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The Wreck of the Sloop Dauntless
At Chincoteague, Virginia, 1882
by George and Suzanne Hurley

Assateague Beach, Virginia
The Assateague Beach Life-Saving
Station on Assateague Island was
commissioned in 1875. This station
responded to fifteen major shipwrecks.
Photograph collection of George M. Hurley.
On February 21, 1882, the sloop Dauntless, of Chincoteague, left New Inlet, Virginia, for Chincoteague with a cargo of planting oysters. She carried three men: Captain Sewell Collins, John W. Howard, and James Taylor. Running up the coast, the vessel encountered a fresh southerly wind that prevailed all day. The survivor, John Howard, stated that the weather was so boisterous and squally that he advised Captain Collins to run into Metomkin or Gargathy Inlets for a harbor before sundown, as he feared the danger of atsiteting to enter Chincoteague Inlet after dark. When they were off Wallop's Island, soon after sunset, the storm became so violent that the deck load was washed overboard. At about the same time the strap of the jib-sheet block was carried away. After getting the sail under control, they set it "bobbed," so that the sloop was under fairly snug canvas. As she neared the outer buoy off Chincoteague Inlet, the sky became overcast by an inky cloud, which came up from the west and brought on a violent shift-off of wind from that direction. This required a dead beat to the windward to enter the harbor. The tide, however, was flood and in their favor. Howard reported that although the sloop was provided with the necessary running lights, none was used, and the only lamp lighted was a small one in the cabin.

After they made two or three tacks in the channel, the main gaff broke in two and split the sail, which very soon blew completely out of the bolt-rope. The sloop was then on the port tack and rapidly nearing the north side of the channel, where lies what is known as Fox Shoal, a spit of sand extending from the southerly end of Chincoteague Island, between Chincoteague and Assateague Inlets.

To beat in with no after sail on the vessel was impossible, and to allow the Dauntless to run before the gale seaward would be extremely dangerous, as she was poorly equipped and without the means of battening the hatches. Captain Collins quickly decided what he would do. Calling Howard to relieve him at the wheel, he ran forward and let go both anchors. The sudden jerk with which the vessel took hold was so great that Howard was pitched violently forward over the cabin and onto the hatches, where he fell on his back. He said that the sea almost "pitched-poled" the Dauntless. Upon swinging to her anchors she lay right in the breakers on Fox Shoal.

The hatches were soon washed overboard, and before long the sloop filled and sank on the shoal. The crew then took to the rigging. Taylor went up on the port side, while Collins and Howard ascended to starboard. It appears that Collins started up first, but Howard, who was the stronger and more robust of the two, passed him in the rigging and reached the masthead, while Collins remained about halfway up. Collins had the reputation of being a daring and reckless man, but the realization of his mistake in attempting the passage of the inlet in the night, and the dreadful peril in which he found himself, seemed to completely overcome him. He reproached himself, expressing regret that he had not taken Howard's advice and sought shelter in one of the other inlets before nightfall. James Taylor, a youth of only nineteen, was only halfway up the port rigging when he was washed off. He grasped a rope hanging from the broken gaff, and Howard quickly slid down and helped him back aboard the Dauntless and up into the rigging. Howard tried to persuade him to climb higher, but he was unable to do so. Captain Collins soon gave up, fell from the rigging and was washed away by the heavy seas.

The death of Collins appeared to dishearten Taylor, for he said, "Collins has gone, and I am going too." This brought Howard down again to his assistance. It was of no use, however, and Howard was compelled to ascend again for his own safety. The night was bitter cold, and it was not long before Taylor fell into the water and was swept away. Howard said that Taylor seemed fully conscious of his inability to hold on much longer, and had uttered a tender message to his father and mother, to be delivered by Howard if he survived. Taylor's death occurred shortly before nine o'clock, and from that time onward Howard's vigil was a lonely one. He perched on the lower masthead, with his arms around the topmast, and the thumping of the vessel as the more heavy seas struck her would at times almost throw him off. With the falling of the tide, however, the wreck became steady, and his position was then not so bad. His principal danger after that was of becoming so benumbed with cold as to be unable to hold on until daylight. To ward this off, he kept in motion as much as possible by beating his body with his hands.

Although these events occurred at a distance of but a little more than three miles from the Assateague Beach Life-Saving Station, until daylight the lifesaving crew knew nothing of the disaster. The extreme southerly limit of the station patrol was a mile and a half from where the wreck lay, a considerable area of shoal and broken water intervened, the night was very dark, and no signal of any kind was made from the vessel. These were good reasons why she was not seen during the night.

The sloop was discovered by Surfman Henry Birch, with the aid of a marine glass, at early dawn, and ten minutes later the surfboat was out and on its way to the beach. The wreck was reached after a hard pull of an hour and a half. Considering that it took this length of time to reach the scene, it is apparent that even at that time, with a low tide, the sea was rough.

On arriving alongside the sloop, the lifesavers found it to be practically a total wreck, with the stern gone and the hull full of water. It was beyond hope of saving, so, after satisfying themselves that there was no one on board, they pulled in to the beach. There they discovered the footprints of one person going in the direction of Chincoteague Village, about three miles distant.

Before the lifesaving boat had arrived at the wreck, the tide receded and the seas fell with it. Toward daylight Howard found he could descend from aloft without danger. On reaching the deck he spent a few moments in vigorous exercise to recover the full use of his limbs. Then, ascertaining that the water alongside was about waist-deep, he jumped over the rail and started for the shore, which he soon reached, thankful for his escape from the fate, which had overtaken Collins and Taylor. He proceeded up the inner beach as far as a fish factory, a mile or two above the inlet, where he took breakfast and borrowed a hat to replace the one he had lost. Continuing on to the village, he telegraphed the families of Collins and Taylor the sad news of the men's deaths. The lifesaving crew, after following his footprints some distance and satisfying themselves that the person who made them had reached a place of shelter, returned to the station.

A brother of Captain Collins said that the captain had been repeatedly admonished for his recklessness in running in and out of the inlets after dark, as even the most experienced boatmen and fishermen rarely atsitet such a thing unless the sea is smooth and other conditions are equally favorable. He also said he had long expected just such an accident, and was not at all surprised at it. He freely concurred in the opinion expressed by others that under the existing circumstances, it was impossible for the lifesaving patrol to have discovered the wreck during the night with nothing but the mast showing above the water. If a signal had been made as soon as the vessel anchored, it is probable that it would have been seen and that the crew of Assateague Beach Life-Saving Station would have responded by launching the boat. However, considering how quickly the two men were lost, it is doubtful if the lifesavers could have reached the wreck in time to do more than rescue Howard. Seafaring men familiar with the inlet believe that if the captain, instead of anchoring when he found his vessel unmanageable and in the breakers, had allowed her to drive well up on the shoal, the men would all have escaped.

The bodies of Collins and Taylor were not found, although search parties from the station scoured the adjacent shores daily, both inside and outside, for more than a week after the disaster. However, clothing was found that was supposed to have been worn by the lost men. This led to the conclusion that the bodies would never be recovered.

? 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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