Most reviews of the popular annual gift books provided a way for material-starved editors to fill the pages of their periodicals with extracts of the choicest pieces from the annual being reviewed. Reviewing the popular Token, The Boston Literary Magazine included “The Shipwrecked Coaster,” a detailed adventure story with a moral slant. Including this piece, the editor passed up three works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and works by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia H. Sigourney, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.


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“The Shipwrecked Coaster” (from The Boston Literary Magazine, November 1832; pp. 297-307)
THE SHIPWRECKED COASTER.*
Who can stand before His cold?—Psalm cxlvii. 17.

There are few classes of men more exposed to hardships and disaster, than those employed in the coasting trade of New England, particularly in the winter season. So great are their risks of property and life, at that time of the year, that it is the custom of many to dismantle their vessels and relinquish their employment till the Spring; although they can poorly afford this period of cessation from labor, and consequent loss of income. Among those engaged in conveying fuel from the forests of Plymouth and Sandwich to the Boston market, there are some who continue their business through the Winter. But they incur great hazards, and sometimes meet with most disastrous issues. One of these events it is my present purpose to relate. The particulars I have ascertained from eye witnesses of a part of the scene, and from one who was a personal partaker of the whole.

In the Winter of 1826-7 the weather was uncommonly severe for some weeks, during which the land was covered with snow, and the shores were encased in ice. It was a boisterous, cold and gloomy season. From my dwelling-house there was a plain view of the little harbor of Sandwich, in which the few vessels employed in the business before named, shelter themselves, and receive their lading of wood to be conveyed to Boston. Some of these were already dismantled for the Winter; others were laden, and had been waiting a relaxation of the

* From the Token and Atlantic Souvenir, for 1833.

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weather, in order to effect a passage. In that region a period of severe cold is commonly succeeded by rain. The northwest wind, which brings ‘the cold out of the north,’ gives place to a wind from a southerly point, which comes loaded with a copious vapor, and pours it down like a deluge. It so took place on the occasion to which I refer. Rain from the southeast had continued for two or three days, accompanied with tempestuous wind and occasional thunders and lightnings. It had dissolved much of the snow; but had filled the roads and low and level places with water. The ground being hard frozen, retained the water on its surface; and this, with the remaining snow half dissolved, rendered the aspect of nature cheerless, and the moving from place to place uncomfortable. About noon, on the 16th of January, the rain ceased, and the weather being comparatively warmer than it had been, gave some prospect of a few days in which business might be done.

In the afternoon of that day, perceiving that there were some dry places on which the foot might be safely set, I embraced the opportunity to walk forth; glad to inhale the fresh air and meet the faces of men, after having been so long confined by the weather. The wind was comparatively soft, but gusty; the air was loaded with vapors, and, in the higher regions, clouds of all shapes and varying densities were seen tolling over each other in different directions, as if obeying no guidance of the wind, but pursuing each an inward impulse of its own.

While doubting, for a moment, which way to walk, I beheld, on an eminence, not far distant, a solitary individual, with his face towards the harbor, seeming to be deeply intent on something there taking place. An impulse of curiosity moved me to approach him, when I discovered him to be an old experienced master in the coasting trade.

I accosted him in the customary style of salutation, but he answered me not a word. His eye was intently following the motions of a small schooner, loaded with wood, which was slowly moving toward the mouth of the harbor. My own eye pursued the motion of his, till the Almira (the schooner’s name) had rounded the point forming the west side of the harbor, and hoisting her sails stood towards the north. As soon as he saw this, he lifted his hands and exclaimed, ‘He has gone out of this harbor, and he will never come into it again!’ I remarked that the wind was southerly, and of course fair. But he paid no attention to the remark. He again lifted his hands, repeat-

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ed his exclamation, and, with a sorrowful countenance, departed.

I stood awhile observing the progress of the schooner. It was not very rapid. The wind, was vacillating, and shifting round about her, as if uncertain in what direction, to establish itself. And the vessel seemed as if conscious of the uncertainty of the wind, and therefore undecided as to the position of her sails and rudder.

The master of the Almira was Josiah Ellis, a man of between fifty and sixty years of age. He was one whose gigantic frame seemed able to abide the fiercest ‘pelting of the pitiless storm.’ He had so often encountered the violence of the elements, and so often conquered them by the simple energy of a vigorous constitution, that he took little care to guard himself against them. Reckless of what was to come, if he were sufficiently clad and armed for the present state of winds and seas he thought not of what might be their condition, or his necessities for meeting them, to-morrow. When, therefore, he felt a southerly wind and a favoring tide, he launched out for his voyage, with no crew but himself, his son Josiah, and John Smith, a seaman; little regardful that Winter was still at its depth, and that an hour might produce the most perilous changes.

Thus prepared and manned, the Almira held on her way with a slow progress for several hours. The wind was changeful, but continued to blow from the southerly quarter till they had passed Monimet Point, a jutting headland about twelve miles from Sandwich harbor, which makes out from the southeasterly side of Plymouth, some miles into the sea. It is a high rocky promontory, dangerous to approach; which interferes so much with the passage of vessels from Sandwich to Boston, that, while compelled to avoid it, they yet go as near, to it as safety will admit. Beyond this, on its northwesterly side, is a bay, at the bottom of which is Plymouth harbor; a safe place when you are once within it, but so guarded with narrow isthmuses on the north and south as to render the entrance difficult, and in tempestuous weather dangerous. They passed Monimet Point about ten o’clock, and having Plymouth light for a landmark, were working slowly across the outer part of the bay; but under the discouragements of a dark night, a murky atmosphere, a sky foul with clouds, and a wind so varying that no dependence could be placed on it for a moment. For some hours, they seemed to make no progress; and were rather waiting in hope for some change, than fearing

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one. The master himself was at the helm, Smith was walking to and fro upon the deck, occasionally adjusting a rope, or altering the position of a sail, and the younger Ellis had lain down on a bench in the cabin. Suddenly the master’s voice was heard, calling all hands in haste. His little crew hurried towards him, and looking towards the northwest they saw a clear, bright, and cold sky, about half up from the horizon; the clouds were hastening away towards the southeast, as if to avoid some fearful enemy, and new stars were appearing at each successive moment in the northern and western region of the heavens.

Beautiful as this sight was, in the present circumstances it was only appalling. It indicated a rapid change to severe cold, the consequences of which must be terrible. All was immediately bustle and agitation with the scanty crew. The first impulse was to run into Plymouth for shelter. But unfortunately that harbor lay directly in the eye of the wind, and there was little encouragement that they could make their way into it. They tacked once or twice, in hopes to attain the entrance; but having little sea-room, and the wind becoming everv moment more violent, and the cold more severe, they were constantly foiled—till in one of the sudden motions of the vessel, coming with disadvantage to the wind, the main boom was wrenched from the mast. The halyards were immediately let go, and the mainsail came down, crashing and crackling as it fell, for it had already been converted into a sheet of ice. To furl it, or even to gather it up, was impossible. It lay a cumbrous ruin on the deck and partly in the sea, a burden and a hindrance on all their subsequent operations.

Their next resource was to lay the vessel to the wind. This they effected by bracing their frozen foresail fore and aft, and loosing the jib. It was hot in their power to haul it down. Its motion in the wind soon cracked its covering of ice, and in so doing rent the substance of the sail itself. It was subsequently torn in pieces. The vessel now obeyed her helm, came up to the wind, and so remained.

While engaged in these operations, the anxious seamen had little opportunity to observe the heavens. But when they now looked up, they beheld the whole sky swept clear of clouds as if, by magic. The stars shone with unusual brilliancy. The moon had risen before the change of the wind, but had been invisible on account of the density of the clouds. She now appeared in nearly full-orbed lustre. But moon and stars

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seemed to unite in shedding that stern brightness which silvers an ice rock, and appears to increase its coldness. The brightness of the heavens was like the light of the countenance of a hard philosopher’s ungracious Deity—clear, serene, and chilling cold. They turned towards the wind, and it breathed upon their faces cuttingly severe, charged not only with the coldness of the region whence it came, but also with the frozen moisture of the atmosphere, already converted into needles of ice.

From the care of their vessel, they began to look to tbat of their persons. They had been wet with the moisture of the air, in the earlier part of the night, and drenched with the spray which the waves had dashed over them during their various labors. This was now congealed upon them. Their hair and garments were hung with icicles, or stiffened with frost, and they felt the nearer approach of that stern power which chills and freezes, tbe heart. But in looking for proper defences against the adversary of life, it was ascertained that the master had taken with him no garments but such as were suited for the softer weather in which he had sailed. The outer garments of the son bad been laid on the deck, and in the confusion of the night had gone overboard. Smith, likewise, had forgotten precaution, and was wholly unprovided against a time like this. So that here were three men, in a small schooner, with most of their sails useless encumbrances, spars and rigging covered with ice, themselves half frozen, exposed to the severest rigors of a Winter’s sky and Winter’s sea, and void of all clothing save such as was suited for moderate weather or the land.

In this emergency, they sought the cabin, and with much difficulty succeeded in lighting a fire; over which tbey hovered till vital warmth was in some measure restored. On returning to the deck, they found their perils fearfully increasing. The dampness and the spray which had stiffened and loaded their hair and garments, had in like manner congealed in great quantities about the rigging, and on the deck, and over the sails. The spray, as it dashed over the vessel, froze wherever it struck; several inches of ice had gathered on deck, small ropes had assumed the appearance of cables, and the folds of the shattered mainsail were nearly filled. The danger was imminent, that the accumulating weight of the ice would sink the schooner; yet all means of relieving her from the increasing load were utterly out of their power.

It being now impossible either to proceed on the voyage or

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to gain shelter in Plymouth, there was no alternative but to endeavor to get back to their own harbor. It was difficult to make the heavy and encumbered vessel yield to her helm. As to starting a rope, the accumulated ice rendered it impossible. Nevertheless, by persevering effort they got her about; and as wind and tide set together that way, they cleared Monimet Point, and came round into Barnstable Bay once more. They were now but a few miles from their own homes. Even in the moonlight, as they floated along, they could discern the land adjacent to the master’s dwelling-house; and they earnestly longed for the day, in hopes that some of their friends might discover their condition and send them relief. It was a long, perilous, and wearisome night. The cold continued increasing every hour. The men were so chilled by it, and so overcome with exertion, that after they had rounded the last-named Point they could make but little effort for preserving their ship. They beheld the ice accumulate upon the deck, the rigging and sails; they felt the vessel becoming more and more unmanageable, and their own danger growing more imminent every moment: yet were wholly unable to avert the peril, or hinder the increase of its cause. It was with them,

As if the dead should feel

The icy worm around them steal,

And shudder as the reptiles creep,

To revel o’er their rotting sleep;

Without the power to scare away

The cold consumers of their clay.

Morning at last began to dawn. But In its first gray twilight they could only perceive that they had been swept by the land they desired, the home they loved; yet not so far but that, in the dim distance, they could see a smoke from their chimney top, reminding them of the dear objects of their affections, from whom they were thus fearfully separated, and between whose condition and their own so dreadful a contrast existed. They looked between themselves and the shore, saw the impossibility of receiving assistance from their friends, and, abandoning their vessel to fate, sought only to save themselves from perishing of cold.

Their last remaining sail had now yielded to the violence of the blast and its accumulated burden of ice. It hung in shattered and heavy remnants from the mast. The vessel, left to its own guidance, turned nearly broadside to the wind, and floated rapidly along, as if seeking the spot on which it might

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be wrecked. They passed the three harbors of Sandwich, that of Barnstable and Yarmouth, either of which would have afforded them safe shelter, could they have entered it. But to direct their course was impossible. With hearts more and more chilled as they drifted by these places of refuge, which they could see but could not reach, they floated onward to their fate.

From a portion of the town of Dennis, there makes out northerly into the sea a reef of rocks. On the westerly side of this, there is a sandy beach, on which a vessel of tolerable strength might be cast without being destroyed; on tbe easterly side there is a cove, having a similar shore, which is a safe harbor from a northwest wind. But the reef itself is dangerous.

In the early part of the day, January 17th, an inhabitant of Dennis beheld from an eminence this ill-fated schooner, floating down the bay, broadside towards the wind; her sails dismantled, covered with ice, gleaming like a spectre in the cold beams of a Winter’s morning. He raised an alarm and hastened to the shore, where he was shortly joined by such of the inhabitants as the sudden emergency allowed to collect. Many were seamen themselves; they knew the dangers and the hearts of seamen, and were desirous to render such assistance as they might.

The strange vessel was seen rapidly approaching the reef of rocks before named. She was so near, that those on land could look on board, but they saw no man. They could perceive nothing but the frozen mass of the disordered sails; the ropes encrusted with ice, to thrice their proper size, and objects so mingled in confusion, and so heaped over with ice, that even experienced eyes could not distinguish whether these were frozen human beings, or the common fixtures on a vessel’s deck. Thinking, however, that there might be living men on board, who if they could be roused might change the direction of the schooner, so as to avoid the approaching death shock, they raised a shout, clear, shrill, and alarming. Whether it was heard, they knew not. But very soon the three men emerged from the cabin, and exhibited themselves on deck; shivering, half clad, meeting at every step a dashing spray, frozen ere it fell, and exposed to a cutting wind, as if they were

All naked feeling, and raw life.

‘Put up your helm,’ exclaimed an aged master, ‘make sail, and round the rocks; there’s a safe harbor on the

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leeward side.’ Lest his words might not be heard, he addressed himself to their eyes; and by repeated motions, wavings, signs and signals, well known to seamen, warned them of the instant danger, and pointed the direction in which they might avoid it. No movement on board was seen in consequence of this direction and these signals. Ellis and his two men felt that such effort would be unavailing,’ and did not even attempt it.

It was a moment of thrilling interest to both spectators and sufferers. The difference of a few rods, on either side, would have carried the vessel to safety and preserved the lives of the men. The straight-forward course led to instant destruction. Yet that straight-forward course the schooner, with seeming obstinacy, pursued, as if drawn by mysterious fascination; and’ hurried toward the rocks by a kind of invincible desire. Near and more near she came, with her incumbered bulk, till she was lifted as a dead mass on a powerful wave, and thrown at full length upon the fatal ledge.

The men on board, when they felt the rising of their vessel for her last fatal plunge, clung instinctively to such fixtures as they could grasp, and in solemn silence waited the event. In silence they endured the shock of her striking; felt themselves covered not now with spray, but with the partially frozen substance of the waves themselves, which made a highway across the deck, fi11ed the cabin, and left them no place of retreat but the small portion of the quarter abaft the binnacle, and a little space forward near the windlass. To the former place they retreated, as soon as they recovered from the shock; and there they stood, drenched, shivering and ready to perish, expecting at every moment the fabric under their feet to dissolve, and feeling their powers of life becoming less and less adequate to sustain the increasing intensity of cold.

‘We will make an effort to save them,’ said the agonising spectators of the scene. A boat was procured, and manned by a hardy crew, resolved to risk their lives for the salvation of their imperiled, although unknown fellow-men. The surf ran heavy, and was composed of that kind of ice-thickened substance, called technically sludge; a substance much like floating snow. Through this she was shoved with great effort, by men who waded deep into the semi-fluid mass for the purpose. But scarcely had she reached the outer edge of the surf, when a refluent sea conquered and filled her. Fortunately, she had not gone so far but that a long and slender

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warp cast from the shore reached one of the men. He caught it and attached it to the boat, which was drawn back to land by their friends, and no lives were lost.

They on the wreck had gazed with soul-absorbing interest on this attempt at their rescue. They witnessed its failure, and their hearts died within them. One of them was soon after seen to go forward and sit down on the windlass. ‘Rise, rise and stir yourself!’ exclaimed many voices at once. They had not read the maxim of Dr. Solander, concerning people exposed to severe cold: ‘He that sits down will sleep, and he that sleeps will wake no more.’ They knew this truth by the sterner teachings of the experience of associates of their own, and by the sayings of the fathers whose wisdom they revered. Hence their exclamation to him who had taken his seat. It was Smith. He rose not, however, at their call; and they said mournfully, one to another, ‘he will never rise again.’ He did not. In truth, in a little while he was so encrusted with ice, that they could not distinguish the human form from other equally disguised objects that lay around it; and when afterwards they got on board, the body was gone. It had been, washed away, no one knew when, nor has it ever been known that the sea has given up ibis dead.

The father and son now stood alone. The only shelter they could obtain from icy wind and drenching sea, was by occasionally screening themselves on the lee side of the low binnacle. But there they experienced so soon the commencement of the deadly torpor, that they ceased making use of this refuse, and only sought to keep themselves in motion. But resolution, struggling against a disposition of nature, fails at last. The father was seen to go forward and seat himself as Smith had done before. Again the warning cry was raised, and again it was disregarded. ‘We will save him yet,’ it was exclaimed by the sympathising spectators. The boat was again manned, and again launched, and reached beyond the surf in safety. But to get on board the wreck was utterly impossible. They came so near that they could speak to the younger Ellis, and hear his voice in reply. But such was the violence of winds and waves dashing on the rocks and over the wreck, that they could approach no nearer. They were compelled to turn about, leaving the father to sleep the sleep of death, with scarce a hope that the son could be saved. But they encouraged him to persevere in his efforts to keep from falling asleep. They told him that the rising tide would probably lift the vessel from

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her present position and bring her where they could come on board; that they would keep a constant watch, and embrace the first practicable means for his deliverance. He heard them, saw them depart, and with a sad heart took his station, on the cabin stairs, where standing knee deep in the half-frozen water that filled the cabin, he could in some measure screen his thin-clad form from the cold wind. But here he twice detected himself in falling asleep, and left the dangerous post; preferring to expose himself to the bleak wind on the quarter, rather than sit down beneath a shelter and die. There he made it his object to keep himself in motion, and the people, when they saw him in danger of relinquishing this only means of preservation, shouted, and moved, and stirred him to new effort.

It took place as the seamen had predicted. The rising tide lifted the vessel from her dangerous position, and brought her on to a sand, where the people with much effort got on board, about four o’clock in the afternoon. They found young Ellis on the quarter deck, holding on to the tiller ropes. He had become too much exhausted to continue his life-preserving movements, and the stillness of an apparently last sleep had been for some time stealing over him. His hands were frozen to the ropes which they grasped, his feet and ancles were encrusted with ice, and he was so far gone that he was scarce conscious of the presence of his deliverers.

Their moving him roused him a little. Yet he said nothing, till as they bore him by his father’s body he muttered, ‘there lies my poor father,’ and relapsed into a stupor, from which he only awaked after he had been conveyed on shore and customary means were employed for his restoration. Through the humane attention of the inhabitants, he was restored, but with the ultimate loss of the extremities of his hands, and his feet. He still survives, a useful citizen, notwithstanding these mutilations. But the memory of that fearful night and day is fresh in his mind. It taught him, in truth, the inefficiency of human strength, when matched against the elements of nature; and made manifest, likewise, the value of that kindness of man to man, which leads him to watch and labor, and expose even his life for the shipwrecked stranger; to minister to his wants, and nurse his weakness, and safely restore him to his family and friends. A child of their own could not have been more kindly or carefully attended than he was, nor more liberally provided for, by the humane people among whom he was cast. I doubt not there is a recompense for them, with Him who hath said,

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‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

Reader, I know not what interest you may take in my simple narrative, but I have given you a true account of the Shipwrecked Coaster.

Sandwich, June, 1832.

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