The following story is based on the Wreck Report submitted by Keeper James W. Howard of the US Life-Saving Service about the wreck of the Richard S. Spofford on Thursday, Dec. 27, 1894.

(Quotations from the Wreck Report in the following story are edited for spelling and ease of reading. A full transcript, with original spelling and punctuation, follows the story.)

On December 22, 1894, the three-masted schooner, Richard S. Spofford, set sail from Boston, Massachusetts bound for Darien. Georgia. Four days later, off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Spofford encountered gale force winds and extremely rough seas. The schooner, under the command of R. S. Hawes, was struggling to remain on course as the winds continued to rage. Captain Hawes feared “loosing the mainsail” on an “offshore track” so he reduced sails and hugged the coast. It was a tragic error. In the early morning hours of December 27, the Spofford ran aground on the outer bar about 800 yards off the Ocracoke beach.  Although the Spofford was within sight of the village, she was fourteen miles from the Ocracoke Life-Saving Station at Hatteras Inlet.

Fortunately for Captain Hawes and his crew, Keeper Ferdinand G. Terrell, the newly-appointed keeper of the yet-to-be-manned Portsmouth Island Life-Saving Station, just a few miles across Ocracoke Inlet, had stepped into the station’s cupola at daybreak. He immediately spied the Spofford lying disabled with distress signals flying from the top mast.  In spite of not having a trained and seasoned crew, Keeper Terrell was successful in recruiting six local men to launch the surfboat and proceed toward Ocracoke. They arrived at the village at 11 am, and tried to recruit more volunteers to attempt a rescue. By this time the surf was “very high” and “breaking all over the schooner.”  The unequipped islanders understood the foolhardy nature of such an attempt and refused to participate.

The Spofford was manned by seven sailors in addition to the captain. Fearing that help was not forthcoming, around noon five sailors launched the schooner’s yawl boat and began rowing toward shore. The yawl almost immediately capsized, but “all got to the beach by the assistance of the citizens of the island.”

Keeper James Howard and the Life-Savers at Hatteras Inlet had been alerted that a schooner was in the breakers near the village. Howard immediately mustered his six-man crew, hitched mules to the 1000 pound “beach cart” loaded with the life-saving “apparatus” (including various sizes of hemp line, shovels, Lyle gun, projectiles, sand anchor, traveling block, and wooden crotch), and proceeded to the wreck. When they left the station at 3 pm Keeper Howard reported a “fresh gale from WSW” and a treacherous beach. Howard rode ahead on horseback and encountered Keeper Terrell who had walked about three miles from the wreck in order to meet him.

Meanwhile, the Hatteras Inlet Life-Savers were having a “laborious” time traversing the fourteen miles from the station to the wreck. In gale force winds with the sea washing up on the beach, one of the two mules eventually refused to continue. The crew persevered, pulling and pushing the heavy steel-wheeled beach cart with the aid of one exhausted mule. They did not arrive at the wreck until eight pm. Keeper Howard reported that “the night was so dark and the surf very high, breaking all over the schooner” that “in my judgement it was best to wait for daylight” to attempt the rescue. Howard proceeded to make “a large fire on the beach abreast of the vessel to encourage those on board.”  In a side note in his report, Howard asks to be excused for his “bad writing” because his “eyes are almost blind on account of the smoke from the fire on the beach.”

The sailors on the schooner had lashed themselves to the bowsprit, wrapped in the triangular jib sail, as protection against the frigid waves and howling wind.

At six o’clock the next morning Keeper Howard ordered the rescue operation to begin. The first line fired to the schooner from the bronze Lyle gun dropped across the jib boom, but it blew off before one of the sailors could grab it. The second shot was successful. A sailor used the line to haul aboard the tail block (with whip line) and secure it to one of the masts. Next, the hawser was sent out to the ship by the whip line. The sailor was able to secure the hawser above the tail block. The surfmen on shore were then able to rig and deploy the traveling block and breeches buoy (life ring with canvas pants attached).

Breeches Buoy Fully Rigged

By late morning all sailors on board the vessel had been brought to shore with the exception of the steward who had fallen from the quarter deck the day before and had died during the night. His body was left lashed to the bowsprit.

Deployment of the Breeches Buoy
Deployment of the Breeches Buoy

Keeper Terrell had remained with the crew from Hatteras Inlet throughout the rescue operation before returning to Portsmouth Island. There is no record of where the cold and exhausted sailors were taken, but when rescues were performed far from the Life-Saving Station it was typical for island volunteers to shelter sailors for several days. Keeper Howard and his Life-Savers left the scene of the wreck at 12:30 pm and arrived back at their station at 5 pm. Howard remarked in his report that the journey was “very hard” due to walking fourteen miles pulling the beach cart through a “blizzard” of a snowstorm.

Back at the station, the life-savers’ feet were so badly swollen that the men “could not get on their boots” and beach patrols were suspended that night. In his report, Keeper Howard complained that his team “could not stand the long hardships,” and requested “good horses” which would have facilitated a quicker response.

At 7:20 the next morning Keeper Howard and several of his life-savers left the station with mules pulling a surf boat, and headed back to the wreck to retrieve the body of the sailor who had died. When they arrived at the schooner, they discovered that the “citizens of the island had got him ashore and took him up to the settlement and gave him a decent burial.”

Keeper Howard stopped at his home in the village, and his wife, Zilphia, prepared dinner for him. He fed the mules and left for the station at 1 pm, arriving back at Hatteras Inlet at 5 pm. In his January 5, 1895 report, Keeper Howard remarked that he never saw Capt. Hawes after bringing him ashore, and, contrary to custom, “did not get any letter of thanks.”

An official inquiry, prompted by the death of the steward, reported that “the diligence and devotion of both the keepers and the men under their command throughout the entire occurrence are well attested. It was the first instance of a wreck in the vicinity since the appointment of Keeper Terrell, and his promptness and fertility of resources go far to prove the fitness of his selection. Keeper Howard has rendered long and satisfactory service, which is not sullied by his record in this disaster.”

Copy of handwritten remarks included with the Wreck Report (transcription below photos):

Transcript of remarks included with the Wreck Report (original spelling and grammar retained):

Dec 27 1894 Reported to me By Capt terrel Keeper Portsmouth station That there was three masted schr on Beach near ocracoke island Keeper mustered crew tuck mules apperatus left station 3 PM fresh Gail From WSW with Bad Beach and dist about 14 miles whitch made it laborous arived abrest schr 8 PM the night was so dark and the surf verry high braking all over schr so it was impsable for men to Rig up Geer as they were snug in jib for protection and only three men on board the others left schr about 12 N Before that I was notifide in the yawl Boat was capsize But all Got to Beach By the assistance of the sitteson of the island so in my Judgment that it was Best to wate for day light whitch I did making a large Fire on Beach abrest of vessel to incurage those that was on Board the vessel we all with Keeper of Portsmouth station staid on Beach all night abrest vessel you will have to excuse all bad writing that my eyes are almost bline on account of the smoke from the Fire on Beach about six AM Place apparatus shot gun six ounce cartridge line drop acrose Jib Boom Before the man could Get it it Blew of Got Redy shot 4 ounce cartridge line drop arost vessel long side the man got it Redly Hould of whip Rig up geer sent of Breehes Buoy Brought a shore the two men one Had died that night all was done that could Been done the Keeper of Portsmouth station was with us through all of the preceding left wreck 12 30 PM arived Station 5 PM through Blizard snowstorm whitch mad our Jurny verry hard sum of the men give out Rest chafe Bad feet swolan the next day the men could not Get on ther Boots could not send out in Patrols that night it is to hard for us to take care of mules Because there ought to Bee something done for us we cant stand the long Hard ships our team is not fit for the service if had good Horses in my Judgment that we could got them saved Before night

On Monday of the 30 the men got Better Keeper crew with mules surf Boat left station 7 20 AM for wreck schr to Get the dead Boddy that perish on Board on the night Dec 27 arived at schr found that the cittison of the island had Got him ashore and tuck him up to the settlement and gave him desent Burrel By order of capt of Wreck schr there could not nothing more Bee don leapt of wreck schr gave the schr up to Body of men  to wreck her stop at settlement to Get dinner and feed mules left for station one PM arrived at station 5 PM did not sea capt of Sch after braugh him ashore in breaches buoy Sold material befor [??] did not get any letter of thanks

Date of report

Jan 5 1895

James Howard Keeper



The United States Life Saving Service was established in 1871 to come to the aid of stricken and shipwrecked sailing vessels and mariners. The Service continued until 1915 when it was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the United States Coast Guard. During the USLSS’s 44-year history, a network of more than 270 stations were established on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf Coast, and the Great Lakes.

Seal of the USLSS
Seal of the USLSS

By the end of its tenure, the men of the United States Life Saving Service had come to the aid of more than 28,000 vessels in distress and saved the lives of more than 178,000 sailors and passengers.

In North Carolina the service began with the construction of seven stations in 1874: Jones Hill, Caffeys Inlet, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Bodie Island, Chicamacomico, and Little Kinnakeet.. Eventually, twenty-nine stations dotted the coast of the Tar Heel State.

The first station on Ocracoke Island was the Cedar Hammock (or Hatteras Inlet) Station, commissioned in 1883. The Cape Lookout Station, where one of the most remarkable and heroic rescues in the annals of the USLSS occurred in 1905, was established in 1888.

Cape Lookout Lifesaving Service Station H H Brimley Collection
Cape Lookout Lifesaving Service Station H H Brimley Collection

In February of 1905 an influenza epidemic ravaged eastern North Carolina. Nearly all of the Cape Lookout station’s nine-man crew were either ill with the flu or recovering but still weak and incapacitated. In spite of the illness, Keeper William H. Gaskill insisted that normal watches be kept in the station’s cupola.

At noon on February 10, 1905, Keeper Gaskill mounted the ladder to the cupola to relieve the surfman who had been on duty for two hours. Keeper Gaskill’s initial view of the ocean was obscured by dense fog, but soon a rift in the fog allowed Gaskill a clear image of the topmost spars of a sailing vessel. His experienced eye convinced him that the vessel was aground on Cape Lookout shoals.

Keeper Gaskill immediately descended the ladder and alerted his ill and fatigued crew. He then ordered them to prepare to launch the rescue surfboat.

Once at the edge of the ocean, the surfmen pushed their heavy boat through the surf as waves broke over the bow. Eight lifesavers then clamored into the boat and began pulling at the oars, with Keeper Gaskill at the tiller.

Surfboat Launch
Surfboat Launch

They knew it would be nine arduous miles from the station to the Cape. Finally, late in the afternoon, they arrived to see the Sarah D. J. Rawson, a 386-ton, three-masted schooner which had been carrying a full load of lumber from Georgetown, SC to New York, awash on the shoals. The vessel had wrecked the day before, on Thursday, February 9 at 5:30 pm.

In the twenty-fours since she had wrecked, powerful waves swept over the vessel, carrying away her cargo of lumber, her deck house, and one unfortunate sailor who disappeared in the raging surf. In the ensuing hours the Rawson continued to break apart as her masts split and the deck was reduced to splinters. The six remaining mariners clung desperately to the remains of the stricken schooner as it deteriorated.

When the lifesavers arrived at the wreck late in the afternoon, they discovered the Rawson lying in “a seething mass of breakers” surrounded by floating lumber, broken masts, rigging, sails, sections of the deck and hull, and other debris. Keeper Gaskill reported that his surfboat was in danger of pitching end over end in the choppy water.

The lifesavers attempted to reach the exhausted mariners, but were continually repulsed by the floating wreckage which threatened to punch holes in the side of their small craft. Finally, as night began to fall, Keeper Gaskill realized there was nothing more they could do, and ordered his surfboat to back away from the wreck. The lifesavers spent the night nearby in their open boat with nothing more than water for nourishment, and only their oilskins for protection from the frigid night air.

At daybreak the lifesavers returned to the wreck, only to discover the situation virtually identical to the day before. However, Keeper Gaskill, an eastern North Carolina native familiar with the ocean currents, expected the approaching change of tide to help moderate conditions. By late morning the waters laid down sufficiently for the lifesavers to maneuver their surfboat close enough to the Rawson so they could throw a heaving stick (a wooden stick about 12″ long attached to a lightweight hemp line, and with a monkey’s fist knot on the other end).

On catching the heaving stick, one of the Rawson’s mariners tied the line around his waist and jumped into the water; the surfmen pulled him to the safety of their boat. Five more times this procedure was repeated. Eventually all six soaked sailors were brought aboard the surfboat. Without regard to their own discomfort, the lifesavers removed their oilskins and wrapped them around the sailors’ shivering bodies. Now with about one thousand extra pounds of weight, the lifesavers began the long journey back to their station.

Finally, in late afternoon, Keeper Gaskill and his crew brought the Rawson’s six sailors safely to shore. The lifesavers, exhausted and still feeling the effects of the flu, had rowed eighteen miles and had spent twenty-eight hours, in February, in an open boat to save the lives of six people they had never met.

As recognition of their bravery and dedication to duty, Keeper William Gaskill and his surfmen, Kilby Guthrie, Walter M. Yeomans, Tyre Moore, John A. Guthrie, James W. Fulcher, John E. Kirkman, Calupt T. Jarvis, and Joseph L. Lewis, were awarded the Gold Life-Saving medals “for heroic daring” in the rescue of the crew of the Sarah D.J. Rawson.

Gold Life Saving Medal
Gold Life Saving Medal

This story is remarkable, but only one of more than 28,000 rescues performed by the men of the United States Life Saving Service.