

The wind reached gale force and shifted to the west just as he predicted. It blew so strongly that Captain Hawes couldn’t turn the Spofford about on the offshore tack for fear of losing his mainsail. So he kept his ship as she was, confident that he could reach the sheltered area on the other side of Cape Lookout and anchor there until the storm blew over. Having made the decision to do so, he trusted that it was the right one.

To reduce sideways movement, Hawes ordered the Spofford’s centerboard be lowered through her keel. With that done, she drew only 20 feet of water. However, the trusting captain ordered no soundings taken throughout that afternoon and evening. So confident was Hawes that he went to bed as usual and slept until 3:00 A.M., when a premonition of danger woke him. He decided that perhaps he should check the depth of the water. But he was too late.

Instead of being a few miles east of Cape Lookout, the ship was actually only a few miles west of Cape Hatteras. There, Hawes found only shoals and reefs and breakers at the entrance to Ocracoke Inlet, and no deep water or protection from the wind.

The ship bumped along from shoal to shoal in the pitch blackness, tossing the captain and crew about like rag dolls. Finally, the Spofford’s centerboard became wedged in the sand, acting like a pivot on which she swung back and forth. The heavy surf soon drove her around broadside, pulling the centerboard violently from the hull. The ship then drifted over the outer bar into calmer water on the other side. "Drop anchors," Captain Hawes shouted, "before she drifts further." The seven crewmen hurriedly dropped both anchors, but the current and wave action dragged the ship closer to shore. She finally came to rest on the inner bar about 300 yards from the beach. Opposite lay the sleepy Outer Banks village of Ocracoke, North Carolina.

The next morning, several people from the village gathered on the beach, gazing out at the stranded ship. They just stood there and watched, making no effort to rescue the crew, for they didn’t have any lifesaving equipment. Neither did they attempt to notify either the lifesaving station located 14 miles away on the east end of Ocracoke Island or a second one across the Hatteras Inlet at Portsmouth.

Seeing that the people standing on the beach weren’t going to help them, the crew of the Spofford realized that their lives were completely in their own hands. Storm-driven waves continued to pound the ship, by now half under water. Just before noon, five crew members launched the schooner's yawl and headed for the beach, leaving Captain Hawes, the steward, and a third crewman on board. But the waves were so rough that the yawl turned over almost as soon as it cleared the ship. Each of the men in it grabbed whatever he could find to hang on to and road the swells to the inner breakers where the villages rescued them.

Earlier in the day, Keeper F. G. Terrell of the Portsmouth Station saw the Spofford, but he couldn’t tell if she were in danger. He decided to gather whatever volunteers he could and started across the inlet in an old rowboat. Unfortunately, Terrell had little equipment to work with since his station was new and not completely equipped. When he reached the scene of the shipwreck, he sent word to the lifesaving station on Ocracoke Island. He tried to muster a crew to row out to the wreck in the ship’s yawl, but no one volunteered. The Ocracoke lifesavers arrived at 8:00 P.M.. By that time, the captain, steward, and the third crewman had sought refuge on the schooner’s bowsprit, the only part of the wreck where they could be clear of the breakers. Huddled together, they clung to the bowsprit throughout that cold December night.

The lifesavers from Ocracoke station had to wait until dawn to attempt a rescue. Because of the darkness, it was difficult to see the ship to shoot a line out to it with the Lyle gun. As soon as the first rays of sunlight poked above the horizon, Terrell shot a line over to the ship. Captain Hawes secured it to the mast and shortly thereafter, he found himself being hauled ashore in the breeches buoy. The other crewman soon followed. Unfortunately, the steward, suffering from previous injuries and the numbing cold, had died, his body still lashed to the rigging.

Because of the wet and cold and the 14-mile walk back to their station, the feet of the Ocracoke lifesavers swelled so much that they couldn’t get their boots back on for two days. As soon as the weather had cleared, several of the villages rowed out to the wreck and removed the steward’s dead body, the ship’s furniture, and what remained of the rigging, which Captain Hawes sold on the beach before leaving Ocracoke, a disillusioned, despondent, and much less trusting man than before.

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