The following is an excerpt from the Mike Scott thriller Wreck of the Huron.
Spray from the storm and the darkness of the night made it impossible to see more than a few feet for the men on the midnight watch. The Huron’s engines continued to plow through the heavy surf and the sails still aloft were about one third filled with gale winds as they made their way down the coast. It was slow going, but the stout ship battered its way past North Carolina.
At 1 o’clock, Master French, the midnight watch officer ordered the ship to heave to for a moment to check the depth under the keel and confirm their location. Within moments the crew reported 10 fathoms and French duly relayed the number to Commander Ryan who was standing at the door to the bridge.
“Thank you, French,” Ryan said.
“Why don’t you get some rest, sir?” French asked.
“Once we clear this storm I will, French. Not yet, though. This area is treacherous.”
“Very well, sir,” French said. He knew the commander was simply keeping watch on his ship, not doubting French’s abilities. With that acknowledgement, French turned to the helmsman and ordered the Huron into motion.
“Let’s get her moving again Mr. Denig. Four bells to the engine room, please. I want to pull through these seas,” French ordered.
“Helmsman, let her come off a point on the helm. I’d like to get out a bit from the beach just to make sure,” the navigator Lieutenant Palmer ordered.
The matter-of-fact business of the bridge made it all the more surprising when the Huron struck bottom, violently throwing men and loose equipment forward.
“Hard down!” Ryan shouted as he struggled to stand back up after being thrown against the navigator’s table. There was a collective gasp as a wave passed below the ship, lifting it off the bottom for a brief moment, only to be followed by the second crash as the keel landed on the bottom causing her to begin to roll onto her starboard side. The ship was in instant chaos as men shouted and attempted to reach the upper decks, vainly trying to discover what happened.
“Are we aground?”
“Help me I’m stuck!”
“Get the commander!”
With each wave that passed, the jarring of the hull against the bottom was lessened — only because the ship was run further aground and was lifted less and less.
“Stop the engines!” Ryan ordered from the bridge. “Palmer, find out if we still have steam in the boilers. I want to see if we can back her out of here before the hull gets holed.”
Master French pulled back on the throttle, signaling the engineer to stop the engines. Palmer left his station to yell down the hatch to the engine room below.
“Can you back her, engineer?” Palmer asked.
“We’ve got full steam on all the engines. Yes, we can,” Chief Engineer Loomis replied.
“Make it happen, Mr. Loomis,” Palmer ordered.
“Mr. French, save the ship’s log. We’ve probably foundered on Nags Head. Mr. Palmer, please sound the distress whistle. We’re going to need some help,” Ryan said, taking charge of the bridge. “Get all hands on deck and batten down the hatches. Get those sails lowered.”
Within moments, French reported back to the bridge that the captain’s office where the ship’s log was stored was filled with water, being on the starboard side.
“Very well,” Ryan acknowledged. “Lieutenant Simons, order the fore mast cut away, please. Maybe we can right this ship without the added weight.”
“I will make it happen immediately,” Simons said, leaving across the angled deck to organize the men. The Huron was over on her side, at about 40 degrees.
Night swallowed the dying ship as the storm tossed wind and waves over the deck. The clouds above obscured any moonlight leaving it pitch black. Lanterns on the ship were extinguished to prevent fire in the heaving wood.
“Mr. Palmer, where are we? I need to know how far from land we are to gauge when help will arrive,” Ryan asked.
“Commander, my charts showed us well off the coast, but one of the men reported two rocks directly ahead of our position. They are saying we are solid on the beach,” Palmer reported.
“Where? Show me, Mr. Palmer.”
Ryan and Palmer ventured forward through the gangway to look past the ship toward what they were just realizing was the beach.
“My God! How did we get in here?” Ryan asked.
“I’m not sure, sir. All of our navigation shows us well out to sea,” Palmer replied.
The men could see the white foam of wind-tossed waves crashing on the beach less than 200 yards away, the thick spray making it hard to see.
“The good thing about this is help should arrive quickly. We may lose the ship, but we shouldn’t lose any lives over this,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “It’s a terrible loss. What time is it, Mr. Palmer?”
“It’s about 2 a.m sir.”
“Tell the men to hang on. Help should be coming soon, but let’s see if we can get some of the men to safety. Lower the cutter and try to get a line to shore to send men across.”
When the Huron went down on her starboard side, the port life boats were tangled in the rigging making them useless. The ship itself crushed the starboard side boats. Within just a few moments, Master Conway reported to the captain the status of the one functioning boat.
“Sir, the cutter is in the water and ready to go. We’ve tied her fast with a line. I would like permission to take her into the shore,” Conway said.
“Go ahead, Conway,” Ryan agreed. “But be careful. The surf is getting rougher.”
“Yes, sir,” Conway agreed. He turned and made his way along the slanted deck calling for volunteers to help him row the small cutter to the shore. He quickly organized five men to help him and they assembled at the railing. Conway reached out for the small craft to bring it in close so the men could board. As he did, a wave broke over the port side of the Huron, knocking men down and throwing the ship further on her side for a moment. Just as quickly as the wave hit, the small cutter swamped and disappeared below the waves.
The tide was coming in and making the sea more dangerous. Water was creeping up the deck as well. When the Huron first went down on her side, the water was at the edge of the railing, but as time went on, the sea climbed higher. Waves continued to batter the ship. Just before sunrise, the men had had too much and the pounding of the waves was not lessening. Men began to be swept from the deck and into the churning black water below them. No help had yet arrived from the lifesaving service on the beach.
“You there,” Conway shouted to a seaman on the deck. “Give me your life preserver. I will try to swim in and get help. “
“I can’t do that Master Conway. I can’t swim!” the man shouted over the waves and out of fear.
“If this keeps up, none of us will make it…” Conway’s reply was drowned out by a blast of ocean wave that broke across the deck, knocking him from the rigging and into the water below.
Conway barely had time to grab a breath before he was plunged into the cold ocean and dragged immediately under the black surface. He was unsure of which way was up, simply struggling against the pressure holding him down. His heart was pounding as adrenaline surged in his veins. Before being tossed into the water he was on the edge of exhaustion — cold and tired from the night’s torment. He knew one thing in his mind, he wasn’t going to die. Or at least not without a fight.
His head broke the surface and he struggled to breathe as he wiped the salt from his face. He tried to get his bearings as a wave crashed on top of him, crushing him back below the surface and tossing him head over heels. He felt his clothes ripped from his body as he continued to tumble. Panic was rising in his mind as his breath ran short. He had to get to the surface, he needed air. He began to fight, and struggle, kicking with every ounce of energy he had left. His head swam from the exertion and lack of air in his lungs. His body ached and his mind grew sluggish.
It didn’t register at first when his knees hit the sand and he realized his head was out of the water. He had been tossed onto the beach by the waves. Men grabbed his arms, lifting him up and dragging his naked body across the sand. Local fishermen carried him to a small hut where he found three other sailors from the Huron.
“Mr. Conway,” one of the sailors reported to the watch officer after the fishermen loaned him some clothes. “The locals tell us there is a lifesaving station about three miles down the beach from here. But, it’s closed for the season and they say they won’t break into it.”
“What of the Commander? Any sign of Commander Ryan or the other officers?” Conway asked.
“None at all, Mr. Conway. I heard they tried to make it to shore, but no one has seen them come up the beach.”
“Very well then, Mr. Young. Take whatever men you can find and break down the doors. Get the mortar and get back here. Men are being swept from the ship and lost. We have to get them help,” Conway replied to the young ensign. “I’ll do what I can from here. I’ll drag the men out of the surf.”
“It’s a miracle you made it through the surf, Mr. Conway. The undertow is so strong,” Young replied.
“If any of the men are at all exhausted, there is no way they will live. Get that lifesaving equipment and get back here as quickly as you can,” Conway said as he started down the beach toward the water’s edge.
The sun was beginning to rise over the water by the time the men made it back to the wreck site with the lifesaving mortar, designed to fire a safety line with a grappling hook from the beach to the ship. Any men still on board could have used a harness and made their way to safety. The men never fired the mortar, though. No one was left on board alive.