6-Week Series: Against All Odds

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Nantucket, Massachusetts is located next to important shipping lanes running along the East Coast. Toward the end of the 1800s sailing ships were in their heyday. Nantucket Island saw hundreds of vessels passing by each day—all navigating without the advantages of modern technology. Treacherous shoals and stormy weather led to over 700 shipwrecks in the surrounding waters of Nantucket, causing the area to be dubbed “a graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Prior to the advent of organized life-saving, sailors involved in a wreck were likely to perish. Even if fortunate enough to make it to shore, the limited shelter offered by the dunes didn’t significantly improve the sailor’s chances of survival. Faced with the large number of shipwrecks and loss of life, the people of the surrounding communities began efforts to save the lives of shipwreck victims. They built lifesaving huts along the shores, gave swimming lessons to Boston public school students, produced instructional posters on resuscitation methods, and developed volunteer life-savers that would row out to the ships to rescue shipwrecked sailors. They were incredibly brave and heroic men.

On March 31, 1879, a violent storm swept across Nantucket Sound, bringing powerful winds, freezing rain, snow, and heavy fog. By April 1, over sixty-eight vessels lay wrecked or disabled around the island. This led to the largest rescue effort in the island’s history.

Captain Thomas F. Sandsbury and his crew of volunteer lifesavers rowed their surfboat toward the schooner John W. Hail. They rescued the crew and rowed them back to the safety of the shore. Then they went back out to the stormy sea and made their way to the schooner Emma J. Edwards. She was rolling from side to side. Her masts would thrash the sea with every turn, making it impossible to get near her. A sole survivor was visible. George Coffin tied a line around his waist to prevent himself from being swept away and jumped from the surfboat. George Coffin rescued the survivor.

For thirty-two consecutive hours Sandsbury and his crew endured the hardships of the storm, and moving from wreck to wreck they rescued more than a dozen sailors. Other crews were doing the same. By the time the storm began to break, Nantucket’s volunteers had rescued over forty sailors. The U.S. Congress recognized the courage of Sandsbury. Captain Sandsbury was given a gold medal and silver medals were awarded to each of his crew. There’s a museum dedicated to all these brave men that served as lifesavers (www.nantucketlifesavingmuseum.com).

The motto of this group was: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Though they were never paid, they never lacked for volunteers. They risked everything to save lives.

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