Aaron Reppard and the San Ciriaco Hurricane

: A three-masted schooner similar to the Aaron Reppard

: A three-masted schooner similar to the Aaron Reppard

What unfolded is one of the strangest, most bizarre and most inexplicable shipwreck stories of all time.

It seems like the Outer Banks’ worst hurricanes happen in double-digit years: 1933, 1944, 1999, 2011. But the first was 1899.

It started in the usual manner, in the south Atlantic during summer. This was before hurricanes were named, but this one got a name. As it passed over Puerto Rico during the feast of San (Saint) Ciriaco, it caused catastrophic damage and thus forever would be known as the San Ciriaco Storm. It devastated the Caribbean, ravaged most of the U.S. East Coast and lasted a month before dying a slow death in the Azores, nearly where it started. It took thousands of lives, destroyed countless buildings and wrecked every ship in its long, gruesome path. It was the most violent and destructive hurricane to hit the U.S. Atlantic coast at that time.

The storm had given plenty of warning. After leaving the Caribbean, it began leveling the Florida coast and moved slowly and relentlessly north. As it crawled up the Atlantic coast, it took dead aim on Hatteras. Specifically, the place of focus was the middle of Hatteras Island, covered by three stations of the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS): Chicamacomico, Gull Shoals and Little Kinnakeet (from present-day Salvo to Avon).

It struck the island violently on August 16, 1899. The first known victim here was the Aaron Reppard, a three-masted, 459-ton schooner. Carrying coal from Philadelphia to Savannah, she had a crew of seven and one very unfortunate passenger.

Perhaps unaware of the full oncoming fury of the storm, or perhaps out of ignorance, Aaron Reppard’s Captain Oskar Wessel decided to “ride out” the storm and dropped anchor offshore from Gull Shoals USLSS station (just south of present-day Salvo). This was a very strange decision, given the widely known evidence that if a wooden ship can be pushed freely by hurricane winds and waves, it is relatively safe and may endure the punishment. If, however, it is stationary, whether from anchorage or grounding, it becomes a target easily crushed in minutes by the power and force of gigantic waves.

Even anchored, the violent wind and waves were dragging the Aaron Reppard closer to shore, closer to wrecking, closer to doom. There was still time to hoist anchors and be saved from crashing onto the shore, but the captain did not do that. In fact, he did the utmost disastrous thing possible – he ordered the sails raised, which naturally increased the speed at which the ship was being dragged to shore.

The ship was already dangerously close to shore, and seeing the inevitable, all the crew and Mr. Cummings, the passenger, climbed the rigging to “higher ground.” From this perch, the ship’s crew saw that there were a number of life-saving crews already gathered on the beach prepared to spring into action.

Gull Shoal LSS

William Midgett, on beach patrol from Gull Shoals, has spotted the Aaron Reppard, knew she was in trouble and immediately reported to Keeper Pugh of his station on his return. Pugh telephoned stations Chicamacomico (adjacent north) and Little Kinnakeet (adjacent south). All three stations took up positions on the beach opposite the Aaron Reppard with their survival equipment. The ship was 700 yards offshore, out of range of the Lyle gun, and the surf was far too rough to launch the surfboats. So they watched and waited for the right moment to make their move.

The bewildered life-savers helplessly watched the Aaron Reppard drag anchor, bounce along the bottom, and then finally run hard aground. They knew she was in serious trouble and would break apart fast as the huge, angry surf pounded the wooden ship. Being stationary, the schooner was taking the full brunt of each horrific wave. Each hit was so violent that the survivors had to hold on for dear life. San Ciriaco wanted to shake them off into the sea. She soon had her way.

When the Aaron Reppard was dragged to within 500 yards of the shore, it was at the limit of capacity for the Lyle gun and worth a desperate try. The first shot burned off. The second shot fell short. The third shot was perfect, nearly within grasp of the crew, but the jolting was so severe and so frequent, that a sailor could not let go to retrieve it.

Horrifyingly, the mariners began falling from their lofty perches. Mr. Cummings fell from the mizzenmast, had a foot caught in a rope and then became a pendulum slamming into the mast. The mainmast snapped next, throwing its lone sailor into the deadly sea. In a panic, the captain jumped into the surf, started to swim for shore, changed his mind and turned around, and then disappeared beneath the turbulent waves.

The foremast fell next, carrying its five sailors into the sea. One was killed immediately. Another disappeared, but three others were doing their best to get to shore. Seeing this, the surfmen could no longer stand by. Sworn to oath, yearning to save, but thwarted by extreme violence of wind and water, their frustration was unbearable. They formed a new plan: Members of each station began an improvisation where one would strap on a cork life belt, tie a shotline (the line normally tied to the projectile, or the shot, fired from the Lyle gun) around himself, while two other surfmen would be his anchor onshore as he waded into the raging surf.

The high winds and heavy surf carried a lethal arsenal of debris from the broken ship, even huge spars. Seventy-year-old Keeper Hooper of Station Little Kinnakeet was one of the rescuers entering the surf. Almost immediately, pieces of debris struck his right leg and broke it. But he continued on because he could see three sailors still alive.

When all of the life-savers finally emerged from the sea, they had those three sailors with them, still alive. It was a dreadful and exhausting day with some failures but some successes, yet these men all knew full well it was not over.

When it was all over two days later, seven vessels were lost as total wrecks on the beach; six more disappeared in the tumultuous seas without a trace. The Minnie Bergen would be the last but not before the unbelievable story of the Priscilla. Stay tuned for that story next month. (You can find all the stories in this series at CoastOBX.com under the History tab.)

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