Several days ago we had this comment on our journal:
"Your ongoing references to long-lost ships (18XX) made me wonder whether cutting-edge navigational equipment has rendered sailing off the Outer Banks mere child's play. Are the days of foundering ships and foraging for washed up cargo a thing of the past?"
First, a few words about why I so frequently comment on Ocracoke shipwrecks. It has been many a year since a sailing vessel fetched up on Ocracoke's beach. However, from as early as 1585 through the first part of the twentieth century numerous schooners and other ships, along with their captains, crews, passengers, & cargo, have been cast upon our beaches. Many people lie buried in unmarked graves near where they died.
From 1883, when the first US Life Saving Station was established at Hatteras Inlet, to the present day, untold numbers of native islanders and others assigned to patrol our beaches have risked their lives to save unfortunate mariners. In the most severe weather, with gale force winds raging, tides rising to their thighs, and temperatures frigid and numbing, men of the Life Saving Service trudged miles along our coast, pulling heavily laden "beach carts" loaded down with life saving equipment.
Once they reached a stranded vessel they would frequently work for hours rigging the apparatus, firing lines to the hapless crew, and then hauling them to safety. At other times they would row through raging surf in fragile boats and pluck sailors from precarious perches on sinking ships. Sometimes they would risk their lives to plunge directly into the sea and carry wreck victims to shore one by one. As the regulations stated, surfmen were required to go out and attempt the rescue. Nothing said they had to come back.
But mostly they did. And usually all lives were saved, even if the ships were a total loss. Not infrequently, shipwreck reports note with understatement that the beach cart and apparatus were left at the scene, as the life savers were "worn out."
I believe we do well to remember the many brave and courageous Outer Bankers who put their lives at risk to save untold numbers of people they had never met.
Today, of course, accurate charts, radar, sonar, and GPS complement more traditional means of navigation (dead reckoning, spyglasses, sextants, and lighthouses) to help insure safer passage along North Carolina's treacherous Outer Banks. I wouldn't say that sailing off shore is mere child's play, but it is definitely much safer than in days gone by.
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