It was midwinter when the schooner Louis V. Place weighed anchor and started on its last voyage from Baltimore to New York. From the first day out the weather was uncommonly severe. The wind was strong, sometimes rising to a gale. The waves buffeted the little vessel unmercifully. But the captain, hoping that the morrow would bring fairer skies and smoother seas, held manfully on his course.
As the schooner advanced northward the weather grew colder. A drizzling rain set in, which turned to sleet as it fell. Soon the sails were stiff as boards, the ropes were frozen and unmanageable, the decks were coated with ice, the schooner was drifting at the mercy of the winds and the waves.
No land was in sight, but the captain supposed that the vessel was not far off Sandy Hook. Soundings were made, and it was found that the sea was not deep. The schooner was being rapidly carried toward the shore.
The captain ordered the anchors to be let go. But these also were covered with ice, the cables were frozen stiff; it was impossible for the crew to move them. As a last resort the halyards were cut; but the sails were so stiff with ice that they held to their places. The rudder also was unmanageable. Nothing could check the onward course of the vessel.
The crew, half-frozen and hopeless after four days and nights of exposure, held on to whatever supports were at hand, and gazed helplessly at the raging sea before them. Then land was seen—a long, low shore, with lines of furious breakers dashing against it. It was not Sandy Hook, but the opposite coast of Long Island.
Scarcely had the men had time to realize their danger before the schooner was in the midst of the breakers. There was a terrific shock. The vessel trembled like a leaf, careened to one side, and came to a sudden stop. The breakers flooded the decks.
The crew, eight men in all, climbed with such speed as they could into the rigging, where they held on to the icy ropes, scarcely hoping that any succor would ever reach them.
The schooner was still about four hundred yards from the shore, wedged fast upon a rock. The waves swept over her from stem to stern. The surf was full of broken ice. Huge cakes of ice were piled upon the beach. Flurries of snow filled the air and sometimes hid the shore from view. How hopeless, indeed, was the case of those eight men clinging for life to the ice-covered rigging of that doomed vessel!
The Life Savers at Lone Hill station, not far away, were soon aware of the wreck, and every man hastened to the shore, eager to lend a helping hand to the crew. To send a boat out through that icy surf in the midst of those furious breakers, was plainly impossible. The only chance was to throw a line out over the wreck in such a way that the sailors could grasp it and then be drawn over it to the shore.
The wreck gun that is used for throwing such lines was hastily put in readiness. But before it could be fired, two of the sailors, overcome by their terrible privations, relaxed their hold upon the rigging and dropped into the merciless sea. The snow flurries were now so frequent that the wreck could be seen only at rare intervals. The first line that was thrown fell far away from the mark and was drawn in without having touched the vessel.
The fist line fell far away from the mark.
The second shot was better aimed. It carries the line directly into the rigging and right into the midst of the clinging sailors. They were so stiff with the cold, however, that not one of them could move sufficiently to reach it. A third line and then a fourth were thrown with the same result. The poor fellows in the rigging were plainly unable to help themselves.
The snow fell faster. The mist from the raging breakers was frozen in mid-air. For three hours the Life Savers were unable to catch even a glimpse of the wreck. When at last the snow ceased falling and the clouds began to scatter, the ice-covered masts were again seen pointing upward above the surf. But instead of six men clinging there, there were now only four; the other two and silently dropped into the sea.
And now night came—night of storm and peril and nameless dread. The Life Savers built a beacon fire on the shore and anxiously watched for any clearing of the weather or any abatement in the fury of the waves. The hours passed, oh so slowly, with only the roaring of the sea and the fearful dashing of the waves!
The gray dawn at last began to dispel the darkness, and all eyes were turned toward the wreck. Had any of the sailors lived through that dreadful night? Yes, there was one with his arm around the mizzenmast. And there was another in the rigging close by him. Both of these moved and were alive. The bodies of the other two sailors were also there; but they were frozen stiff and motionless among the ropes and cordage. The life had gone out of them in the night.
The sailor in the rigging seemed to be trying to cheer his comrade by the mast. Now and then he would strike him with the end of a rope. Now and then he would seize him by the shoulders and shake him. The Life Savers imagined they could hear him saying: "Don't give up, old fellow! Help is at hand. We'll soon be ashore."
But the mizzenmast was plainly giving way. Every time the waves washed up against it, it would tremble and lean a little farther over. The sailor in the rigging noticed this. He looked over to the mainmast and saw that it was a much safer place. But he would not go there alone. He seized his comrade's arm and tore it loose from the ice around the mizzen. Then, partly by coaxing and partly by force, he caused him to follow him down to the wave-swept deck and across the perilous way to the mainmast. Creeping, tottering, groping, the two sailors at last climbed into the main rigging, and waited there for whatever fate might be in store for them.
All day long, the Life Savers upon the beach tried every device to rescue the shipwrecked men. Just before sunset the ninth line was shot out. It fell squarely across the wreck, just in front of the mainmast. If this failed, there would be no further hope.
The sailor who had shown so much care for his comrade climbed slowly down through the rigging. He was so stiffened with the cold that he could scarcely bend over to pick up the line. He slipped. He fell. Then he crept carefully, painfully, back into the rigging. The line was lost.
"The last chance, and it has failed," said the men on shore; and some of them burst into tears.
Another beacon fire was built, and the men prepared for a second night of watching. But hope had gone out of their hearts.
It was nearly midnight when they noticed that the storm had abated. The surf was not so strong; the breakers were less furious; the sea was clearer of ice.
"It's now or never, boys!" cried the keeper.
All hands together laid hold of the surfboat. They launched her amid the rushing waves. With willing hands and strong arms her brave-hearted crew drive her right out through the boiling, roaring, dashing breakers, and at last brought her alongside the ice-covered wreck. The two sailors were taken off, and the boat with all on board was driven safely to the shore.
After forty hours of heroic effort the Life Savers of Lone Hill returned to their station. Their toil had not been in vain, for they carried the two rescued sailors with them.
The brave fellow who had done so much to encourage and help his shipmate soon recovered and was able to take care of himself. He gave his name as William Stevens, and he was but a common sailor. His unselfish heroism in behalf of his companion had doubtless been the means of saving his own life. Few men have better merited knighthood.
His comrade was too far gone to be much benefited by any help that could be given him. He died a few days later in a hospital, whither his rescuers had sent him.
As for the Life Savers, the legislature of New York passed resolutions in praise of their heroism, and each one received a suitable medal of honor "Such a service," said the legislature, "belongs to humanity, and deserves universal admiration."