"You have to go out, you don't have to come back." That was the unofficial motto of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Crews of surfmen, under the command of a Station Keeper, practiced drills six days a week and patrolled the beaches twenty-four hours a day--ready to risk their lives to rescue strangers from the perils of the sea.
Three stations were constructed on Core Banks: the Cape Lookout Station, built approximately two miles south of the lighthouse; the Portsmouth Station, built in Portsmouth Village; and the Core Banks Station, built between the other two. For more information on the surfmen who manned these stations, visit the Surfmen of the U.S. Life-Saving Service webpage.
The Storm and Shoals
The most famous rescue at the Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station was of the crew of the Sarah D.J. Rawson. The Rawson was a 386-ton, three-masted schooner whose seven-man crew was carrying a full load of lumber from Georgetown, SC to New York in February of 1905. At 5:30 pm on Thursday, February 9th--seven days after setting sail--the Rawson was driven onto the shoals, or shallow waters, approximately nine miles southeast of the Cape Lookout Station.
When the ship struck the shoals, the crew began to take in sail. Five members of the ship's crew were struck as water swept over the decks. One member of the crew was washed overboard and disappeared into the surf. The waters continued to sweep the deck and the crew lost much of their cargo and, more importantly, their life-boat. As the ship moved further onto the shoal, it began to break up. The crew moved to the highest part of the ship and waited.
Hidden from Sight
Nine miles away, a dense fog prevented the surfmen on watch from spotting the ruined schooner.It was noontime the next day before Keeper Gaskill saw the top of the Rawson and, based on the location, correctly guessed the ship was on the shoals.He gave the signal and the station crew immediately began preparing to launch the surfboat.
Keeper Gaskill and all eight members of the crew, most of them sick with influenza, set out for the wreck within 25 minutes of the first sighting.
A Night in the Storm
The surfmen and Keeper reached the site of the wreck at 4:00 pm that Friday. The Rawson, lying on her starboard side, was in the middle of breaking waves and surrounded by floating wreckage and lumber. The life-saving crew repeatedly attempted to navigate the debris to reach the shipwrecked crew only to be beaten back. Unable to reach the ship, and with night approaching, the crew anchored the surfboat a few hundred yards away. They anchored so close to the wreck, still among the debris, so they would be near enough to rescue some or all of the crew if the ship were to break up in the storm.
The Keeper and surfmen endured hunger and fatigue and suffered from exposure, but they maintained a vigilant watch.
The surfmen returned to the wreck at dawn, but Keeper Gaskill made the decision to wait for the tide to turn, when he expected conditions to improve, before attempting the rescue. Around one in the afternoon, the wind and sea calmed enough so the surfmen were able to reach the schooner.
A heaving line was cast to the schooner and, one by one, the shipwrecked crew members tied the line to their waists and were pulled onboard the Surfboat. The surfmen used their own coats to warm the rescued men. They reached the Life-Saving Station at about 5:00 pm.
The crew of the Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station had spent more than 24 hours in their boat--with no food or water, in the middle of a storm, and exposed to the elements with most of the surfmen sick with the flu. But, they were able to rescue every sailor left on board.
Keeper William H. Gaskill and Surfmen Kilby Guthrie, Walter M. Yeomans, Tyre Moore, John A. Guthrie, James W. Fulcher, John E. Kirkman, Calupt T. Jarvis, and Joseph L. Lewis were awarded the Gold Life-Saving metal "for heroic daring" in the rescue of the crew of the Sarah D.J. Rawson.
Last updated: October 20, 2023