February 2018, Ellen Potter, on the steamship Panama, writes:
“My goodness, we got by Hatteras all right & I thought we were out of all trouble! A SE gale met us and waters rose up & up like the steep roof of a house, covered with white caps… We rocked and we reeled and we rolled…”
By Hatteras, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” where North Carolina projects in a sweeping curve into the Atlantic and storms from local squalls to southeast gales to north-bearing hurricanes batter the coast and its low-lying off-shore islands–but it’s not the islands or the cape itself that wrecked so many ships. It’s the shoals, sandbars hidden under water, shifting with currents and tides and trapping even competent mariners.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore preserves over 70 miles of shoreline including relics of numerous wrecks. The National Seashore was not authorized by Congress until 1937, but the reputation of the shoals was established during the 1800s when travel up and down the Atlantic coast increased and the waters off Hatteras Island claimed “dozens if not hundreds” of ships. Several U.S. Lifesaving Stations were established and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built in 1870.
Ellen and Charles Potter, sailing from Massachusetts to visit Will Hobby in Panama, knew the history of the “graveyard,” but experienced their gale farther south, off Georgia.
Ellen’s description, “we rocked and we reeled and we rolled” alludes to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Bell Buoy.” Charles quotes the same poem elsewhere; their daughter Mabel memorized it and encouraged me to do the same several decades later.
There was never a priest to pray,
There was never a hand to toll,
When they made me guard of the bay,
And moored me over the shoal.
I rock, I reel, and I roll—
My four great hammers ply—
Could I speak or be still at the Church’s will?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!
As the gale came on, Charles Potter said, ” Wind out of south with occasional sweeping showers of rain. The storm increased in strength yesterday so that locomotion was difficult and uncertain. The passengers vanished to their rooms and the tables were almost deserted. I became aware of an uncertain feeling at the stomach which I felt might be premonitory symptoms of sickness…”
But a friend had given the Potters a “little stove.” See the next post, next week!