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The Wreck of the Laura Tompkins
At Cobb's Island, Virginia, 1913
by George and Suzanne Hurley

On the morning of March 2, 1913, the two-masted schooner Laura Tompkins left Chincoteague, Virginia, bound for the sounds of North Carolina to pick up a cargo of seed oysters. She was an aged vessel, sixty-four years old. Her crew consisted of two men, Captain D. M. Merritt, who owned the vessel, and a helper, Samuel Holden. After crossing the bar at Chincoteague, Merritt laid a course which was intended to take her about three miles outside of the Cobb's Island Inlet sea buoy. The weather during the day was clear, with a moderate northwest wind that gradually increased to a fresh breeze shifting to the west in the afternoon. The course taken by the schooner was the shortest and fastest that could be taken. It was, however, not the safest.

As the wind increased during the afternoon and the Laura Tompkins gradually drew away from the shelter of the land, she began to feel the force of the heavy sea. Suddenly she was taking on water. Merritt and Holden immediately manned the pumps. Apparently the pounding of the seas on her empty hull loosened the ends of some of her bottom planks and let in a flow of water that could not be stopped. The schooner settled almost without warning, so quickly, in fact, that Merritt and Holden had to swim to reach the crosstrees of the mainmast. They watched in terror as the waves broke across the vessel.

The sun set quickly and the cold of the oncoming night set in. The siteerature stood at forty degrees, but the strong wind blowing against their wet clothing soon caused the men to suffer severely from the cold. Merritt, fortunately, had on his oilskins, but Holden had been working through the day in a light shirt and was without any coat or protective clothing. They knew that if they could last through the night that they would be discovered in the morning by the Cobb's Island life-saving crew.

Fortunately, the water in which they sank was shallow, and as the vessel rested on the bottom her mast stood several feet above the surface. The two men climbed up into the spreads of the main rigging and lashed themselves to the masthead to keep from being swept away by the seas that drenched them each time the schooner rolled. Within three hours Samuel Holden was near death and by midnight he was dead. Merritt, fearing that the weight of Holden's body on the mainmast might be the cause of himself being carried away, cut the body down and tied it lower down on the main throat halyard. Sometime during the night Holden's body was torn loose and washed away. Merritt remained in the rigging throughout the night, all of the next day and night, and until midmorning of the second day, March 4. His thoughts throughout this time were centered mainly on his failure to carry distress flags aboard the Laura Tompkins and the fact that, because of this, he might not be discovered by the lifesavers.

The schooner was observed on the afternoon of March 2 by the day watch who stood in the lookout tower atop the station house on Cobb's Island. She was seen to tack to the northward about sunset and shift her mainsail for a reefed foresail, and later to haul down her jib. Since numerous small craft plied the waters off Cobb's Island, and it was not unusual for them to alter their course, take in or make out sail, or even come to anchor for the night under the shelter of the island, there was no reason to suspect that the vessel was in trouble. She was not flying signals of distress. As darkness came she was observed still tacking northward under foresail only.

On the morning of March 3, the station watch discovered a strange-looking object ten miles to the northeast of the station. No one could identify it, but the general opinion of the lifesaving crew was that it was either a stray buoy or a portion of a naval target. The object furnished a topic of conversation for the crew throughout the day, but no one associated it with a vessel in distress. Monday passed with the nature of the object still unexplained. The curiosity aroused by it caused Keeper John R. Andrews to declare that he and the crew would go out the following morning during their weekly surfboat drill and investigates.

Early the next day, on March 4, the lifesaving crew launched the surfboat through a relatively calm surf and pulled with vigor toward the object, which lay about ten miles to the northeast. When they were within two miles of the wreck, the faces of the keeper and surfmen suddenly took on a look of disbelief and then of determination, and they pulled at the oars with renewed strength toward what they could now make out to be the hopeless wreck of a two-masted schooner.

They were aghast at the thought that they had not investigated sooner and that lives might have been lost due to this error in judgment. As they neared the schooner, they saw Merritt in the rigging. They wasted no time in bringing the surfboat alongside. Miraculously, Merritt was able to get into the surfboat without assistance, stand up all the way to the shore, and walk unassisted from the point of landing to the station. Profound apologies were extended to Merritt for the length of time he had had to stay aboard the wreck, and Merritt in turn blamed himself for not having distress flags aboard with which to let the lifesaving crew know that he was in trouble.

After a full investigation of the incident, the inspector of the U. S. Life-Saving Service for the Fifth District did not, however, place the blame on Merritt. He was also of the opinion that the lifesaving crew was in no way responsible for anything that occurred in connection with the disaster previous to the morning of March 3. He did hold, however, that the failure of Keeper Andrews to launch a boat and ascertain the nature of the mysterious object immediately upon its discovery showed a ?lack of initiative and energy strangely inconsistent with his previous good record, and entirely out of accord with a high ideal of duty.? It was known throughout the service that in situations of doubt, such as existed on this occasion, delay and inaction on the part of a keeper was regarded by the department as a grave dereliction of duty. In this instance, life had not been sacrificed through the keeper's neglect, as Holden's death had occurred during the night shortly after the sinking, but the survivor was nevertheless needlessly subjected to many hours of painful suffering.

The Department of the Treasury was in some doubt as to the manner in which Andrews? shortcoming should be dealt with. Andrews had been in the U. S. Life-Saving Service for thirty years, twelve years as a surfman and eighteen years as the keeper of the Cobb's Island Station. His record had been, until this time, without a blemish. He had been an exceptionally able officer, whose resourcefulness and courage had been tested at numerous wrecks. It was felt that all those years of blameless conduct and efficient service should not be overlooked in preparing punishment for a lapse of judgment on a single occasion.

The final conclusion reached by the Department of the Treasury was that Andrews, because of his long and faithful service, was still an asset to the U. S. Life-Saving Service. He received a severe reprimand rather than more drastic punishment, such as dismissal.

? Copyright 1984 Shipwrecks and Rescues: Along the Barrier Islands of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia by George M. and Suzanne B. Hurley. All Rights Reserved.

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