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U.S. Coast Guard Awards

Isaac F. Mayo

Awarded 10 November 1879

On 4 April 1879 the three-masted schooner Sarah J. Fort of Tuckerton, NJ bound from Hoboken to Boston with a cargo of coal, wrecked about 1.5 miles west of Station No. 7, Second District, Cape Cod. A thick snowstorm was raging with a strong northerly gale and a heavy sea. Due to a navigational error, the vessel struck on one of the outer Peaked Hill bars at one o’clock in the morning, a quarter of a mile from the shore. The darkness, the snow, and her distance from land prevented her being discovered by the patrolman then on the beach. An hour later, two fresh patrolmen from Station No. 7, going in opposite directions, encountered small pieces of wreckage thrown up by the surf at their feet. They believed this had come from a vessel sunk near Scituate some days before and returned to the station to report. They then resumed their respective patrols. One of them arrived about a mile beyond the point where he had seen the wreckage and found pieces of a boat and deck-plank. He also dimly saw the outlines of the vessel. Hurrying back to the station, he roused the crew, who at once loaded the cart with the Lyle gun and appurtenances and started, under the lead of Keeper D. H. Atkins for the wreck.

The sand, converted by the snow and surf into a species of slush, was in a terrible condition for hauling and the progress of the men was greatly slowed. After getting on nearly a mile, Keeper Atkins hastened ahead of his men for observation. Upon sighting the wreck he judged her to be too distant to be reached by the Lyle gun and hurried back, taking a portion of his crew to fetch the Parrott gun, a heavier piece of ordnance, from the station. This was a grievous error because the Lyle gun, only recently supplied to the station, was superior. On his way back the keeper came upon a horse and cart. He immediately engaged the driver to convey the surfboat on its carriage, together with extra shot-lines, to the wreck while he and his detail took the Parrott gun on a hand-barrow. Making the most violent exertions, the advanced portion of the crew contrived to come abreast of the wreck about daybreak and the remainder with the heavy gun and the surfboat arrived within an hour later. Shortly afterward Keeper Young of Station No.6 joined them with three of his men. This was subsequently followed by Keeper Worthen and two men of Station No. 8. All lent energetic assistance to the operations.

Preparations were immediately made for firing a line to the wreck. The tide was full and the magnitude and violence of the surf precluded boat service. The schooner’s hull was almost buried in the water which rushed over her and her crew of six men who were up in the fore-rigging, clinging for life. She lay nearly broadside to her main and mizzen masts. Masses of wreck-stuff continually flung from her already disintegrating frame. About seven o’clock, while the life-saving crew were using the ordnance, the main and mizzen masts fell.

With the Parrott gun and the shot-lines speedily brought into position by the crews, the firing began. From this time until nearly noon, nine shots were fired. None, however, succeeded in reaching the vessel. The firing was directly in the wind’s eye and the lines either fell short or were snapped by the heavy charges of powder employed to strain the gun’s carrying power. Before the firing ceased, the foremast fell. Still attached to the vessel, it thrashed and plunged about her hull. Fortunately, the tide had ebbed enabling the men to leave the rigging of the fallen spar and huddle together in the port bow. Although ebb tide, this small portion of the wreck to which the men clung, was the only part not submerged by the tremendous sea. During all the time of the firing the vessel steadily continued to break up. About ten o’clock the cook and the mate fell into the sea from exhaustion and perished. There were four survivors in the port bow.

At low tide conditions improved and an attempt with the boat became possible. The keeper, therefore, discontinued further effort with the gun and made up a selected crew of four men from No. 7 and three from No. 6. To these were added Captain Isaac F. Mayo, of Provincetown, a surfman of great experience and bravery, who had come upon the beach with a number of volunteers from the town.

The boat was launched. Keeper and crew sprang to their places, but at the same instant the surf boarded her and filled her half-full. She was immediately dragged back upon the beach, emptied, and made ready for a second trial. An interval of twenty minutes was allowed in the hope that the continuing ebb would diminish the surf and the effort was again renewed with the same crew. The launch was made and the boat cleared the first breaker. The second, however, combed over and filled her. A moment after, full to her gunwales, she rose on the summit of an enormous sea which cast her and her crew back upon the beach with a heavy shock, springing five of her timbers and splitting her garboard. The hardy men spilled from her, scrambling up, and hauling her out of reach of the surf. Examining the boat, they found her disabled and unfit for service.

It is probable that in the intense excitement and confusion following this failure, the injuries to the boat were magnified and that she might soon have been repaired and got ready for another trial. Another boat, however, was approaching. During the firing of the forenoon, Captain Harvey S. Cook of Provincetown came down to the beach in a buggy. He had driven back again to town, with the assent of Keeper Atkins, to send a whaleboat to the scene for service. This had had started Captain Mayo to the beach with a considerable number of townspeople. They arrived by a short cut in advance of the team.

The boat brought proved to be a different and smaller model than that originally proposed. This happened to be favorable given the conditions. She arrived upon the beach a short time after the failed surfboat launching and Captain Mayo assumed command. He chose a crew of fresh men, declining to receive on board Keeper Atkins and several members of his crew who pleaded to be allowed to go. In taking this course, Captain Mayo was undoubtedly justified for several reasons. The keeper and his men had eaten nothing since the evening before were much spent by their exertions since about three o’clock in the morning. Also their long exposure upon the wintry beach, could not reasonably be preferred to an unworn crew.

As soon as the preliminaries were settled, the launch was made. The life-saving crews assisted, but the boat instantly filled and had to be hauled up on the beach and emptied. Upon a second trial, the boat became half-full, but was pulled through the breakers. The crew bailed in the comparatively unbroken water outside. The most difficult and dangerous part of the exploit was then entered upon. The unstable sea was encumbered with masses of wreck debris--snarls of cordage, wefts of canvas, broken planks, and timbers convulsively driving and tumbling on every side. To pilot the boat through this obstructing and perilous drift required as much skill and patience as courage. The obstacles and dangers thickened as the wreck was gained and fresh difficulties were added by the helplessness of the exhausted men on board. The captain was especially exhausted. By taking time, and exercising great skill and perseverance, the remaining crewmen were finally taken off the wreck one by one. The boat being small, their number crowded her very much. Her management on the return to land was no easy matter. The hazard of the surf in a following sea was, of course, always great. Notwithstanding the precautions taken, a heavy wave swept up under the stern as the boat reached the last breaker and threw her end over end. This tossed every one on board into the surf and undertow. An instantaneous rush was made by all on shore and the people were seized by scores of hands and dragged from the water. Some were under the boat and all were in imminent danger of being swept away and drowned. It is fortunate that the great crowd of spectators provided much needed assistance. Otherwise, loss of life would probably have ensued.

The rescued men from the vessel were nearly insensible with cold and exhaustion when brought ashore. Their hands were badly frostbitten. They were at once conveyed to Station No. 7, where the life-saving crew, faint with hunger and fatigue, were gladdened to find that food had been prepared for all hands by the keeper’s wife and a mother of one of the station members. These ladies were also of great service in dressing the frostbitten hands of the rescued sailors, relieving the weary surfmen of this duty.

In recognition of the services he rendered in this rescue, Captain Mayo received the Gold Lifesaving Medal. It was to be regretted that Keeper Atkins’s success was not equal to his efforts on this occasion. He had always been regarded as an efficient keeper and his record for fidelity, courage, and energy at scenes of shipwreck was well-known to the officers of the USLSS.

Last Modified 1/12/2016