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They clung to the wrecked ship’s rigging for 12 hours in the storm

Lewes Lifesaving Station, Lewes, DE

Its crew had to deal with one of the most ferocious storms of the 19th century. The Lewes Station, built by the United States Life-Saving Service in 1884, was the fourth of six stations in Delaware. The post, shown above on a stormy day, was equipped with two Monomoy surfboats, a life-car, a beach cart, and a Lyle gun/breeches buoy rig. Station crews, known as ‘surfmen,’ used the breeches buoy as a last-ditch effort to rescue mariners when ship decks were too dangerous for surfboats to board. A howling winter gale in 1888 very nearly killed the  Lewes Station surfmen trying to secure a buoy to the shipwrecked schooner Allie H. Belden. Listen, as they narrate the horrors they faced that day…

“Shortly before midnight of March 11th,” begins the official report in the US Lifesaving Service 1888 Annual Report, “the wind, which had been fresh from the southeast, all at once veered, without warning, to the northwest, and accompanied by rain, sleet and snow, blew with hurricane force. The waters were stirred into turbulence and uproar, which with the raging storm driving through the pitchy darkness of the night was enough to appall the stoutest heart.

“As soon as day began to break on the morning of the 12th the keeper of the Lewes Station mustered his crew and made an attempt to reach the beach, knowing full well that the services of his men would be needed. 

“The force of the gale was so great, however, that the sand and sleet whirling in their faces so cut and buffeted them that they were prostrated one by one upon the ground, and were obliged to crawl on their hands and knees back to the station. 

“Half an hour later the weather lulled somewhat, the snow temporarily ceasing so that surrounding objects could be seen, and the surfmen again set forth, their attention being directed to the schooner Allie H. Belden, fast aground a few hundred yards off shore, the sea making a clean breach over her, and her crew clinging to the rigging. 

A breeches buoy in use.

“Steps were at once taken for the rescue of her imperiled people. The beach-apparatus [breeches buoy] was placed in position and, notwithstanding the fury of the gale, the line at the first fire was landed over the vessel within reach of the captain, but the wind was so furious that he was unable to hold it, and it was blown adrift. 

“It was then hauled ashore, a dry one substituted, and this was thrown across the jib-boom, but the sailors being aloft in the rigging and the sea breaking heavily over the hull, they could not get to it, and it was finally washed off. 

“Another line was then got ready, but at this stage a thick snow squall set in and the seas again flying over the beach, the line became wet and froze stiff. On being fired it parted, and two further attempts to communicate with the schooner likewise failed. 

“It now became evident that the vessel’s crew could only be saved by means of a boat, though the prospect of launching and forcing one through the tremendous surf was anything but encouraging, and could not possibly have been accomplished by the station men unaided when they first arrived on the scene. 

“But by that time many people had assembled on the beach willing and eager to lend their services. The surfmen, assisted by a strong force of men, procured the self-bailing surfboat. They pushed off, but within some fifty yards of the Belden, their boat struck the bar, where the seas instantly boarded it, and they were thrown back to the starting point. 

“The station crew, assisted by two volunteers, then took their boat, waded with it well to windward, and by a desperate struggle managed to get safely away from the beach. But the men were so exhausted by their efforts that the boat had to be brought to an anchor to allow them time to somewhat regain their strength. 

“By alternately rowing and anchoring, and thus holding onto every inch that was made, the lifesavers by the most desperate work at last got alongside the wreck. This was at half past 2 in the afternoon, nine hours from the time the efforts of rescue began. 

“They took from the rigging in a nearly exhausted condition the captain, mate and two seamen, who clung to the shrouds for twelve hours. Two of the schooner’s crew had some time before succumbed to the exposure and cold, and fallen overboard. 

“The rescued, all of whom were more or less frostbitten, were speedily conveyed to the station, where Dr. Hall, of Lewes, who had generously placed his services at the disposal of the keeper, did everything in his power to alleviate their condition.”

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