U.S. Coast Guard Awards


Charles H. Valentine
Garrett H. White
Nelson Lockwood
Benjamin C. Potter
William H. Ferguson
John Van Brunt

 Awarded 18 June 1880


About an hour after midnight on 3 February 1880, Patrolman Van Brunt, of Station No. 4, Fourth District, New Jersey came upon the schooner E.C. Babcock, of Somers’ Point, NJ.  Driven near the shore by a storm, she was laden with cordwood and bound from Virginia to New York.  Van Brunt caught sight of her red port running light and fired his Coston signal.  The warning came late however, the schooner having got too near the beach to wear or tack.  Ten minutes later, she struck within a hundred yards of the shore.  Patrolman Van Brunt immediately went running to the station, a quarter of a mile to the south, and roused the crew.  The keeper, Charles H. Valentine, was quite sick at the time, but he and his men turned out with the mortar-cart and traveled to the wreck with all speed.  At times the wheels sank in the hollows of the beach and had to be lifted out.  The hard journey was accomplished in a very short time.  They determined the position of the vessel by the dull red spot of her port lantern.  With this to guide his aim, the keeper attempted to fire a shot-line across the deck of the schooner, beneath her rigging.

The first attempt failed because the frozen line broke.  The second shot had better fortune, carrying the line between the fore-stay and jib halyards. The men on board seized and hauled in the line.  A few minutes sufficed to bend on the hauling-lines and the hawser was soon dragged out to the vessel.  The first person that came ashore was a black man, who told, the crew that the captain’s wife and two children were on board. After the breeches buoy was sent back, it was quickly hauled ashore again, bearing the captain’s wife.  The next to come was the captain with his six year-old.  The mate soon followed with the captain’s other girl, ten years old.  Then, one by one, three sailors were drawn to land, being all on board.

Haste characterized this energetic rescue. Within one hour and fifty minutes after the vessel struck, the eight people on board the crumb­ling schooner were safe on land. They were taken to a nearby cottage where the custodian cared for them properly. By ten o’clock the next morning, the deserted vessel had broken into fragments and her cargo rolled and tumbled about the surf. 

Their work at the wreck of the E.C. Babcock over, Captain Valentine and the crew of Station No. 4 reloaded the cart with the apparatus and lines, arrived at the station by five o’clock in the morning.  After taking breakfast they fell to work, with the exception of two men who went out on patrol, cleaning and arranging the lines and getting the apparatus in working order.  At 10:00 AM they were still busy in the boat-room, when a patrolman bounded in with the news that a brig was coming dead for the shore.  The keeper, however, held them at their tasks, commanding them to hurry.  He realized nothing could be done until the apparatus was ready.  A few minutes later, the keeper went to the door and looked out over the swollen surf.  Able to see for a great distance, he saw the Spanish brig, Augustina, rushing toward the station.  Bound from Havana to New York, she had a crew of 8 and a cargo of cedar and hides.  Though several of the crew could be seen huddled up against the house, the man at the wheel steered with composure despite being soaked by a massive wave.  Within minutes the vessel struck head on with a tremendous shock and she swung around broadside to the sea, heeled down upon her side.

About 200 men and women had gathered upon the sand dunes.  Within ten minutes after the vessel struck, the crew was on site with the apparatus.  The Lyle gun was hastily prepared and the shot fired.  The line, however, broke shortly after fired.  Another shot had the same result.  The brig, in the meantime, had been driven further into the shore.  Surfman Garrett H. White, running into the surf as far as possible, succeeded in casting the heaving-stick and line on board, forward of the main rigging.  The sailors seized the cord and hauled the whip-line on board. An ugly mishap now occurred.  The sailors getting the tail-block on the end of the whip, pulled it on deck, but did not appear to know what to do with it.  They paid no attention to the instructions in two languages.  The E.C. Babcock, meanwhile, had broken up and while the sailors were dallying with the whip-line, its slack became entangled with the debris.

This current was interrupted by Augustina’s hull.  This caused an eddying swirl that held the great mass of the wreckage between the beach and the vessel.  The whip-line thus fouled was carried by the eddy towards the bow of the brig, where it was caught and held by the port anchor.  The life-saving men vainly tried to direct the sailors to arrange the line properly.  Spaniards failed to comprehend the warning gestures of the men on the beach and they hurriedly used the line as they supposed and tried to ashore hand over hand.  This would have been a hazardous venture in such a sea under the most fav­orable circumstances, but the debris made it all the more dangerous.  The course the sailors took could only have been adopted in the temerity of ex­treme fear.  The life-saving crew tried vainly to stop them.

In a few moments one of the half-naked group was hanging on the line and pulling himself along through the sea.  He had made about half the distance when the surf flung him over the whip-line.  He held on, but the two parts of the line crossed and caught him by the neck, almost strangling him.  Surfman Garrett H. White rushed waist deep into the breakers, holding to the line, and disentangled him.  At that moment a rush of the driftwood threw both men off their feet and they were swept from the line.  Surfman White, by a desperate effort, regained a foothold in the undertow and succeeded in landing him.  Meanwhile, two more of the sailors were swinging along the line.  Surfman John Van Brunt tried to get to one, but the driftwood knocked him off his feet.  Thrown into peril, a number of fishermen on the beach rescued him.

In the mean time Surfman White and an outsider had dragged in the sailor.  The third sailor from the wreck was on his way when the sea tore him from his hold.  For a few moments he was struggling in the water, then fell upon some driftwood.  Surfman Potter sprang for him, but was thrown from his feet on to the driftwood. Upon his back, Potter was held down by the whip-line, which was tautened by the current across his chest.  He managed to extricate himself from the line, and was washed seaward.  He fortuitously got a spar on the next incoming breaker and made out to struggle to the beach.  During these efforts Surfman Ferguson had reached the imperiled sailor and dragged him to the land.  Surfman Lockwood went for the fourth sailor and was hurled from his feet into the surf like his comrades, but kept hold of his man and brought him in.  In this way, five sailors of the Augustina were saved.  It is as wonderful as fortunate that the crew accomplished this gallant rescue without loss of life.  The risks run by the life-saving crew, and those who aided them, were extreme.  “Three of my men,” Captain Valentine afterwards remarked, “I never expected to see again.”  The Augustina was soon completely demolished by the sea. Her mainmast, which was about 120 feet long, was ultimately placed as a flagstaff on an elevation over­looking the ocean where she was destroyed.

The inspector who shortly after its occurrence visited the scene of disaster and ascertained the facts connected with it, closed his account with the following comment and recommendations:

The services of the crew of Station 4 during the gale in successfully rescuing the crews of the two vessels, one of them in the darkness of night, and the other under the most unpromising circumstances for success, were of an extraordinary character, and their efforts deserve something more than honorable mention; for in addition to their prompt performance of the important duty for which they are employed, they dis­played the most indomitable courage in braving the dangers to life and limb with which the lumber-laden surf was fraught, to rescue their fellow beings from almost certain destruction.

 

In my opinion, no man could have undertaken to encounter the perils of a surf thick with cord-wood and floating spars and timbers without imminent risk of life and that these men nobly carried their lives in the hands which they extended to the imperiled Spanish sailors, Is beyond all question.

 

It is therefore recommended that Surfmen Garrett H. White, B. C. Potter, Nelson Lockwood, William H. Ferguson, and John Van Brunt be rewarded by medals of the first class, and that Keeper Charles H. Valentine be similarly rewarded for his gallant and conspicuous devotion to the service and the cause of humanity in his conduct of the operations of his station during the stirring events of the morning, as well as for actually venturing his life in exposing himself to the fury of such a storm while in impaired health.


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Last Modified 10/22/2014