As Hurricane Isabel made her way up the Atlantic Coast in September of 2004, she was compared to the storm of 1933, which was the high water mark for the worst storm recorded in mid-Atlantic history. While researching this article, I was surprised to learn there were two bad storms in less than a month in 1933. The second storm was a hurricane that did considerable damage on the outer banks of North Carolina. In the wake of that hurricane, there is a story of the crew of the Diamond Shoal Lightship that speaks of bravery and courage. Other lightships and crews have been lost on the rocks and shoals they warn ships about. This lightship was almost a casualty of her duty station during the hurricane.
Before the storm, the duty station was 15 miles and 128 degrees from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and 5 miles from the outer edge of the shoal. The Diamond Shoal was one of the most exposed lightship stations in the world. The lightship had always been an important mark for north-south coastwise traffic. Her importance, however, was not respected by the hurricane as it blew into the outer banks on September 15, 1933.
That morning, weather conditions indicated a hurricane was approaching. At 8:00 a.m., Claudius C. Austin, shipmaster, recorded the winds were east between 40 and 45 miles per hour. The barometer was falling. The ship’s engine was started and they slowly headed into the wind in an effort to remain in their location. By noon, the wind was east-northeast, between 50 and 60 miles per hour, the barometer continued to fall and seas were rough, washing over the ship. They sighted the station buoy for the last time at about 2:00 p.m. in a heavy rain and spray. Two hours later, the ship began to drag its anchor as the winds had increased to 70 miles per hour. Radio contact was lost at about the same time. The engine speed was increased from 40 to 60 RPM (revolutions per minute).
When darkness began to fall, the storm itself arrived. In his report to superiors, Austin said the winds were between 70 and 85 miles per hour east-northeast. The barometer was still falling and the seas were mountainous, washing over the ship terribly. Engine speed was increased to 90 RPM. Around 1:00 a.m. on the 16th, with winds at 120 miles per hour, lightship LV105/WAL527 was washed into the breakers on the shoal, despite her
5,500-pound anchor and the 24,000-pound chain.
One of the first breakers crashing against the steel hull broke an air port that struck Austin in the face, neck and arms, cutting him badly. A ventilator close to the pilothouse was washed away. Braving the winds and rain, Mate S.F. Dowdy tried to get a stopper in the hole in the deck but was washed aft against a davit, breaking some ribs. In his weakened condition, he was almost washed overboard. Other crew members helped save him. The radio antennas were blown away by this time.
All night, the ship was tossed and battered in the breakers with waves crashing against her and breaking up everything on the upper deck. The landing boats, ventilation stacks and awning stretchers were washed away; awning stanchions were bent inboard. She was constantly taking in gallons of water around the smokestack and through the ventilation shafts. Down below deck, the water level was rising, sometimes above the fire room floor (3 feet.) There were no watertight compartments on the ship. The crew had all available pumps going and every other method they could find to bail out the water.
A drama of bravery was also taking place in the rocking and rolling boiler room where a fusible plug in one of the two Scotch boilers had blown. M.W. Lewis, J.J. Krauss, fireman, and A.D. Amyettem, seaman, had to let all the steam out of the boiler and then open the furnace. Someone had to climb inside and take out the plug then put a new one in place. After the replacement was completed, the steam was gotten up in the boiler and the ship had engine power again.
From 4:00 to 5:00 in the early morning on the 17th, the winds decreased to 50 miles per hour and the barometer hit its lowest point at 28.10 inches. When the sun rose, Master Austin could see an opening to the SSW that looked like their only hope to escape the breakers and certain death. They slipped the moorings and managed to get outside the breakers. The center of the hurricane passed over at about 7:15 a.m. Then the wind hit from the west at 90 miles an hour.
Under her own power, the ship ran southeast until Master Austin was sure they were clear of the strong winds. After a change in direction to the northeast, Austin felt the storm would pass his crew and ship. Things did not improve so they headed south. But the storm returned and they had to turn southwest.
By 5:00 a.m., the winds were northwest in a strong gale, but decreasing and the barometer was rising fast. Finally away from the storm, the crew worked until the radio antenna was fixed. Radio bearings from shore stations came in and the crew found they were approximately 60 miles east-northeast of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Later in the day, at around 4:00 p.m., they were 110 miles east-southeast of Cape Henry (Virginia). The lightship Chesapeake was sighted on Monday morning, the 18th, at about 8:00 after having no visibility and within the grasp of the storm since the preceding Friday at about 2:00 p.m.
Because the ship was damaged too much to return to her duty station, she headed to the Portsmouth (Virginia) Lighthouse Depot. She arrived about 2:00 p.m. and a relief ship was sent to replace her at Diamond Shoals.
In a letter from President Franklin Roosevelt to the Secretary of Commerce, the officers and crew were commended for their bravery and high order of seamanship. The President said, “I am fully appreciative of the exceptional character of the services performed by these men in saving their vessel, and in protection of shipping along the coast; and I wish to convey to them my personal commendation for the manner in which they performed their dangerous duties during this storm.” The letter was framed and hung in the ship.
The following members of the crew were aboard the lightship during the storm:
C.C. Austin, master; S.F. Downy, mate; T.G. Wise, assistant engineer; W.F. Haake, radio operator; J.T. Paul, cook; M.W. Lewis and J.J. Krass, fireman; and E.F. Crewe, J.M. Hall, A.D. Amyette, and C.M. Farrow, seaman.
The Lighthouse Service reported storm damage, including the radio tower blown down, telephone wires down and buildings undermined, to nearby Cape Lookout Light Station. Extensive damage was also suffered by minor lights on the outer banks at Core Sound, Alligator River, Pamlico Sound and in the Neuse River.
Lightship LV105/WAL527 was repaired and returned to her duty station only to experience another hurricane in 1936 when she was caught in 100 mph winds and dragged 11/2 miles. The riding gear was severely sprung, one boat stove in and the cradle and davits washed away. The engine room ventilators were damaged. Two years later, she was again blown off her duty station in another storm. In 1942, she was assigned to Portsmouth and used as an examination vessel. On June 20, 1944, she was rammed and sank at Portsmouth, Virginia.
This story appeared in the
August 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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