The eastward head winds increased in force; the weather became thicker and
more unpredictable. Day and night the ship fought heavy winds and a stormy
sea, and it was becoming a difficult, tiring passage. After the voyage, a
disgruntled seaman on board would relate the following story:|
There were twenty-three of us in the forecastle, besides the petty officers. the mates, and the captain aft. Most of the forecastle hands were worthless fellows as seamen, hardly a dozen of the lot fit for duty; bricklayers, tinkers, coopers, painters and such like. I was in the firstmates watch and not more than seven of us were able to take their trick at the wheel; besides being so hard worked, owing to the rough weather, that we were pretty well tired out before we got half-way across.Conditions were bad, and they got worse as gale after gale hit the ship. She beat back and forth trying to make progress against the buffeting head winds, attempting to steer clear of the worst of the raging storms.
The crew lost track of their exact location, thinking at times to be as near as 300 miles off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Celestial navigation was impossible, and the compass had been adversely affected by the severity of the storms. The ship, straining against wind and wave, had lost her top gallant masts and was off course. but she was staying afloat. Other ships were not as fortunate.
On November 30, more than three weeks out of port, the Circassian was riding a lull between the gales when a crewman on watch spotted a smaller vessel to leeward flying a flag of distress. The Heath Park, an English bark bound from Perth Amboy, New Jersey to London with a cargo of slate, had been overpowered by the storms and was hopelessly foundering. Captain Williams gave immediate orders for the Circassian to cease her course, to heave to, and to stand in readiness to lend assistance to the bark as needed. Upon seeing two lifeboats from the bark enter the water, the Circassian readied a line to pull up the men and boats. Due to the provident arrival of the Circassian, Captain Smith of the Heath Park and all eleven crewmen were rescued.
By 7 P.M. the rescue was completed and the Circassian's crew were eager to set sail once more for New York. They were then about 500 miles off Montauk Point, again battling an increasingly heavy sea and another approaching storm. With two crews aboard, the ship, her deck and rigging now frozen over with ice, labored westward toward her destination. All on board were bone weary.
During an unexpected break in the weather ten days after the rescue, the Circassian found herself making excellent progress. She was running with most sails set, in a good wind, when a small schooner suddenly appeared on the horizon. The schooner, a 70-ton vessel, about 75 feet in length, was identified almost at once by a large, distinctive number on her sail. On Sunday, December 10, by 9 P.M. the Circassian took on board Captain James Sullivan to pilot the ship along the dangerous shores of Long Island into the safety of New York harbor.
The New York-Sandy Hook pilots regularly sailed several hundred miles out into the ocean searching for ships to assist. When they found a ship headed for harbor, they transferred one of their skilled pilots onto her to lead her into port. A ships captain could sail his vessel into port alone if he chose, but in almost every case such an action would have been extremely risky and foolhardy. Coastal navigation and navigation on the high seas had become two separate specializations. The licensed pilot's job was to know the coastline near his port well. It was essential he know and stay clear of every shifting sandbar, every dangerous current, and every potential hazard to the ship he was navigating. From the time a pilot took command, the safety of the ship was his responsibility.
Captain Sullivan knew, of course, that Long Island had already spelled disaster for many ships. Adjacent to the much traveled sea route to New York, this perilous shore was known to be one of the mighty Atlantic's graveyards; countless skeletons of ships lay buried beneath her waters. It was Captain Sullivan's job to be aware of any danger and to take all precautions.
Long Island, jutting east-northeast out into the Atlantic, was known for wide sandy beaches along most of its south shore, a gently sloped sandy bottom off shore, and, unfortunately, a hazardous sandbar paralleling most of its length. Montauk had a rocky shoreline. Though there were shallow bays behind the barrier beaches there was no protected harbor along the entire length deep enough to shelter a ship as large as the Circassian. Over the years many ships had lost their bearings and been blown by ocean winds onto this shore, either on the rocks off Montauk or on the bar. The exposed eastern end, with its greater surf and more treacherous currents, was particularly dangerous.
With the ship still on the high seas and the ship's precise location still not ascertained, Captain Sullivan was understandably reluctant, and under no obligation, to take charge. Captain Williams was the undisputed master on the open sea. Sullivan's duties would start as soon as a lighthouse or other clear landmark of the Long Island shore was spotted.
The next morning, Monday, December 11, trying once again to make up for lost time, the Circassian set all sails. The wintry day was cold and blustery but generally fair off the Long Island coast. Toward evening, however, darkness fell early, the weather changed, and the ship again encountered heavy seas, freezing temperatures, gale winds, sleet, and snow.
As much sail as possible was kept up under these conditions, but by 8 P.M. the weather made progress extremely difficult. The deck and rigging were thickly covered with ice and snow, and visibility was so impaired the lookout could see less than a ship's length ahead. The pilot, Captain Sullivan, who had been on deck watching for signs of shore, finally went below to rest and warm himself until the weather cleared. Acting in an advisory capacity. Sullivan figured the ship to be safe, about thirty miles from land; but as the northeast gale worsened, Captain Williams worried.
At 10:30 P.M., Sullivan returned to deck suggesting that soundings be taken to determine the depth of the water beneath them and, thus, their general proximity to shore. Though Captain Sullivan had not yet taken charge of the ship and still could see no landmarks, he was as worried as Williams about the gale blowing them up on the dangerous Long Island shore. Captain Williams gave the order to take soundings. As the large ship altered sail and slowly turned to windward, crewmen prepared to throw a lead line.
Suddenly, their worst fears becoming a reality, the ship struck. Everyone's attention immediately focused on the emergency, and all hands worked with furious speed to save the ship. Jib and head sails were pulled down and all yards braced to starboard. The attempt to throw the ship off the bar and head her back to sea was to no avail. Over the roar of the storm Smith of the Heath Park shouted to Williams, "It's no use Captain, the ship's ashore."
Cargo jettison, with hope of lightening the ship enough to free her, was begun. The gravity of the ship's situation now fully known, flares of distress were shot off into the night sky. Surprisingly, within moments, an answering light was seen on shore, a red flare telling those on the ship that they had been seen. That first signal was then followed by a welcomed blue light, a light signifying that there was available help at hand. The stranded mariners had only to persevere.
Work of jettisoning proceeded for a time, though due to the severe weather the attempt went poorly and was soon abandoned. It had taken over an hour to rig a tackle to remove just one cask of soda ash and one bale of rags from the hold. Without doubt, the ship was aground with no hope of freeing herself. The crew could only wait for that hope of rescue the signals on shore had promised. In the darkness, the Circassian crew could not know their ship had struck the outer part of the bar twelve miles east of Shinnecock Light. They also had no way of knowing they were stranded about 400 yards from shore, two miles south of the village of Bridgehampton, west of the Mecox Life Saving Station. They did know, with a dread certainty, that they were aground off Long Island, helpless, and at the mercy of yet one more storm.