Saturday, November 15, 2014


15 November 2014: Most people think the coasts of Cape Hatteras and Cape Cod are pretty dangerous to ships passing by in heavy weather; they are, no doubt. But let's add to that short list the coast of New Jersey, between Sandy Hook and Cape May. Yep, the long, reasonably straight, and boring (if you're passaging it en route to the Delaware Bay, something I have done many times under sail). And the second most dangerous inlet in the U.S. is the Barnegat Inlet, second only to the Straits of Juan de Fuca in Washington state. The problem is that while the coast is indeed long, straight, and fairly flat, it also has some far-reaching sandbars that often, with changes in the weather, change shape and location. Charts only go so far and local knowledge is only as good as the last storm to visit the area. Add to that a strong wind from any eastern quarter (with the resultant seas) and you have the recipe for a disaster. If you doubt what I say, take a look at this chart of the coast line showing the wrecks that we know about:

While the number of wrecks is not at the level of Hatteras, there are a bunch and this chart shows only the ones that have been identified. And most are well within sight of the shore and in shallow (relatively) water. There are a few ships that foundered which are not listed, one glaring example is Moro Castle, which burned off the coast of Asbury Park in 1934. Of course the wreck, so close to the beach, has been cleared away, which is likely the reason it is not shown on the chart.

But, about 80 years before the Moro Castle wrecked and burned, there was an even more disastrous wreck with a loss of 284 lives, mostly German immigrants. The location of the wreck was almost in exactly the same spot, only a bit further offshore. The clipper ship New Era was sailing from Bremen Germany to New York carrying some 427 passengers. The ship was leaky, requiring the pumps to be manned by both passengers and crew almost constantly, and the weather, when she reached the coastline, was thick with a heavy sea running. Soundings (with a lead line) was the only way they had to determine their position.
New Era in better days

Alert lookouts heard the breakers well before they were visible, and by the end of the day, the clipper, unable to claw her way off the lee shore, struck and swung broadside to the mounting waves. That was 13 November, 1854. She was off what was then called Deal Beach, just north of Asbury Park. The southeast wind continued to build, and quickly the waves began to wash over the deck. An ineffective effort to get a line ashore by boat failed and the captain and crew abandoned, leaving the passengers, none of whom could speak English, to fend for themselves.
Telegraphic word went out of the disaster seeking assistance from other ships, and one, the Achilles, was lying off Sandy Hook. She was a steamer under command of a Captain Reynolds. The captain immediately set off to find the foundered ship and render assistance, but when he ultimately arrived at the scene, delayed by heavy fog, at 8PM, he found the ship awash with those still alive clinging to the rigging. The ship was surging to and fro with each wave. Achilles, unable to approach close enough to do any good, had neither life boats or enough life preservers, but she stood by. With none of the stranded passengers able to speak English, they could not even communicate with the stricken ship.

Those who were saved, were rescued by boats from the shore the next morning, the 14th November.
By midday, everyone who could be, had been rescued; just 143 souls, including the crew, were saved of the 427 who had embarked in Bremen. As bodies washed ashore, they were put in cheap wooden coffins (the coroner charged the county $7 each for the boxes) and interred in the Methodist burial ground between Long Branch and Eatontown.
The local press of the time described the disaster using such words as "shameful neglect," "desertion of helpless passengers," "loose conduct," and "inhumanity." It called for stricter regulations, imposition of great responsibility on the crew, and better protection of human life.
 The wreck - what's left of it - is presumed to be under about 15' of sand and has not been excavated. The anchor was uncovered following a storm in the 1890's and brought ashore where it still is seen today.

Another kind of eerie (cue music and Rod Serling) fact: in 1893, a monument some 12' tall to the disaster was erected near the shore at the site. The following year, there was a huge storm and the monument toppled into the sand. It has not been seen since, including last year, when the Asbury Park Historical Society used ground penetrating radar in an effort to locate it! So we have only a sketch of it that appeared in the New York Times:


So there you have it, a shipwreck story both timely and locally significant. One outcome from this disaster was the strengthening and expansion of what became the United States Coast Guard.

"It was a dark and stormy night . . ." Anonymous

                                                                Fair Winds,
                                                                    Old Salt

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