Chapter 19




While on the island my friend introduced me to "the Captain’s room," one of the institutions of Nantucket.

It is a club room moored alongside the custom house, where the old captains meet morning and evening, smoke Indian pipes, talk over the affairs of the day and indulge in reminiscences of their seafaring days. The stranger, so happy as to be introduced there, hears moving tales of swift voyages, big catches, perilous adventures, storms and wrecks. Of the latter, simply to show the flavor of the place, we note a few.

"One of the strangest wrecks on the coast," remarked Captain R., "occurred before the revolution in 1774 it was. The man that told me about it, my grandfather, had clean forgotten the vessel’s names, but he remembered that they were a schooner and a sloop, and that the skippers were Peleg Swain and David Squires, two famous commanders of those days. Both vessels stood away from Sankaty together, bound on a whaling voyage to the Pacific. They were about fifteen miles off the island verging on to Great Rip, when there


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came a cry of ‘breakers ahead,’ and there, right under their bows, was a smoking surf boiling and breaking on the very spot they had sailed over in making port a month before. The tricky current in one storm had heaped up a bar there. In a moment both struck, with a shock that made their masts reel and every timber shiver. The sea was running high; notwithstanding, the sloop’s crew out with their boats and tried to carry an anchor astern, hoping by it to warp her off. The furious sea, however, dumped the anchor under her bows and swept the boat over the bar. Unable to regain the sloop, the boat made for shore, and after an exciting battle with the waves came safely into the harbor. Thirteen of the crew were left on the vessel. She broke up in a few hours, but her quarter deck floated off whole, and the thirteen climbing upon this were swept by the seas upon the sou’east shore and made their way to Sconset. Meantime, hard and fast a mile to lee’ard, was the schooner. Her crew fared worse even, for her boats were shivered at the first crash. They made a raft and tried to gain the shore. paddling with oars and pieces of wood. Nearing Sconset on the evening of the same day, they were being swept by when their shouts aroused the village and the brave fellows there went out and rescued them. Next day the owners sent out a vessel to the scene, but she couldn’t find a trace of schooner or sloop the currents had carried every bit of wreckage, even, away.



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So the owners had two fine vessels, with their outfits, worth at least $80,000, to put on the loss side of the ledger."

"Curious," said an old merchant over in the corner, "how the wrecks come in shoals. Some years scarcely any, and again scores, as was the case on December 21, 24, and 25, 1865.

First to come was the Eveline Treat, Captain Philbrook, picked up by Miacomet Rip. The life-saving men saw her, but the sea was too furious for the life-boat, so they fired a line over her bow, drew out a hawser, and started the breeches buoy. Every person came over it safely but the Captain, an old man. As he left the ship the block got jammed and refused to traverse the hawser, so that he hung over the waves a matter of an hour and a half, drenched by the spray and slowly freezing, While fifteen hundred people looked on unable to help. At last a young man of the old heroic stuff, unable longer to see a man drowning before his eyes, stepped from the crowd, threw aside coat and boots, took a knife between his teeth, knotted a light rope to his waist, and giving the free end to the bystanders, went out hand over hand along the hawser, at one moment, as the vessel rolled, held high in air, the next dipped in the raging flood, until he reached the entangled block, freed it, and with the Captain was brought safely back to land. The brave fellow Frederick W. Ramsdell received a gold medal for this act, and richly deserved it too.



Wrecks and Wrecking 

The excitement over this wreck had scarcely died out when the town was stirred by news of a schooner ashore on the West End.

It was December 24 and the thermometer six degrees below zero, yet almost everybody able-bodied streamed over the downs to the wreck. What a sight she was. From chain trucks to water line coated with ice that sparkled .n the sun like tiaras of diamonds. The Humane society’s crew was there, launched their boat and reached the wreck though the surf ran high. No one vas on board. The crew had taken to their boats and had perished in the sea. An upturned boat and a lead man under it, found later on the beach, told the story of the mariner’s fate. The next day Christmas came in with a furious sou’east gale, and at an early hour the herald sped through the town with his startling cry, "A wreck, a wreck; a big ship at Surfside!" That is on the south shore three miles from town, directly across the downs, and a boiling, seething mass of water rages there in a sou’easter we call it Neptune’s dinner pot. An appalling sight we beheld there. noble iron ship of 800 tons, held in the grip of the sands, and pounded by thundering breakers like Titanic hammers, that, striking her, spouted fifty feet in air with the shock. Masts, spars, furniture, cargo they tossed aloft as mere playthings, and as for anything human, it could not have stood the shock of those seas an instant. Every soul had vanished ere we reached



 In Olde Massachusetts

her, and there was naught to do but look on. She proved to be the Newton, Captain Herting, only thirty-six hours from New York, bound to Hamburg, Germany, with a miscellaneous cargo, the largest item being 5,000 barrels of kerosene oil. Not a soul of her crew was saved. The Humane Society’s crew found, thrown on the bluff, the body, yet warm, of her young second mate, who had just graduated with honor at the Hamburg Naval School. Of the crews of the two vessels the sea gave up fourteen, which were borne to the town and placed in the Methodist church, where funeral rites were held, the pastors of all the churches officiating. Then the unfortunates were buried in the island cemetery with due religious rites, and tidings of their sad fate and directions for reaching their graves were sent to their friends in Germany."

"You would scarcely look for anything funny in wrecks," said another, knocking the ashes from his pipe, "but now and then an incident occurs that has its humorous side. Take, for instance, the case of the good ship Nathaniel Hooper, of Boston, Capt. John Bogardus. She struck on South Shoal, off Nantucket, July 8, 1838. To lighten her the Captain threw overboard several hundred boxes of sugar between decks; but as she remained fast and was pounding heavily, he abandoned her, fearing she would go to pieces unexpectedly. The boats reached shore and Captain Bo



Wrecks and Wrecking

gardus hurried up to Boston to report her loss to the owners. ‘Why, man,’ said they, ‘you are dreaming.

•The Hooper is safe in her berth at India dock.’ Down there posted the Captain, and scarce could believe the evidence of his senses. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Yes, there was the Hooper, that he had left aground on South Shoal, with a storm coming up. Hastening back to the owners, they told him the story how the storm proved to be a heavy shower from the northwest, which blew her off the shoal; that she then drifted off toward Boston, and early next morning was fallen in with by a Gloucester fishing smack, which, scenting salvage, put two men on board, with orders to make the port of Boston. The men navigated her awhile, but finding themselves short-handed, took on three more from another smack they fell in with, and the five successfully took the ship into the harbor."

"For bravery and invention at rescue," said another old sea king from the depths of his armchair, "take the case of the fine ship Earl of Eglinton, which left Liverpool in December, 1845, bound for the East Indies via Boston, and on the 14th of March, 1846, after a bitterly stormy passage, found herself embayed in the shoals of Nantucket Sound. At once the startled mariners let go their best bower, but the vessel thumped so that the heavy cable parted and she went adrift amid thunder, lightning, and fog, until about midnight



 In Olde Massachusetts

she struck on Old Man Shoal. At three in the morning, after grinding and thumping three hours, she slipped off into deep water and was carried along by the current, between the rip and island, until daybreak, when the crew, spying a little cove near Tom Never’s Head, where the surf seemed less violent, ran her in shore until she grounded in five fathoms of water. The same moment a huge breaker came aboard, swept the deck, filled the cabins, and forced all hands into the rigging. A great crowd soon gathered on shore, almost within hailing distance, but wholly without means of rescue, the surf being too violent for the life-boat, and the Lyle gun and breeches buoy not having been invented. After awhile eight of the crew launched the life-boat and pinnace, and in them attempted to make the shore, but both boats were stove to splinters the moment they touched the surf, and their occupants drowned and pounded to death before the eyes of the horrified spectators. This drove an inventive old whaleman among them to write on a board in large letters: "Bind a line to an oar." The crew on the wreck read the message and did as directed; the surges heaved the oar landward it was caught with a bluefish drail, a hawser was then attached to the end on the wreck and drawn ashore and made fast. Next our inventor improvised a sling out of an old barnes and a bow line which would travel over the hawser, and by means of this extempore breeches buoy, all the remaining crew were rescued.



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This device led, no doubt, to the invention of the breeches buoy."

One might collect tales of wrecks as distinctive and interesting as the above sufficient to fill a volume. The whole coast of the island is lined with skeletons of wrecks, barnacled old timbers, planks, spars, bolts, and other mementoes of the sea’s treachery and fury. The fields are fenced, and the barns and outhouses covered with the spoil of wrecks. Over in "Sconset" they have a weird fancy for nailing stern planks of wrecked vessels bearing the ship’s name over the lintels of the doors as a sort of figurehead, and the cottager’s fire snaps and sparkles mainly on the drift of wrecks cast up at his door. It burns with a greenish flame, this wreck timber, and exhales a strong sea odor. A poetical friend of mine asserts that it is prolific of eldritch fancies,