The Ephraim Williams was a 491-ton barkentine with a cargo of lumber leaving Savannah, Ga., and bound for her homeport of Providence, R.I., in mid-December of 1884.
Unfortunately, this trip was scheduled for the winter, a time the U.S. Life-Saving Service called “the storm season.” Sure enough, on December 18, the Ephraim Williams encountered a strong storm off Frying Pan Shoals, a very large hazard to navigation formed by silt and sand deposits from the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, N.C.
The pounding of the storm waterlogged the over-aged hull and the vessel became totally unmanageable and at the mercy of the winds and currents. Those two carried her up the coast from Wilmington toward the worst place for her to be in this condition: Cape Hatteras. She drifted for 180 miles and was spotted three days later, on December 21, by the life savers on beach patrol from the U.S. Life-Saving Service Stations of Durant’s (Hatteras Village), Creed’s Hill (Frisco) and Cape Hatteras (Buxton).
Even worse, the Ephraim Williams (and the Gulf Stream) had brought the storm with them. The seas were described in the official report as “mountainous high.” According to historian David Stick, “the sea was described by veteran observers as the roughest they had ever seen.” The captain decided to drop the anchors in hopes of stopping the drift toward the dreaded Diamond Shoals, where the ship would surely break apart.
The seas were too rough for the surfboat rescue and the Ephraim Williams much too far out for the breeches buoy rescue. The surf was breaking as far out as a half-mile. The Ephraim Williams was so obscured by the breakers and the vast amount of wind-driven spray that only her masts were visible to the lifesavers on shore. All they could do was watch in frustration.
As December 22 dawned, there were changes.
The morning watch found that the ship had drifted considerably more north and was stuck on part of the Diamond Shoals opposite the Big Kinnakeet Station (Avon). After all these hours of weather, storms and jostling, the ship would soon be falling apart, if that had not already begun. And many assumed there would be no lives left to save. But for the lifesavers the vigil continued.
The Big Kinnakeet crew had spent the night at the Cape Hatteras Station, the last known location of the ship, so they quickly raced back to their own station. After a quick breakfast Station Keeper Benjamin Dailey brought up the surfboat on its horse-drawn cart.
Around 10:30 that morning, someone on the stranded vessel suddenly raised a flag up the masthead. The anxious lifesavers spotted it with joy. Dailey immediately cried out orders that they were going out. As the surfmen donned cork life vests and gathered their equipment, one of them told the keeper that he thought this was a suicide mission. Dailey dismissed him, and Keeper Patrick Etheridge of Creed’s Hill (Frisco) volunteered to take the surfman’s place.
To reach the Ephraim Williams, the surfmen had to row 5 miles through the raging seas. When their surfboat finally reached the sinking ship, they realized that if they were to pull up alongside, the violent waves would crush them and their boat. So they anchored a way off, threw a line to the ship, and then took the nine-man crew off one at a time. The Ephraim Williams’ crew had suffered late December cold, hunger and a battering by the surf for 90 hours! Still, they had a long way to go before they slept. Back they went through 5 miles of awful surf, but all made it safely back.
For their conspicuous bravery the boat’s crew was later awarded medals of the first class. Those receiving awards included Keeper Benjamin B. Dailey and Surfmen Isaac L. Jennett, Thomas Gray, John H. Midgett, Jabez B. Jennett, and Charles Fulcher of the Cape Hatteras Station and Keeper Patrick H. Etheridge of the Creeds Hill Station.