Capt. Walter Chase and the rescue of the HP Kirkham
by: John Stanton
photography by: courtesy of Egan Maritime Institute/Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum
As the years turned his famous rescue into a story, a memory, Walter Chase took a room in a house owned by Mary Nye at 14 Hussey St. Chase’s grandfather was Owen Chase of the ill-fated whaleship Essex. Nye’s husband, Joseph Palmer Nye, was a whaling captain himself, of the whaler Alta. And so, sitting around the pot-bellied stove some cold winter evening, Chase may have felt he was in trusted company.
It is family lore that one such night the old Life-Saving Service skipper said that if he knew the H.P.Kirkham was wrecked on Rose and Crown Shoal 11 miles offshore, instead of Bass Rip as first thought, he might have decided not to risk it.
Whether the story was true, or just the reshaping of often-told stories over the years, is beside the point. When the mo- ment came on that frigid January morn- ing in 1892, Chase and his crew did go out, into the teeth of a fierce winter storm, and pulled off one of the most re- markable rescues in U.S. Life-Saving Service history.
“Far across the Chord of the Bay, as you look over the water eastward from Nantucket town, at the inmost point of the bend of land sweeping around from Wauwinet to Great Point Light, there nestles a little white structure with a cupola crowning its roof. This is Coskata life-saving station,” wrote The Inquirer and Mirror just a few weeks after the rescue, in an editorial plea for the government to pay life-saving crews more and give their families a pension if they died while attempt- ing a rescue.
“An idyllic retreat in the summer, when only the keeper is on duty; it is bleak, cold, lonely in the winter when the crew are at their post.”
The station was about two miles south of Great Point Light. It was built in 1883. The first keeper was a Civil War veteran named Capt. Benjamin Pease. One of the first surfmen he hired was Chase. When Pease stepped down, he named Chase his successor. Chase was allowed to hand-pick his crew.
Chase was 6’4” and powerfully built, with a full head of wild hair and mutton- chop sideburns. He had a commanding voice. His crew trained constantly and came to trust his nautical judgement without question.
“Life-saving crews were like frontiers- men, but willing to endure something scarier than anything a terrestrial nature can create,” said Nathaniel Philbrick, au- thor of a dozen non-fiction books, in- cluding the National Book Award-winning “In the Heart of the Sea.”
“We don’t recognize that today be- cause we have turned our backs to the sea.”
By the end of the 1800s, whaling was no longer an option for Nan- tucketers. Still, this was a place where seamanship and nautical skills had always been valued above all else. The U.S. Life- Saving Service was a job where those skills often meant the difference between life and death.
“Any occupation on the water is dangerous and life-saving takes that and cubes it,” Philbrick said. “These were not just noble men willing to risk their lives out there. It took tremendous skills to do what they were doing in a small boat in hurricane conditions.”
“In some way, having that skillset might have been frustrat- ing then,” he said. “The culture was changing and passing a whole group of people by. Joshua Slocum sailed around the world because while he had this tremendous skillset as a cap- tain, it was going by the board as things schooner from Halifax, Nova Scotia, bound for New York City. There were six crew members and a captain on board. The cap- tain, whose name was McCloud, was also the ship’s owner.
McCloud told The Inquirer and Mirror that everything was going fine until the night of Jan. 20. The weather turned stormy. Sleet and snow were turbocharged by a dense and vio- lent squall.
In the middle of it all, the ship hit hard on Rose and Crown Shoal. The shoals around Nantucket were legendary. There is a long list of ships wrecked on them in the 1800s. During World War I, one cargo captain is said to have decided that risking an attack from a German U-boat that was known to be prowling off the East Coast was preferable to taking a chance and steam- ing through the Nantucket shoals. In 1976, the oil tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on a shoal called Fishing Rip and spilled approximately 36,000 barrels of oil.
Rose and Crown Shoal is a boot-shaped shoal with its south- ern end about 10.5 miles east of Sankaty Head. It stretches about five miles north and three miles west. The water around it goes shallow fast, to the depth of just about eight feet.
The crew of the H.P. Kirkham must have been sure this would be their last night on Earth. The schooner’s sails were shredded. The ocean tore off part of its bow. Water began pour- ing into the ship.
The crew fired off some flares to no effect, then carried their bedding onto the deck and lit it on fire in a last-chance effort to signal someone on the shore. After that they climbed into the rigging as the ship began to sink, hanging on for 15 hours as the ocean and the squall raged around them and they stared into the frozen face of eternity.
As morning broke, Joseph Remsen, keeper of the Sankaty lighthouse, thought he saw something out on the horizon, from high up in the lighthouse, looking through his long glass. He wasn’t completely sure if he even really saw anything, but he picked up a phone line that ran to the Coskata Life-Saving Sta- tion.
Chase could not see the fires from the Coskata station, but he knew Remsen. Both men figured the ship was on Bass Rip, not nearly as far offshore as Rose and Crown. He got his crew out of bed and fed them a quick breakfast. He called Remsen back and asked him to call over to Vineyard Haven for a tug- boat to assist them, to head out to Bass Rip. Three of the surf- men at the station were out sick, replaced by relatively untrained substitutes. They pushed off from the shore at 8 a.m.
They reached the H.P. Kirkham around 11 o’clock that morning. The ocean was breaking over the deck and the star- board rail was completely submerged. The crew used what was called a heaving stick to toss a line to the men in the rigging of the doomed schooner. The crew bent a heavier line on the stick and tossed it back to the rescue boat.
The idea was for the surfmen to carefully haul their boat near the wreck and pull sailors off it one by one. But the frightened sailors began to haul in the line instead of making it fast to their ship. This was a good way to swamp the rescue boat. Chase pulled out a knife and told the sailors he would cut the rope unless they stopped recklessly tugging it.
There is a moment in any rescue that only those waiting to be rescued and those rushing to their rescue will ever under- stand.
Matt Welsh understands. Almost 30 years ago, he was a young Coast Guard coxswain stationed in Provincetown and on his first major search-and-rescue mission. A sailboat had been dismasted 20 miles east of Peaked Hill Shoal, in 20-foot seas, with the wind gusting up to 50 knots. The boat was bound for New York, out of Halifax. On board were a husband, his wife and two young children.
“It took us six and a half or seven hours just to get on the scene in our 44-footer,” Welsh told Nantucket Today in 2012. By then he had risen to senior chief of U.S. Coast Guard Sta- tion Brant Point.
“We finally make it to this boat, with no clue how we’re going to do this. The current was really ripping, and every time we’d be behind the sea we’d lose sight of the boat. My first thought was to take them off and let the boat go. But the hull wasn’t breached. Somehow we got a line over to them. It took us 18 and a half hours to tow them home.”
What stays with Welsh to this very day is the look on the faces of the rescued family.
“You would have thought they just hit the lottery, that there was nothing wrong with the world, like it was flat calm and everything was great just because they saw us coming for them. Once you get a taste of that, the feeling that you can reach be- yond yourself and make a difference to somebody, it stays with you. It’s hard to let it go,” he said.
The Life-Saving Service surfboats of the late 1800s, often Monomoy surfboats, were 26 feet long with a maximum beam of about seven feet. They were pulled by eight oars, but also equipped with a centerboard and sail. They were double-ended and built with cedar planks over an oak frame. They weighed 2,100 pounds.
Now the seven surfmen shared that relatively-small boat with thesevenH.P.Kirkhamcrewtheyhadjustrescued.Theyrowed for home until 5 p.m., but the tide was against them. They had made it less than a mile.
“And then came the return,” an account in the Jan. 14, 1950
edition of The Inquirer and Mirror read. “The rescued men were hungry, cold and exhausted . . . so weak as to be useless for as- sistance in returning, and the keeper knew that it would be little short of a miracle if they reached land alive.”
Chase ordered the mast and sail dumped overboard. He dropped anchor to await a favorable tide. The crew bailed the ocean from the boat. They were allowed to catch only a few minutes sleep at a time, so they would not freeze. Some of the rescued men moaned in pain. One surfman began to vomit. They kept an anxious eye out for the tugboat, which never showed up. The captain of the tug decided the weather was too rough and had turned back.
At 10 a.m. that morning, after 26 hours, the surfmen and the rescued crew finally reached the Sconset shore. The rescued sailorswerebroughtinsideandcaredfor,butChaseorderedhis men to properly stow their boat before they headed for a fire- place.
Chase was awarded a gold medal from Congress for the rescue. His crew were awarded silver medals. Before he could re- ceive his medal, 18-year-old surfman Roland Perkins died from the effects of exposure suffered during the rescue.
Walter Chase ended up the way those we call heroes some- times do, remembered only by a few, to whom his memory takes on greater meaning in the looking back, because they be- come symbols of a time gone by.
Chase died in September 1929. He was 77 years old. Years later, his friend Austin Strong wrote the following in the I&M: “Sometimes on a summer evening he would be found stand- ing ankle-deep on the mud-flats at the edge of the harbor, his giant frame mirrored on the silver surface of the receding tide. Sea-gulls, no doubt the souls of his departed shipmates, tripped daintily around his red boots waiting for his clam rake to turn up the appetizing mud. He would stand minutes at a time, im-
movable as Lot’s wife, eyes clouded with old thoughts.
“He had the presence of a king. He could ride swiftly down Hussey Street on his rusty old bicycle, his open shirt flying, his
baggy trousers held up by enormous suspenders, the tops of his rubber boots flying, and not look ridiculous. Instead the sight was awe-inspiring, as Zeus in a tandem chariot riding to Olym- pus.
Few Nantucketers outside his contemporaries knew his story, many had forgotten it. He was taken for granted by the oncom- ing generations, a figure hardly noticed drifting among us al- most unseen. Yet there was a day when this quiet, self-effacing giant aroused the admiration of his countrymen everywhere.”
His gravestone in Prospect Hill Cemetery puts it this way: He was one of nature’s noblemen. ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Walter Chase lived with his wife Marianne’s great-great grandmother Mary Harris Riddell Nye at 14 Hussey St. and her family referred to him as “Uncle Walter.”