Shipwreck of the Norwegian Bark, Lena
Hog Island Station, Virginia
*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.
The second case of loss of life by shipwreck within the limits of the Service took place on the 27th of December 1884, on the southeast bar of Hog Island (Fifth District), Virginia. The vessel involved was the Norwegian bark Lena, bound from Natal, Brazil, to Philadelphia, with a cargo of sugar. She was commanded by Captain Mortenson, and had a crew of nine men. It appears from the statements of one of her sailors that she had been only about four weeks out from Natal, showing that she had made a splendid run, when, in some unexplained way, she got off her course and fell away to leeward, probably through the unsuspected strength of the current, until she brought up on the great field of shoals making out from Hog Island, where she went to pieces.
One of the patrolmen of the Hog Island Life-Saving Station, returning on his southern beat, saw the red and green lights of the vessel about a mile off shore. It was then a quarter of 4 o'clock in the morning, and he at once ran to the station, three hundred yards distant, and roused the keeper. The latter, without waiting to dress, hurried up into the lookout, and by the aid of the marine glass saw that it was a square rigged vessel heading for the shoals. He instantly ordered a Coston light to be burned. It appears by the statement of a survivor that the men on board saw the bright red glow of the danger-signal, but paid no heed to it, ignorantly supposing it some sort of a pilot signal. A few minutes after, or at 4 o'clock, the keeper saw the vessel strike heavily upon the shoals. She was then a mile or more away, and directly abreast of the station.
The keeper at once ordered out the surf boat. The night was dark and cloudy and the wind blowing moderately from the north, but the sea, which was then at quarter ebb, was extraordinary. Such a fury and confusion of surf the keeper declared he had not seen for eleven years. But this violence gave hopes that the vessel might be driven within range of the shot-line, and in fact she was already coming in, lifted and flung forward with every surge of the surf on the shoals. Convinced that these convulsive propulsions would ultimately throw her within range, the keeper and his men hastened to the station near by and soon brought down the wreck gun and its gear. The tide was meanwhile falling fast from the beach, and the apparatus was hurriedly got ready and planted at low-water mark.
All this time it had been thick and dark, but toward 7 o'clock daylight came, and showed the vessel leaping and staggering forward, like a thing maimed, in the immense area of broken foam. The gun was at once trained upon her and the first shot fired, but her great distance from shore was at once made evident, for the line fell short several hundred yards. The daylight continued to deepen, and by 8 o'clock it began to snow. A second shot was fired at the wreck, which was still jumping and crashing shoreward with fearful violence over the shoals, but the line fell short again, and a third shot likewise.
It was now about 10 o'clock. The snow had given place to rain, and though the tide was at its lowest, the sea continued appalling. The chance of reaching the vessel by boat even at the ebb was no less than desperate, but Keeper Johnson, who has had the reputation of being one of the best surfmen on the coast, and has a crew of unexcelled skill and hardihood, resolved that the effort must be made at any hazard, and the word was accordingly given to launch the surf-boat. In a moment she was in the van of the breakers, with the men tumbling in over her sides and clutching the oars, every face on fire with resolve to reach the wreck. The next instant the tussle began. In the confusion of torn waters and flying foam and spray, the boat, buried to her gunwales, would drive forward under the powerful oar strokes, and as quickly come seething backward to the beach, baffled in the effort to scale the walls of surf forever accumulating and tottering before her. For over an hour the crew toiled with almost breaking sinews, perpetually repulsed, and finally, quite exhausted, were carried at least half a mile down the beach by the current, with the boat nearly full of water. The sea was now on the flood and rising. Landing, the keeper, desperate to effect communication with the wreck, had a line fastened to a barrel, and launched the contrivance a mile up the beach, hoping that it might drift down toward the vessel. It failed, however, to get beyond the breakers. There were more than fifty persons, some of them surfmen and wreckers of long experience coming and going upon the beach all day, but none of them could suggest any method for reaching the wreck, and all concurred that the sea and surf were without any precedent in their knowledge.
As night approached the keeper built a large fire upon the beach abreast of the wreck. Many of the veteran wreckers stayed all night, to keep company with the anxious and dejected crew. An hour before midnight a fog overspread the roaring waters, and the vessel was shut off from view. At 4 o'clock in the morning (December 28) the keeper saw vaguely a dark spot on the sea through the heavy veiling of the fog. The surf-boat was at once manned and put out through the darkness, in a sea of commingled breakers and wreckage. With great effort the crew succeeded in reaching the dim mass, which had struck on the outer reef, and found that it was a fragment of the wreck composed of the cabin and stern. On it two men, still living, but more dead than alive, were lashed, and the lifeless body of the captain.
It was not without great difficulty, and only by watching their chance that the crew got the boat near enough to the plunging lump of wreck-tuff to take off the three men. Despite the utmost precautions, three holes were stove in the bottom of the surf-boat, and Surfman Tompson, in hauling the bodies in, was badly lamed by a sea striking the boat and causing him a sprained hip. It appears by the testimony of the men saved, that the wreck went to pieces about 4 o'clock in the morning. The seven men lost had been in the rigging, and were all washed overboard. An eighth, as already mentioned, the captain, died on the fragment of the wreck. The other two men, who were named Andrew Essacksen and Peter Thomsen, were hardly alive when rescued, but were at once carried to the station and soon restored. They remained at the station under succor for three days, and were then taken to the nearest railroad station by the keeper, and tickets to Philadelphia procured for them, having previously been furnished with complete outfits from the store of clothing contributed by the Women's National Relief Association. The body of the captain was decently shrouded with clothing from the same store, and buried on the island, the crew furnishing the coffin.
The full light of day showed nothing of the vessel, nor could any trace be seen of her drowned crew. A vigilant patrol was instituted and the next day (Monday, December 29) the body of the sail maker, A. Charlsen, was found tossing in the surf. It was at once recovered by the life-saving crew, prepared for burial, and interred on the island. There is no record of the finding of the other bodies.
The melancholy story of this wreck may be summed up in the statement of two facts. At no time was the bark nearer than eight hundred yards to the shore, being, therefore, out of gun range. Secondly, the efforts of the life-saving crew, though desperately and powerfully made, could not avail to drive the surf-boat through the literally over mastering sea, which prevailed on the occasion. The unhappy loss of life, which the disaster involved, was therefore inevitable.
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