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The Daring Rescue of the Ephraim Williams

Lifesaving boat launch
Rare photograph showing a Life-Saving Service boat crew attempting to launch into heavy surf. (Courtesy of Richard Boonisar)

Published Apr 23, 2023 1:36 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

Editor’s note: On December 22, 1884, began one of the most daring and dangerous U.S. Life-Saving Service rescues up to that time. The rescuers received the Gold Life-Saving Medal and Keeper Benjamin Dailey was honored as a Coast Guard cutter namesake. Gold Medal recipient, Keeper Patrick Etheridge, would later utter the famous Life-Saving Service motto, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” This transcribed and lightly edited retelling comes from the pages of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Annual Report.

On this date [Dec. 22, 1884], the crew of the Cape Hatteras Station (Sixth District), coast of North Carolina, under the leadership of Keeper Benjamin B. Dailey, assisted by Keeper Patrick E. Etheridge, performed one of the most heroic feats in the annals of the Life-Saving Service, by the rescue of nine men composing the crew of the barkentine Ephraim Williams, of Providence, Rhode Island. The vessel was bound home from Savannah, Georgia, with a cargo of pine lumber, and on Jan. 18, when to the northward of Frying Pan Shoals, encountered such heavy weather that, [it] became waterlogged and almost a complete wreck.

In this condition, [it] drifted helplessly before the southerly gale until near Cape Hatteras, on the 21st, when, as the sea was running mountains high, [its] anchors were let go in an endeavor to save [it] from driving onto the outlying shoals several miles from shore. The ill-fated craft dragged some distance further, until just before dark, when [it] seemed to the observers on the beach to fetch up. The crews of the Durant’s, Creed’s Hill, and Cape Hatteras Stations had all discovered [it], but such a fearful surf was thundering in, and [it] lay so far away, it was absolutely impossible for them to do anything.

Experienced surfmen of the locality, not connected with the service, aver that the surf was the heaviest and most dangerous they had seen for years. A vigilant watch was maintained by the station crews above named and by the Big Kinnakeet crew all night, for any signal betokening the bark’s condition. Nothing was seen, however, during the night, but at daylight of the 22nd it was found [it] had beaten over or past the shoals, and then lay six or seven miles northeast of the Cape Hatteras Station and nearly opposite Big Kinnakeet, to the northward.

The Big Kinnakeet crew, who were nearly all at the Hatteras Station when day dawned, at once set out for their own station to get their boat. Being thoroughly jaded from loss of rest, they took breakfast immediately upon arrival, and by that time, Keeper Dailey came up with his boat, drawn by horses, the place of an absent member of his crew being filled by Keeper Patrick H. Etheridge, of Creed’s Hill. It was then about half-past 10 in the forenoon.

Up to that time not the least sign of life had been seen on the bark, but as they stood watching her a flag was run up to the masthead as a signal of distress. That was enough for the brave Dailey and his crew as well as the others, and preparations were at once made to launch. The Cape Hatteras men were soon ready. They lashed all loose articles in the boat, stripped off clothing that might in any way impede their movements in case of a capsize, and then, donning their cork belts, at the word from the keeper shoved the boat in and gave way.

A glance seaward revealed a towering and almost unbroken wall of tumultuous water, which seemed to threaten destruction to any craft defiant enough to give battle. But away beyond in the offing there were lives in peril which must be saved at any hazard. To those who had assembled on the shore it seemed a forlorn hope, and few dared believe it would be successful.

The breakers on the inner bar, immense in themselves, were crossed in safety, but then came the infinitely more hazardous passage of the outer bar, nearly half a mile from shore, where the billows met the first shock of resistance as they thundered shoreward. The whole scene was awfully grand, and enough to make the stoutest hearts quail.

As Dailey neared the billowy barrier, he held his boat in check for a brief period awaiting his chance. The chance came ere long, when the huge combers directly ahead flattened out in seething, roaring foam. Quick as a flash, the word was given to the hardy rowers, and before the angry water could again rear itself, a few powerful strokes with the oars had carried the boat safely beyond the bar, and the greatest danger was past.

It was a marvel to the people on shore how the sturdy fellows got through, it was so magnificently done. There were times when the entire interior of the boat could be seen as it mounted the seas, and the watchers held their breath, fullv expecting to see it topple over backward, bottom up. No such another chance was afforded Keeper Scarborough and crew, of the Big Kinnakeet Station, who attempted to follow in Dailey’s wake, and after vainly watching for another slatch, such as that taken advantage of by Dailey, they were compelled, very much against their inclination, to turn back and beach the boat.

There was still a pull of several miles in a storm-tossed sea for Dailey and his gallant fellows ere the bark was reached but reach [the Ephraim Williams] they did at about half an hour after noon. It was impossible to lay the boat alongside for fear of swamping it, so it was anchored off the bark’s quarter, and by means of a line thrown to them by the captain, they were enabled, by watching their opportunity, to sheer in close enough to take the men off one by one. This required the most skillful maneuver to avoid staving the boat.

The rescued people were almost perished with cold and hunger, as they had been in the condition in which they were found for over 90 hours, or since the 18th, when the gale set in, completely drenched to the skin and without food or water. As soon as they were seated and everything was in readiness, the anchor was weighed and a start made for the shore.

Keeper Etheridge relieved Dailey at the steering-oar while the latter tended the drag. The boat, laden with its living freight of 16 souls, was almost gunwale deep, but it rode the still tremendous seas like a duck, and, after safely passing the outer line of breakers, reached the shore in good shape, where it was met by the Big Kinnakeet crew and others and run well up on the beach.

A hearty meal had been prepared at the Big Kinnakeet Station by Keeper Scarborough’s direction, and the castaways were at once conducted thither. A muster was also made of all the dry clothing obtainable, including the supply received from the Women’s National Relief Association, but it was insufficient to clothe them all, and three of the poor fellows were compelled to remain in their wet garments until they could be taken to Dailey’s station after the meal vas over and they had somewhat revived. Thus, was accomplished one of the most daring rescues by the Life-Saving Service since its organization.

The officer detailed to inquire into the circumstances of the gallant affair closed his report with the following remarks:

I do not believe that a greater act of heroism is recorded than that of Dailey and his crew on this momentous occasion. These poor, plain men, dwellers upon the lonely sands of Hatteras, took their lives in their hands, and, at the most imminent risk, crossed the most tumultuous sea that any boat within the memory of living men had ever attempted on that bleak coast, and all for what? That others might live to see home and friends. The thought of reward or mercenary appeal never once entered their minds. Duty, their sense of obligation, and the credit of the Service impelled them to do their mighty best. The names of Benjamin B. Dailey and his comrades in this magnificent feat should never be forgotten. As long as the Life-Saving Service has the good fortune to number among its keepers and crews such men as these, no fear need ever be entertained for its good name or purposes.

It should be stated that, before the arrival of the life-saving crew alongside the bark, the people had begun the construction of rafts, upon which to attempt to reach the shore. In fact, one of these rafts with the mate and one seaman on it, had already shoved off, but, the captain seeing the boat coming, had called them back, and the raft was lying astern of the bark when the rescuers arrived. There can, therefore, be no doubt that but for the timely arrival of the surfboat the entire ship’s company would. have taken to the rafts, in which case it is morally certain they would all have been swept off, and not a soul left to tell the tale. At the time of the rescue the bark’s decks were awash, and she was apparently broken in two, and, as she subsequently drifted off to the northeast with the sea and current, nothing could be learned of what became of [the Ephraim Williams]. Being an old vessel, [it] probably burst open and went to pieces. [Its] crew were cared for at the station for several days, until they could be provided with transportation to their homes, the captain, the mate, and the cook taking passage up the sound to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, while the rest were put on board passing vessels after the stormy weather abated. The boat’s crew, consisting of Keeper Benjamin B. Dailey and Surfmen Isaac L. Jennett, Thomas Gray, John H. Midgett, Jabez B. Jennett, and Charles Fulcher, of the Cape Hatteras Station, and Keeper Patrick E. Etheridge, of the Creed’s Hill Station, were awarded medals of the first class for their conspicuous bravery.

- 1885 Annual Report, U.S. Life-Saving Service

This excerpt appears courtesy of The Long Blue Line and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.