In the damp and chill latter half of December 1899, three British-flagged steamships set out from Galveston only to run full face into a fierce Atlantic storm.
Of those, the Ashlands made it through, as did the Kairos, both nevertheless arriving in Norfolk, Va., days later than scheduled.
The Ariosto, too, ran flush into the tempest as she plowed north for Norfolk.
A brief account sent by telegraph from Norfolk to The Galveston Daily News on the penultimate day of the 19th century alluded to her ill fortune only after reporting her sister ships’ delayed but safe arrivals:
“Dec. 30. — Norfolk, Va. The British steamship Ashlands arrived from Galveston, four days overdue, via Norfolk for Marseilles. Captain Lew said he encountered heavy weather, the sea running very high. …
“The Kairos, another big Britisher, which left Galveston four days before the Ashlands, got in to-day, and encountered the hurricane, which tossed her about and delayed her for several days.”
Then came an update to the Ariosto’s misfortune:
“Three bodies, part of the twenty-one men drowned in the Ariosto wreck, have washed ashore. Two of them have been identified as those of Seamen Neumann and Nixon, the third being so badly decomposed as to preclude identification.”
The Ariosto, battered by the surging sea, had, before dawn on Christmas Eve, begun taking on water six miles south of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, beyond with lay the notorious Diamond Shoals, long known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
A gale of 50 mph blew as waves swept over the deck of the ship, which had grounded on a shoal around 4 a.m., her 250-horsepower engines incapable of moving her.
The Ariosto had aboard a crew of 29 men led by Capt. Ryde Rupert Baines. Eight of them, and their British skipper, survived and by no small miracle.
The stranded crew fired the Ariosto’s emergency flares skyward, her engines straining at full power until, flooded, they gave out.
Yet, at that, all was not lost. A night watchman assigned to the Ocracoke Island Life-Saving Crew had seen the Ariosto’s flares and sent up his own to acknowledge them.
At daybreak, the lifesavers spotted the Ariosto some 600 feet offshore, close enough that they could make out the mariners waving a desperate plea. The islanders rolled out a cart-mounted Lyle gun and fired a line toward her, but in the howling wind it fell short time and again.
Baines gathered his crew and advised them that they were free to stay aboard and pray on the cannoneer’s success, a British inquiry found, or they could set out in the ship’s pinnace and a lifeboat and take their chances on the open sea.
All told, only three opted to remain with their captain; the other 26 decided to risk rowing the eighth of a mile to shore as the sea continued to roil.
Of the latter, 11, including the chief and second mate, crowded into the pinnace, which swamped immediately, a massive wave capsizing the little boat as it cast off; 15 others wrestled the davits to lower a lifeboat into the raging water, where it, too, capsized, “a cockleshell in the tremendous sea,” according to a later wire service account.
“For an instant the unfortunate men appeared high on the crest of a wave, making a desperate fight for their lives before going under one by one.”
Two from the pinnace somehow managed to swim to shore; the other nine perished.
Two fortunates aboard the lifeboat were hauled back aboard the Ariosto, and a third made it close enough to shore that the Ocracoke lifesavers could haul him, half-dead, from the breakers.
All the while, the patrol continued to fire the big Lyle gun until the shot line at last whistled onto the Ariosto’s deck, where it was made fast.
The men, one by one — Captain Baines going last — were hauled on a breeches buoy to shore through the gale, “more dead than alive, and by nightfall all were safe.”
Yet, for Baines, the ordeal wasn’t over.
The formal British inquiry, conducted at Westminster’s Town Hall on the 11th and 12th of April, 1900, laid the blame for the tragedy squarely on him:
“The court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds … that the cause of the stranding of the vessel was that the master did not make a safe and proper alteration in the course.”
Moreover, the court’s final report called him to account for failing to have had the ship’s compasses, which he admitted knowing were defective, reconciled: “The master stated that he had ascertained the deviation by observation from time to time, but that the compasses had not been adjusted during the six years he had had command of the vessel.”
And, so it was that Baines, after 21 seamen’s deaths and the total loss of his ship and its cargo, found his master’s license suspended for all of six months, albeit effective immediately.