Barkentine Angela ~ A Caffeys Inlet Station No.5 Rescue, 5 March 1883
By James D. Charlet
There are hundreds upon hundreds of shipwreck and rescue accounts faithfully documented in great detail in the “Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service” (direct predecessor of today’s U.S. Coast Guard) for each year from 1876 to 1914. Most are dramatic; some extremely so such as the rescues of the Ephraim Williams, the Priscilla, the E.S. Newman and the Aaron Reppard. Some are very sad indeed, such as the Strathairly, the double-act of the Huron and Metropolis, the Central America and the inexplicable Nuova Ottavia. A few, but not many, are even humorous. This is one of those stories!
This will involve an intentional grounding, the response of two neighboring stations, a self-rescue attempt, a temporary disappearance mystery and finally a happy and humorous ending.
Angela was a 373-ton barkentine transitioning from Genoa, Italy, to Baltimore, MD, bound with a cargo of iron ore from Cartagena, Spain, and had a crew of ten men and was mastered by Captain Carlo. A barkentine, also spelled barquentine, is a sailing ship of three or more masts having fore-and-aft sails on all but the front mast (foremast), which is square rigged. Because of the reduction of square sails, it required fewer crew members and was popular in the Pacific after its introduction about 1830.1 The term “barquentine” is seventeenth century in origin, formed from “barque” in imitation of “brigantine”, a two-masted vessel which was square-rigged only on the front mast.
The mines near the city Cartagena, Spain were very productive, and thousands of men and beasts were employed in transporting lead, iron, copper, zinc and sulphur to the coast. These commodities were shipped world-wide, including Baltimore, the USA center of shipbuilding at the time. Very early in the history of the colony of Maryland, iron ore was discovered in the Arundel ore belt. This quickly gave rise to smelting furnaces, blacksmith shops, foundries, and eventually, to shipbuilding. With its location on the Patapsco River, Baltimore was an ideal place for shipbuilding yards and companies. The river empties directly into the vast Chesapeake Bay, which in turn is the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean and the East Coast of the United States. The bonus of being located in the heart of iron country made Maryland the leading shipbuilder in the nation by 1790.
The barkentine Angela was nearing the American eastern coast, then in the vicinity of the North Carolina Outer Banks. The vessel had earlier sprung a leak which continued to get worse in the crossing, eventually was sinking so, was run aground to save the lives of her crew. She stranded at midnight 300 yards from shore, and a quarter of a mile south of the Paul Gamiels Hill Life-Saving Station (6th District). At the time the sea was high, the surf raging, and the wind blowing freshly from the north. The wreck was immediately seen by the two patrolmen just starting away from the station on their respective beats, one of which was clearly Paul Gamiels Hill and the other was one of her neighboring stations, either Caffeys Inlet to her north or Kitty Hawk to her south, the Annual Report does not say. Whichever it was, one of the patrolling surfmen promptly fired the red Coston light as a signal to those on board and gave the alarm. The keeper of Paul Gamiels Hill Station, William H. O’Neal, at once roused all hands, and they turned out with the surfboat and beach apparatus. As was usually the case, they speedily got abreast of the wreck and from that time until morning they were engaged in efforts to communicate with the grounded barkentine via International Signal Flags.
International Signal Flags
These flags are used at sea for communication between ships and between ship and shore. They can spell out short messages, since each flag represents one letter of the alphabet and individual flags can be combined for specific standard messages, such as “Desire to Communicate” (K) “Require Medical Assistance” (W). On ceremonial and festive occasions, the signal flags are used to ‘dress’ (decorate) ships. This signaling system was drafted in 1855 and published in 1857 and was gradually adopted by most seafaring countries. It was revised in 1932.2
The steepness of the beach at Paul Gamiels Hill Station would strongly play into the outcome of this story. First, it caused greater than normal surf and breakers. Therefore, use of the surfboat was ruled out in favor of using the beach apparatus with the Lyle gun and breeches buoy. Two shots fired in succession fell short of the wreck, and a third parted the line; this was not an uncommon occurrence. Rarely would the shotline simply break, since they were inspected and maintained routinely, but it did happen occasionally. More common was the exploding black powder when the gun was fired which would ignite the line and slowly burn it through in flight. Never giving up, a fourth line reached the vessel. Then something strange happened: this process always involves someone onboard the ship to retrieve the shotline and start hauling it in to the ship. But nothing was happening, so the lifesaving crew waited, wondering why the sailors did not haul the line on board. The solution came at daybreak, when the barkentine’s men were discovered out at sea in the ship’s boat, beyond the line of breakers, having abandoned the vessel under the conviction that she was going to pieces. They were attempting to rescue themselves! But their lack of knowledge of the circumstances and even the language would have gotten them in serious trouble, if not fatally. That is what the United States Life-Saving Service is for!
Looking back towards the beach from in their ship’s boat out at sea, the Italian crew now sees the Paul Gamiels crew of lifesavers on the beach. So, Captain Carlo ordered his crew to begin rowing back that way to be professionally rescued. “But the lifesavers waved him back, displaying a large red flag as a warning. Soon the Italian tried again, was waved back a second time; he moved up the beach and headed in a third time but was still warned away. What he did not know was that the tide was at its highest and the beach at that particular spot was so steep that it was impossible to successfully guide a boat through the surf.” 3 It would have been certain death for the entire Italian crew and probably some of the surfmen trying to save them.
Understandably confused and frustrated, and perhaps annoyed, the Angela’s Captain Carlo at 9:00 a.m., directed his nine sailors to take the small ship’s boat farther out to sea, passed the breakers, and to head north. Perhaps more friendly people would be found there. “Four miles, five, seven, his crew rowed, until a building came into view and another group of men on the beach opposite.” 4 This was the Caffeys Inlet Life-Saving Service Station No. 5 with Keeper Austin, the Officer in Charge. Here, the official record in the Annual Report becomes confusing, but apparently Keeper O’Neal of Paul Gamiels Hill notified Keeper Austin of Caffeys Inlet via telephone to be on the lookout for the Italian crew which had been seen heading in that direction.
Caffeys Inlet crew, as per the later Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus, were always ready. They were on the beach with their surfboat ready to launch waiting to spot the Angela’s ship’s boat. Soon it was spotted and considerately the surf had substantially subsided; Caffeys Inlet dutifully launched their surfboat. Still, in the half-mile of rowing to get to the Italians, the Caffeys Inlet surfboat “shipped,” or took on about a barrel, or over fifty gallons, of salt water overwash. They took off five of the sailors, returned all safely to the beach, and relaunched to retrieve the remaining five sailors. This time they even saved the captain’s chest of books, papers, and instruments, and returned safely to the shore. It was then 11 o’clock in the forenoon.
The Annual Report ends on this high note:
The men thus happily rescued were in a pitiable plight. The sea had drenched them, one might say, to their very hearts, and they were famished and half frozen. Some of them were nearly naked, and the remainder had not clothing enough to keep them warm under ordinary circumstances. No time was lost in making them comfortable with food and cordials, and dry clothing was procured for them from the Poyners Hill Station, next above, a supply being on hand there, donated by the Women’s National Relief Association. The men thus succored poured forth gratitude in their profuse Italian way and called down blessings on the lifesaving crew for rescuing and caring for them.
Thus, is the short, true and somewhat amusing story of the rescue of the Italian barkentine Angela in March of 1883 on the northern shores of Dare County by the heroes of the United States Life-Saving Service Station Caffeys Inlet No. 5.
2 Much of this information, but not all, comes from https://www.omniglot.com/writing/imsf.htm
3 Stick, David, Graveyard of the Atlantic, UNC Press, Chapel Hill, 1953, p. 112.
4 Stick, p. 112.