Foul Weather Musings
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If you travel from town, down Madaket Road, past Ram Pasture but well before you get to the dump, there is a dirt road that leads to the ocean. It is a place that reminds you of the power of the thundering Atlantic. You can stand there and understand how this island must have felt in the 1800s.
This is especially true in the off-season, when you are not likely to see another person on the long stretch of sand. The word atavistic comes to mind.
There was a time when shipwrecked sailors, who made it to the beach alive, might well die of exposure before reaching the safety of a farmhouse. On a cold and rainy day in December, when the wind is making the drops go sideways, it is not difficult to imagine a different time here.
I left my truck and stood near the edge of a steep bank, where early this summer I had seen swallows flying out of nests in small holes in the sandy bank. I am not great at reading the water, after two decades here I still only pretend to be able to smell a bluefish slick. But I could clearly see several places where the waves broke over sandbars. I knew that in front of the closest one there was a deep drop-off. There is a reason that surfers like these waters.
There is also a reason that cargo ships that slammed into sandbars just 300 yards offshore were once in mortal danger. Here is how one unfortunate mariner crossed those sandbars to the beach.
“In attempting to clear away the long boat, a sea struck her, and washed him away; he clung to her and in a very short time found himself on the shore. After reaching the shore he heard the dying shrieks of the crew. The arm of one of the men, lashed to a piece of the quarter rail, had drifted ashore and the beach was strewn with fragments of the vessel.”
That description comes from a story in the Republican Herald newspaper, of Providence, Rhode Island, on Saturday, Dec. 15, 1828. The man who washed ashore was the first mate, and the only survivor of the brig Packet, which had left St. Petersburg for Providence, Rhode Island with a cargo of hemp and iron. They never made it. The ship was cast ashore near Miacomet Pond and immediately broke to pieces.
Almost 60 years later, a three-masted schooner named the T.B. Witherspoon also the bad luck to be navigating off our island on one of those January nights that can only be described by the weather. The crew, including the first mate’s young wife and 6-year-old child, found themselves in the teeth of a storm so bad that they could not make it to the shore and rescue teams could not make it to the ship.
In the end, they all died, except that first mate. They were just 100 yards from the shore.
I stood looking at the ocean, thinking of men dying just a football field away, close enough for those on the shore to watch in helpless horror.
Then modern life interrupted the moment. My cell phone chirped that I had missed a message. I coach junior varsity basketball and we had been getting this season’s team ready for their first game today. But it would have to wait. The team we were scheduled to play could not make it to the island. The boats had been cancelled due to high winds.
– John Stanton