"What one of Simpson's characters, a newspaper editor, says is also true of him: 'Just give this boy a yarn, especially a yarn of the sea, and I'm off and running.' And a spanking good yarn it is. (Janet Lembke, author of River Time: The Frontier on the Lower Neuse)"
Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering
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Meet the Author
Bland Simpson's books include Into the Sound Country, The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey, and The Great Dismal. A member of the Tony Award-winning Red Clay Ramblers, Simpson has collaborated on such musicals as King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running, Kudzu, and the Broadway hit Fool Moon. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Ghost Ship of Diamond ShoalsThe Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering
By Bland Simpson
University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 Bland Simpson
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePart One: The Shoals January 31-late February 1921
Watch Cape Hatteras, North Carolina Monday, January 31, 1921 6:30 A.M.
Off Carolina, where the great warm river of the Gulf Stream flirts with the cold southbound current from Labrador before spurning it and heading for open ocean, three great capes sculpted by the Stream's eddies ripple seaward and reach just beneath the waves for miles in shoal waters known the sailing world `round and long called Frying Pan, Lookout, and Diamond. Over the sands of the Outer Banks this dawning long ago, billows of foam came rolling and boiling in. The fabric of the Atlantic Ocean's woof and warp unraveled and laid its bright strands out loose and shaking in airy, vaporous ropes that were nothing at all but oxygen, hydrogen, and salt, ocean spindrift strung out like white and ghostly hawsers from great mythic ships and flung in the wind all along the way of the wet, gravelly seabeaches from Cape Hatteras to Currituck. Yet more than spindrift was out there this morning, more too than the ever-threatening curl and pound of a disturbed and angry sea.
Just down the strand a ways from the black-and-white whorl of HatterasLight, nearer to Cape Point and behind a white plank fence lay the U.S. Coast Guard's Cape Hatteras Station No. 183, a two-story cedar-shake building with gable ends, the tallest point for miles around except for the great lighthouse itself. Astride the roof's ridge sat a tall, square cupola with a pyramidal roof, two sets of doublehung windows constituting most of each wall.
From this lookout's perch Surfman C. P. Brady kept the 4:00-8:00 A.M. watch.
The winter wind was blowing ten to fifteen, and Brady heard it whistling lightly up under the eaves and around the cross-braces of the gables, watched in the dim but gathering morning light as it blew the tops off the waves cresting and breaking three hundred feet out. And all the while, in Brady's line of sight, the laughing, cawing gulls went flapping, circling, and wheeling by, at times hanging in place three or four akimbo, holding still in the cold air as if they had been placed or even painted there, and whether these avian forms that seemed more molded soot than bird were floating or flying, who could ever tell? He would see them for a few moments at a time, and then they would fade back into the smoky sky the way deer vanish into woods.
There was just now light enough for Brady to see all this, but the surfman dared not stare too long at those white spindrift lines on the seabeach, lest his tired eyes cross and get lost in a vanishing point in the mist and spray to the north. He rose from his post in the cupola of the cape station, climbed down the stairs to the mess for coffee-he had an hour and a half left on his watch. Regarding the jute bag of beans in the corner, the plantation name in Spanish faintly stenciled upon it and the shipping label still stitched into one of its rabbit ears, he then lifted a blue-speckled enamel pot from the small stove and poured scalding coffee into the blue tin cup with his initials on the bottom: C.P.B.
Then he made his way back up top, for he was the shepherd of Diamond Shoals, and they were his fields over which to watch by night. He closed his left eye and put his right to the small aperture at the near end of the station's great telescope, a prize possession of this outpost. Fully extended, the old glass, one of three the federal government had bought for use during the War of 1812, came to a length of seventy-one inches, and it took every bit of that power to allow one's eye to roam all over these twelve-mile shoals. Though Brady now stared out from the peak of his station, and this height gained him great range, still, as he slowly coursed the glass over Diamond Shoals he found he was mostly gazing out into the shoals's ever-shifting, heavy morning mist. There in the confine of the cupola Brady could feel the whole of the lifeboat building below him tremble before the wind, could feel it snap in a gust almost as a sail does when it fills fast. Almost as-
My God! Can you believe what you just saw?
Set the cup down, man. Rub your eyes, check yourself-nothing was there when you went below to the stove. Do you believe it now? You must, for the wind has parted the morning mists for real and there she stands before you, and you can only wish she were the apparition that she appears to be.
In the dawning mists, clouds of spray exploded from high, dark-gray rollers that marched in over the shoals and then rose and piled into each other and blew apart, and on these shoals most feared and dreaded by mariners the world over, there rose the five tall masts of a ship fully rigged with all sails set, a schooner upon the shoals-up on them-lodged and foundered. Whose hand was it that presented this craft to Surfman Brady, laying this enormous schooner into the mistshroud of Diamond Shoals sometime during the long dark night?
Mother and lover of men, Brady thought, the Sea-see now what she brings. And sound now the alarm and shout the word, for wherever that ship hails from, she stands fast on the Outer Diamond. Say the word-shout it-the very worst word of the sea:
The Men Who Lived There Then Hatteras Island, North Carolina Eighty to a hundred years ago
Shipwreck! How often it came as a cry in the night, or a howling against the wind at dawn.
A few handfuls, just clutches of men, set down every so often in stations along the sandy strand, were all that stood between the maritime pilgrims on a ship gone aground and death by drowning, pounding, or freezing-or all of these. The same waves that have beaten a boat from deep waters onto shoals will then beat her to pieces, and to the indifferent sea those persons aboard a craft in ruin are nothing more than a few timbers to be rent and rendered into splinters, shreds, and flinders.
The men who lived there then, the lifesavers, were among the bravest in the world, and their names should be writ large. Writ upon what, though? The very sand they all but slept upon, as Hatteras was nothing more than a sandbar twenty miles out in the Atlantic? The ocean herself, for what was their life if not water? Like those who plied the sea, whose lives they were pledged to protect and, if called upon, to save, most of the surfmen's names are writ only in the ledgers that enrolled them in their trades. A couple of initials, a surname like Etheridge or Meekins or Midgett.
In awe and nothing less, sing of Rasmus Midgett who swam out and back and back again to the wreck of the barkentine Priscilla, one of seven ships that fell victim to the fabled San Ciriaco storm of August 1899, swam back through the still-raging surf ten times all told and single-handedly saved ten men from that wreck. And in awe and nothing less, sing too of his marvelous son John Allen Midgett, keeper of the station at Chicamacomico, who through fire on the waters led a rescue of the crew of the British tanker Mirlo, mined off Wimble Shoals during World War I, not even three years before this schooner that now foundered upon the Diamond.
Of course they would hurl themselves at the sea, and into it, for it was death's gauntlet and therefore the chance, the repeated chance, for the descendants of castaways to cheat death even as their forebears had, to cheat him of themselves and those afloat in the Atlantic shallows and seeking the grasp and safety of the shore so near. To go out into the roiling sea over which no human agency has ever held sway, or ever will, and save man woman and child, perhaps many, and have it be all in a day's work and worthy of a note-assistance rendered, job well done-and in so doing saving one's own life, necessarily and repeatedly, as a given part of that process, and have that be not noteworthy at all.
The job said they had to go out. Nothing on earth said they had to come back.
They were men enough to meet the sea and whatever pilgrims she tossed about and in her passion loved or merely trifled with-maybe shipboard, maybe overboard-and then set forth upon the seabeach, soaked and bedraggled and whether living or dead nothing to her, but to them who lived there then, everything.
A Surfboat at Cape Hatteras Cape Point Cape Hatteras, North Carolina January 31, 1921
So Surfman Brady, aloft at the station, and Surfman Gray, on foot patrol along the beach, both saw the schooner seemingly fixed out on Diamond Shoals. Brady immediately alerted the keeper of Cape Hatteras Coast Guard Station, Baxter B. Miller, who went up into the cupola himself and took a look of his own.
Keeper Miller was fearless hereabouts, a real son of the shoals. For helping rescue the entire crew of thirty-five from the German steamer Brewster when it foundered on the Outer Diamond in November '09, he had won a gold medal from the U.S. government and, from Germany, a silver watch inscribed with the Imperial Eagle. And he'd earned a silver medal two years later for saving the son of former Cape Hatteras keeper Benjamin Dailey when he was swept off the deck of his boat by heavy seas.
In the cupola now Baxter Miller cupped his left hand around the big telescope and pulled the shaft toward him with his right. With Surfman Brady's help for direction, he could see whenever the curtain opened for a second or two that miles away over the waters there lay a great schooner before them-now present, now disappearing, like a phantom, a specter, a will-o'-the-wisp, and he thought:
Smoky over the shoals.
Spectral she may have appeared, but she was real enough, too. At quarter past seven Miller telephoned the neighboring stations, Big Kinnakeet (No. 182), Creeds Hill (No. 184), and Hatteras Inlet (No. 186), to notify them and request they stand by for action. After another trip aloft, a second effort at reading or trying to read the truth of the moment through a veil of vapors, he telephoned those stations again at 7:30 A.M., telling each in turn:
"I am quite sure the schooner is aground on the southwest point of outer Diamond Shoals, and I am proceeding to the scene of the wreck."
First the Cape Hatteras surfmen, all slickered and sou'westered, stood by the long, white, lapstrake power-surfboat in the station, hands to the gunwales, and one of them threw open the big double doors. Once outside, they hitched the drayhorse, a tawny Belgian sixteen hands at least, to the caisson and Keeper Miller stood in the sharp, uprising bow and held the great horse's reins and down the ramp and into the sand seaward of the station they all went.
The gusting January wind blew spray and sand at them, and the damp sand gathered and caked upon the three-foot, wooden-spoked wheels, and the sea oats and grasses around them bent seaward, as the men and their boat slowly dragged through the dunes and over the open seabeach, the half-dozen men and the one beast drawing forward as if they next intended, like Poseidon of old, to plough the very sea itself. They had drilled weekly for this and knew this routine cold, yet they usually drilled on light days and not when the wind was blowing twenty from the west and freshening. The Belgian wore blinders-if the mare in her pulling and striving could have looked laterally and, instead of merely seeing the swath of gray-green-and-white boiling surf straight before her, could have seen how endless were her maritime fields, and how fierce and lathered they were this morning, the preposterousness of the vast work might have occurred to her and stopped her in her tracks.
There was neither stop nor pause, though. To the south hook of the cape the surfmen hauled the station's power boat, found the sea running very high, and thought perhaps it might be better for them to attempt to launch from the north side of the point. There, they found the sea ran even higher, so they returned to the south side, where now they were joined by the crews from Kinnakeet and Creeds Hill, the sea also being too rough for those men to launch from their stations farther north and farther southwest of the cape.
In the wet sand below the tideline the men halted and unhitched the front set of wheels from the boat carriage and led the mare forward into the shallow surf that was sheeting rapidly beneath them, till the wheels were clear and the front fell into the water and made a skid down which the boat would go, and then one of them walked the mare around and away, pulling now just the wheels, till she too was clear and unburdened and, standing alone and apart from the surfmen, looked away from them and their incomprehensible task.
This was a bold affair, but a humble one, too, this trying to put a vessel into the surf and get past the breakers and, in the parlance of the lifesavers' reports, "render assistance." Who awaited them out there on the outer Diamond in that great schooner? Who knew? But bring aid these men must-their mighty nation had placed them here at the edge of the world for just this purpose and no other. Of all the millions of people on the face of the earth, the only ones who might save that schooner's crew were these few surfmen, with their horse, their ropes and lines, and their very small craft.
Keeper Miller picked seven of the surfmen, along with boatswains C. R. Hooper of Big Kinnakeet and J. C. Gaskill of Creed's Hill, and these ten men, beginning at ten that Monday morning, threw themselves repeatedly into the roaring, boiling surf of Cape Point. The seas, coming hard, repulsed them any number of times before they succeeded, with both power and oars, in getting past the breakers and crossing the off bar and heading shoalward.
After a hard struggle the men had gotten to sea.
By 11:30 A.M. Miller's craft approached the scene of the shipwreck, but the angry and unpredictable shape of the seas-these shoals engendered great, high-rising, hollow-backed breakers the likes of which had slammed into each other since the first moments of time-kept them at a considerable distance from the huge schooner itself. As if it were nothing at all, the breakers out on the shoals flew about from every which way, crashing into each other and surging explosively to the heights of two- and three-story houses. Bos'n Hooper saw how the ship was driven high upon the shoals, lying in a boiling bed of breakers, and he thought with all sails standing she seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry. All the surfmen could see that the schooner's two boats were gone and the davit falls were hanging. They witnessed no movements, no signs of life on board, though they could come no closer to her than five hundred yards, not near enough to read through the breakers' spray and mist her name and home port.
Excerpted from Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals by Bland Simpson Copyright © 2002 by Bland Simpson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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