Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum
Shipwreck of the Schooner, Jessie Martin
by Suzanne Hurley
From the 1883 Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service

Grand Haven Station, Michigan

Edited by the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.

On November 30, 1882, another life was lost a mile from the Grand Haven Station, Lake Michigan, incidental to an atsitet to get off the stranded schooner Jessie Martin. The vessel belonged at Muskegon, Michigan, and on the night of November 23 she ran ashore in a heavy westerly gale on the south side of the piers at Grand Haven. The damage she sustained by this casualty was not serious, and her owner contracted with Mr. John Dibble, of Muskegon, to get her afloat and have her towed into harbor. She had two holes in her starboard bow one, above water, which was easily stopped from the outside; the other below water, about eight inches in diameter, which could not be got at by the diver, and which was therefore plugged from the inside with a stuffing of gunny bags, held in place by wooden braces from the deck beams. The vessel was then pumped free, and on the morning of November 30, all preparations being completed, the tug W. Batcheller, made fast to her by a line about seven hundred feet long. The weather was cloudy and freezing cold, a southwest gale was blowing at the rate of thirty miles an hour, and a stormy sea was running in great waves, throwing showers of spray upon the schooner, which accumulated upon her hull, spars, and rigging in rough sheaths of ice. On board was Mr. Dibble, the contractor, a one-armed man, heavily dressed against the weather, and wearing long boots, and there were also six men whom he had employed to prepare the vessel for being pulled off, and who were also well swathed up in storm-proof clothing.

About 10 o clock the tug, then lying abreast of the south pier, steamed away, the tow-line tautened, and the schooner came off the beach with a plunge, and seemed to stand on end between the seas, the water meanwhile bursting upward and madly sheeting all over her. The next instant she plunged downward, covered with foam and spray, then mounted again bow up, as though she were going to leave the sea, the breakers still scattering over her, and continued her progress in this way under the strain of the tow-line, striking the bottom so heavily with each descent as to jar all her timbers, and make the men on board afraid that her masts would be un-stepped and thrown out of her. Before long, as she got into deeper water, the pounding ceased, and she began to labor heavily, falling off sluggishly into the vast troughs of the sea, as though water-logged. Probably the violent pounding with which she began her course displaced the gunny-bag packing in the hole in her hull, letting the sea stream in, and it is also likely that with the torrents constantly bursting over her she took in water at her hatches, which were on but not fastened down as they should have been. She continued to move forward, wallowing more and more inertly, until the tug had gone about half a mile beyond the pier end and had swept around in a great circle to enter the piers. The schooner had now, following the same curve, swung around broadside to the sea, and as the tug made for the entrance began to feel the tow-line pulling on her starboard bow to bring her head around. What ensued was as speedy as awful. The wretched vessel, lolling in the trough of the sea, so full of water as to be without buoyancy, pushed by the gale upon her port side and pulled by the tow-line upon the other, instead of coming around under the strain, was simply dragged down and rolled over like a log to starboard, settling upon her bulwarks until her masts lay in the water. As she toppled, the sea burst all over her hull in a furious cascade, and her hatches fell off and floated away. The men on board as she capsized scattered out into her rigging in a wild scramble for their lives. Encumbered by their clothing, their struggles on an overturning ship, in the whirl of dying water, were of necessity terrible. Three reached the main shrouds, two got to the fore cross-trees, and one to the main. The remaining man, Mr. Dibble, had been in the passageway alongside the cabin on the starboard side, and the men in the shrouds could see him, near the surface of the water in that region, vainly trying to climb on to the main boom. As he had but one arm, and was hampered by the abundance of his clothing, his efforts were ineffectual. For a short time he moaned and struggled in the water, but gradually the sounds and motions ceased, and he slowly drowned. Meanwhile the prostrate wreck, with the men clinging to her shrouds and cross-trees, was leaping and floundering, still sluggishly advancing in the tow of the tug, which was endeavoring to get her inside the piers, where there was still water.

Keeper John DeYoung was at the Grand Haven Station, some distance away, watching from the doorway the operations of the tug from the beginning. His crew were in the house, with the exception of one man out on patrol on the north pier. The moment the schooner capsized he sprang back shouting to the crew to launch the boat. The station is on the edge of the pier, and with one rush the men poured oat, shoved the boat into the water, and tumbled in with alacrity. The tug Johnson was lying near the station, and at once took them in tow, giving them an opportunity to put on their cork jackets, which in their haste they had neglected to don. After towing them about half way down the piers the tug cast oft; and the men seized the oars and pulled out, meeting the W. Batcheller outside of the ends of the piers, still towing the wreck in, her steam whistle meanwhile screeching an alarm. They rowed on and soon reached the capsized schooner. A more exciting spectacle could hardly have been encountered. The vessel lay on her side, jumping about like a living thing in the huge wash of the seas, with her masts submerged. Two drenched and streaming figures, waist-deep in the water, clung to the fore cross-trees, one horn of which bobbed around above the surface. Another similar figure was holding on at the main cross-trees. Three others, limp and inert, were hanging in the main shrouds, dipped and thrashed about continually; and most of the time under water. The body of the contractor was in the sea, beneath the mainsail, and not visible.

The keeper speedily made up his mind that the two men on the fore cross-trees were in the most dangerous position, as a gaff or boom was flailing around them with every leap of the hull. Accordingly he steered the boat's bow up to them, the crew cautiously oaring in. The rigging of the wreck was beneath them, and every time the seas fell they could feel it press and scrape against the boat's bottom. As soon as they got within reach the forward men seized the two sufferers, one by one, and dragged them on board. The boat fell away.

The two men rescued, unmanned by fright and suffering, and fearful that the boat would be capsized in the raging sea., begged the keeper to put them on shore at once, but he told them that he would first save every one on the wreck or perish, and bidding them stow close and keep still, ordered the boat pulled around the schooner's bow, which was under water, as well as the tow-line, and dropping back on the windward side, abreast of the main rigging, took a momentary survey of the situation. In a moment he sang out to the man in the main crosstrees that he was going to take off the three men in the main shrouds first, as they were in the most danger, to which the man assented. A scene of terrible gallantry now followed. The keeper ordered the man in the bow to throw the boat s painter to the three men in the shrouds, but as the rope fell upon one man inert and the other two apparently dead, it was drawn back, and the effort to attach the boat to the wreck was renewed with the small grapnel. The grapnel, however, could not be made to hold, and the bold surfmen now tried to attach the boat to the rigging by the boat-hooks. Despite the convulsive tumbling of the water, they succeeded for a minute in keeping alongside, and dragged one of the three men aboard over the bow. The next instant a huge sea swept them on top of the wreck, the boat-hooks scattering from the surfmen's hands and getting lost. Another big sea followed and swept them off, carrying them swiftly astern of the wreck a boat's length. In a second the oars were out and the men again pulled up alongside. The solitary man in the main cross-trees had meanwhile worked his way along the rigging, and was dragged aboard instantly. Then came a third enormous wave, which washed all over the wreck, and buried one of the two men clinging to the shrouds under water. The keeper could just see his head upon the surface, and fearful that he was going to lose him, shouted to his men to jump and save him. Surfman Paul Vandenburg at once sprang into the flood, but caught his foot in the wreck as he went and pitched over to leeward, coming up again quickly, floated by his cork jacket. Surfmen Van Toll and Fisher followed him in the jump for the wreck, clutched the submerged man and hauled him by main strength above water, themselves holding by the rigging. They then helped their comrade, Vandenburg, to regain his place in the boat, which he effected with the loss of one rubber boot, his foot having been tangled up in the sunken shrouds.

The fearful excitement of the scene continued in the effort to get the two half-drowned and perishing men on board the surf-boat. Words can hardly describe the difficulties aud perils involved in the task. Both of the men were unconscious, half sustained by being enmeshed in the rigging and half by Surfmen Van Toll and Fisher, who held by the shrouds, waist deep in the water, and buoyed up by their cork jackets, waiting their chance to heave the dead weight in their hands into the surfboat. This chance depended on the boat getting fairly alongside between the seas no safe nor easy matter, as she followed a vessel steadily receding under tow toward the harbor and bounding from side to side like a wounded whale with every wash of the furious. waves. It was only wary maneuvering that kept her from being at any moment flung into the air by collision with the wreck or stove to finders. Every other minute the torn waters yawned in troughs, into which she dropped to rise the next instant, quivering and leaping on the summit of the curling ridges. The keeper and two surfmen worked her by the oars, while the two others on board were kept steadily bailing, the strong wind keeping her, nevertheless, half-full with the spray it showered over her. So great was the peril that the rescued men on board, expecting every moment to be capsized, thought they would be safer on the wreck, and one man even wanted to get overboard and lash himself to the half-sunk rigging. It was under these conditions that the desperate toil of the rescue was conducted, and it was fully half an hour before the two drenched and inanimate figures were got into the boat. Surfmen Van Toll and Fisher then clambered in out of the water and the surfboat shoved off and made for the harbor.

Keeper Do Young's greatest fear now was that the unconscious might never revive, and the moment the station was reached they were taken up-stairs and stripped and put to bed, as were all the others. The man who had been longest under water the keeper at once laid down and practiced on him the method of resuscitating the apparently drowned. It was half an hour before he showed any signs of life and about an hour before he came to. "He was just like a chunk of ice, he was so cold," said the keeper in his deposition. As soon as he became conscious brandy was given him, and for three hours he was swathed in hot flannels and vigorously rubbed with them by the keeper and his men. Finally he was left between hot blankets, and in about five hours was himself again. Of the other men two were insensible, but were revived without great effort by the rubbing of the life-saving crew an the administration of cordials. There was not at the time any change of clothing at the station, and the six men were kept in bed until their clothes were dried. As for the life-saving crew, they were drenched and performed their ministrations in the wettest of wet habiliments.

The keeper did not learn of Mr. Dibble's death until after he had left the wreck, and as soon as he was assured of the revival of the man who had been so nearly drowned, and within an hour after the arrival at the station, he had an old metallic boat launched and rowed out with four men to the wreck, which was then lying in the still water abreast of the station. The body of the unfortunate man was found under water, beneath the mainsail, held by a turn of the peak-halyards around one leg. He had been thus submerged for over two hours, and was of course lifeless. It is plain that under the circumstances of the catastrophe nothing could have been done to save him.