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Excerpt from Sink or Swim (Softcover)

From Sink or Swim: African-American Lifesavers of the Outer Banks:

Etheridge had stopped beach patrols during the storm, but surfman Theodore Meekins kept watch from the station's tower. Through heavy fog, driving rain, and blowing sand, Meekins thought he saw something. He lit a red Coston lamp, scanned the darkness, and saw nothing, But he couldn't be sure. Meekins signaled the keeper. The two lit another lamp. This time, the Newman answered with a flare.

Etheridge gathered his crew. With a pair of mules and a surfboat, the seven men headed for the wreck. "The storm was raging fearfully, the storm tide was sweeping across the beach, and the team was often brought to a standstill by the sweeping current," Etheridge later wrote. Knee-deep in sand and chilly water, the men pushed on. The swirling seas had flooded the coastline, leaving no firm ground where the crew could plant the sand anchor or place the Lyle gun to fire a lifeline. That ruled out a beach rescue. Nor could the men row the surfboat out to the wreck through the fierce waves.

So close to the wreck, yet so far. The Newman's crew cheered when they spotted the lifesaving crew in the distance. The lifesavers heard the cries of the captain's wife and child.

Although there was little hope for a rescue, the lifesavers at least had to try. Etheridge came up with a plan. He called his two strongest surfmen and gave the order, "Tie a large sized shot line around (them) ... and send them down through the surf as near the side of the vessel as possible."

Tied with heavy rope and lugging an extra line, the two surfmen waded and swam through churning foam toward the battered boat. The crewmen onshore gripped the other end of the rope. The swimmers often disappeared in the roaring waves. When the surfmen neared the boat, they threw the end of the lifeline on board. Then, they climbed the ladder lowered by the ship's crew.

The Newman's crew lashed the captain's son to the surfmen with another line. As waves beat the schooner, the surfmen struggled back to shore. The six surfmen took turns swimming in pairs to the shipwreck. In six hours, they carried all nine people, one by one, to safety. Later, the lifesavers and survivors huddled around a warm fire in the Lifesaving Station.

Richard Etheridge and his crew had fought the stormy sea and won. But, unlike white lifesavers who were honored for less heroic rescues, the Pea Island crew received no medals for risking their lives. All they got was the E.S. Newman nameboard, which Captain Gardiner gave them after finding it on the beach. Surfman Meekins nailed the nameboard to the side of his barn.

The crewmen became local legends. African-American boys on Roanoke Island dreamed of becoming lifesavers when they grew up.

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