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In Our Waters A Slice of History - the Wreck of the Ajace

The fog hung heavy and damp along the shoreline like the oppressive oilskin jacket draped over the shoulders of his chilled body. The churning surf crashed along the frozen beach and the spray from the huge breakers, droplets of near-frozen salt-water cast by the still powerful wind, struck his face with each thunderous boom of the dying waves. Plunging his walking stick into the sand, he continued on his dawn patrol along the stretch of desolate coastline. Before him, strewn in the surf, he spotted something. Bobbing amidst the torrent of the sea was a mix of battered and broken flotsam. These, he noted, were the telltale signs of a terrible event. His gaze turned from the odd assortment of barrels and other gear and he stared into the thick haze over the water. Somewhere offshore a crew and her vessel were in peril. He reached up with his free hand and pulled his southwester from his head. Placing the damp hat against his chest, he bowed his head in solemn reverence to the Lord. He recited a prayer under his breath to the Almighty and then paused in reflection. He wiped off the frozen saltwater from his forehead, replaced his damp cover and again stuck his walking stick into the sand to continue on his patrol. The morning had already proved to be a busy one, with two souls provided salvation by the efforts of the lifesavers, but their work was far from completed 1.

Offshore, out of the line of sight of the lone lifesaver and floating on the last vestiges of his former home, was a solitary figure. His body, haggard and nearly frozen, had long stopped shivering as he lay on the top of the wooden cabin. He dozed in and out of consciousness as a tangle of lines, parted under the heavy strain of the weather, cascaded down into the chilled March waters, while a section of the mizzenmast jutted into the thick blanket of fog above. Curled in the fetal position with his eyes closed to shield them from the saltwater, his mind recounted the terrible events that had unfolded during the previous hours. The images of the bark, the terrible weather, the grounding, and the sullen faces of his fellow crewmen, flashed in bright and vivid reality. Echoing through his mind were the stark and sad images - the terrible crescendo of crashing waves, the horrific howling wind, the breaking timbers of the ship, and the soft cries and moans of the crew. He whimpered as the images and sounds numbed his mind. Tears began to escape from his clenched eyelids. The wreckage, cast amidst the raging torrent of the tempest, drifted through the early haze of the morning. He questioned his fate. To clear his mind, he began once again to pray.

Along the shoreline, the solitary lifesaver, Captain Bebensee had gathered the rest of his crew along the stretch of shore. With all indications of a wreck somewhere near their location, he had readied the men so that when the fog lightened, they would set out into the surf. Captain Bebensee, peering through a looking glass, scanned the surf line. The fog began to thin and suddenly he spotted something bobbing in the waves. Bebensee focused on the image. He lowered the glass, handed it to one of the other lifesavers, and pointed to a section of floating wreckage with what appeared to be a figure waving his cap to gain their attention. Within moments Bebensee and seven of his fellow lifesavers had maneuvered their small boat to the water’s edge. As the waves continued to crash along the hard-packed sand, Bebensee and his men knew that setting out to attempt a rescue was not going to be easy. As the lifesavers slid the boat into the water, they all knew that the only thing that separated the lone man stranded on the floating wreckage and almost certain death was their willingness to brave the tempest.

Earlier that same day, in the pitch black of night, the Ajace, her sails whipping in the gale-force winds, was being battered in a heavy sea. The Ajace, a Genoese bark, was bound from Antwerp with two thousand and forty empty petroleum barrels and a quantity of railroad iron in her hold. She had shipped from New York the previous summer on August 31, 1880 with a consignment of eighty-six thousand-plus bushels of grain. After successfully delivering her cargo in Antwerp in early December of 1880, she had begun her return voyage to North America on December 17. After two and a half months of smooth sailing, Captain Federico Morice and his crew of thirteen men finally spotted the lights at Sandy Hook and the Highlands, but amidst the deteriorating weather conditions, the skipper lost his bearings 2. Frustrated and anxious, he manned the helm as he steered on his northern course. Waves crashed over the decks of the tired old craft and he issued a litany of orders to his crew to continue their efforts to keep the Ajace clear of the shoreline.

The mixed sea, heavy winds, and torrential downpour of rain continued their vicious onslaught on the Ajace and suddenly, a little after four in the morning, the wooden hull of the bark slammed against the sandy bottom. The skipper and crew immediately attempted to launch the longboat and gig, but both were wrecked as they were lowered into the water. The aged vessel, under the strain of the grounding and weather, quickly began to break apart. Within moments the vessel had separated into three main sections. Captain Morice yelled good luck to his crewmen, donned a life-jacket, and jumped into the frigid March waters. As the shocked and panic-stricken crew watched him disappear from sight, several of the crew stripped off their soaked clothes and dove into the torrent to try and swim for shore. Soon, they too disappeared into the night. The last five members of the crew clung to the soaked and splintered stern section of the ship 3.

Clinging to the tangle of lines and broken mizzenmast was a mixed assortment of souls - the bark’s cook, carpenter, and three sailors. Varying in age from twenty to fifty-eight, the ragged sailors strained to hold on to the frigid lines and frozen wood timbers of their floating refuge. The waves and wind continued to toss and slam the stern in the mixed sea. Minutes turned to hours. Bodies began to ache. Minds began to wander. Then, as the stern section continued her wayward voyage amidst the crest of the crashing waves, the carpenter drew his jackknife from its sheath. “Come,” he said calmly, “let us die together.” Pietro Sala, one of the sailors, attempted to console his companion but to no avail. The carpenter appeared determined to take his own life. He shook his head and replied, “No, no. Me rather die than drown.” Pietro, his own physical and mental strength drained, again began to plead for the carpenter to stop his ranting. The carpenter, using the last of his strength, raised the knife and quickly sliced his throat. The grip on his jackknife loosened, the blood-covered blade slipped from his pale white fingers, and the knife fell against the icy deck. The carpenter’s other hand loosened from its grip on the parted lines and his body went limp. Seconds later a wave crashed over the stern section and the knife and the carpenter slipped into the black sea. Four men remained.

The alternative of self-sacrifice versus the agony of drowning appeared welcomed by some of the remaining members of the Ajace’s crew. Within moments, after prayers had been recited, three of the four remaining souls drew their own knifes and followed suit. Pietro watched in shock and horror as the three men, aged twenty, twenty-five and fifty-eight, took their own lives in the same manner. As it had done to the body of the carpenter, the undulating wave action pulled the additional lifeless sailors into the sea. Pietro closed his eyes and cried. The wind howled and shrieked as tears welled in his swollen eyes. The stern section slammed and shipped in the mixed seas. The heavy fog surrounded him like a blanket of total and utter despair. He whimpered as the waves and wind lashed at his body and soul like a cat-o-nine tails. As his mind began to question his own willingness to weather the wrath, he began to slip into unconsciousness. The weather began to lighten and his near-lifeless body lay on the frozen timbers. Minutes turned to hours.

Suddenly, his swollen eyelids opened. The fog, he noticed, had begun to clear. Drawing on what little strength remained in his body, he pulled himself up along the broken mizzenmast. Once he was upright, he scanned the shoreline. There, in the distance, he saw a cluster of men. He pulled off his hat and began frantically waving it to grab their attention. He saw the men begin to move toward the water’s edge with a surfboat. Yes, he realized, they had seen him. His body weary, his grip on the mizzenmast loosened and he crumpled down onto the frozen timbers of the poop deck.

Soon after, his mind racing and fighting unconsciousness, he heard shouts in the distance. Nearing the sinking stern section was the surfboat. As the shouts from the rescuers continued, he turned his eyes toward the heavens for a brief instant before his head lowered to the icy deck in utter exhaustion. Soon a line was tossed to him and he grabbed it. Within moments he was deftly pulled from the wreckage and landed in the surfboat. Bundled in a blanket, he mumbled under his breath in his native tongue as the men around him began to pull on their oars toward shore 4. Once on dry land, with the aid of an interpreter, Sala told his tale of survival 5.

Pietro Sala’s prayers had been answered. He proved to be the only survivor of the wreck of the Ajace. Over the following days the sea washed ashore the last vestiges of the vessels and its cargo. The remains of the stern section – the ragged impromptu raft that had saved Sala’s life - finally reached the shallows and quickly embedded itself in the deep sand a hundred yards from the east end of the Brighton Bathing Pavilion. Another section of the Ajace, the forward foc’sle deck, was found buried along the beach two hundred yards west of the Manhattan Beach Hotel. Between the two points, a mixed lot of broken timbers, spars, cargo, and twisted lines littered the hard-packed winter sand. A cast of wreckers picked through the remains gathering items for use or resale.

Meanwhile, the main section of the hull, her keel deeply immersed in the Rockaway Reef, remained visible from shore at low tide. As hundreds of curious passersby gathered along the stretch of sand to catch a glimpse of the terrible remnants of the tragedy, a flotilla of sloops anchored near the remains of the hull with their crews of wreckers busily pillaging the swamped decks of the wreck for anything of value 6. In addition to hundreds of recovered Standard Oil barrels, navigation equipment, deck fittings, and other cargo, other discoveries were made by wreckers and beachcombers 7.

Over the course of the following days, other crewmen from the wreck of the Ajace finally came ashore. Unlike Sala, the bodies were cold, disfigured, and lifeless. On March 6th, a wrecker known as “Big Steve” happened on the first corpse. The body, garbed in sailor attire, appeared to have drowned. His body was pulled from the still surging surf and after being taken to the Lifesaving Station, was removed to the local undertaker. On March 7th, two more crewmen were found along the shore at Rockaway Beach. One of the bodies had been decapitated. Three days later, on March 10th, three more bodies washed ashore. One of the unfortunate souls had his “throat out,” which aligned with Sala’s recounted events; however, for some, the wound appeared suspicious.

As the bodies of the six recovered Ajace crewmen lay in state in “six rude pine boxes” in the undertaker’s shed, rumors and speculation began to ferment throughout the community. Had the “true story of the wrecked Italian bark” been told? While a bevy of reporters and onlookers entered the undertaker’s shed to take a glimpse of the poor souls, fulfilling some morbid curiosity, others began to vocalize their own theories as to what occurred in the final moments of the Ajace. Was Pietro Sala, now known to have survived three previous shipwrecks, a lucky survivor of the Ajace or a cold-blooded killer? As noted by a reporter of the Brooklyn Eagle, there was not a “fisherman in Gravesend who, when spoken to on the subject, will not shake his head ominously and say that there was murder on the bark.” Many fishermen and others with experience at sea questioned why the sailors, knowing that they were relatively close to shore, resorted to suicide instead of waiting to be rescued.

“You cannot tell me,” one of the interviewed fishermen explained, “that a lot of sailors so close to shore as those men were, would cut their throats. Why, you never heard of such a thing even in the case of a ship on fire a thousand miles from shore. It won’t do to tell a tale like that to seamen,” he retorted. “I hear it rumored,” the old salt continued, “that the captain had twenty-five hundred dollars in gold with him. If that is so, there is all the more reason to believe that there was foul play aboard. If it is not that don’t do away with the cause for suspicion.” Suspicion, as it was noted, was not solely relegated to the fact there was not “a sailor born yet who won’t fight against death until he is exhausted.” The wound on the one body recovered did not appear to have been incurred in the manner that Sala had explained. The wound, according to several eye-witnesses, appeared more as a stab and not a slice across the throat. Adding to the fervor of investigating the matter was Sala’s absence from the first day of the inquest.

On the following day, however, Sala had been found was stood quietly before Judge McMahon as the inquest got underway. He once again, with the aid of an interpreter, told the original version of events as he remembered. The version aligned with the information initially reported. Because the injury to the one corpse remained a source of contention for many, the judge called upon a local surgeon to offer his professional opinion. Upon further examination of the body, the surgeon explained that the wound was “superficial and scarcely more than skin deep” and that it had not “touched the windpipe or arteries.” The surgeon further noted that the wound was a “feebly given stab rather than a cut.” Despite the suspicious nature of the injury, the jury, after deliberating on the testimony provided by Sala, the lifesaving crew, and the surgeon, offered their opinion of accidental drowning. The inquest was completed and Sala, now vindicated from the murderous circumstances suspected by many, was provided the opportunity to move on with his life.

Within a few weeks and months, with the exception of the cargo that had plunged into the shallows along Rockaway Reef, the Ajace’s terrible end drifted from conversation and sight. The sea never gave up the remaining bodies of the other members of her crew – the abyss had become their final resting place. All alone and with the horrific images and sounds of his hours adrift bound to his soul forever, Pietro Sala, the only survivor of the wreck of the Ajace, began a new day. The wreck of the Ajace on March 4, 1881 and the terrible circumstances that befell upon her crew of stricken sailors was then unceremoniously and solemnly added to the lengthy ledger of vessels that ended their days in our waters.

1 Earlier that morning, the lifesavers of the United States Lifesaving Station #37 had responded to two stranded occupants of the Nereid Clubhouse located in Sheepshead Bay. (Nereid refers to the fifty daughters of Nereus and Doris of Greek Mythology. The sea nymphs, which inhabited all of the world’s oceans, were known to assist Poseidon in saving, ironically, sailors at sea.) The storm had demolished a small walkway bridge to the building and the rising tidewaters had flooded the lower level of the building. The lifesavers were successful, after launching their surfboat, in rescuing Mr. and Mrs. Murray, the steward and stewardess, from the clubhouse.

2 According to one account of the Ajace, the bark had collided with the schooner John Boyd while off of Fire Island. The two vessels, not significantly damaged in the brief encounter, continued on their respective courses.

3 The circumstances of the Ajace running aground vary. According to the version reported by The New York Times on March 5th, 1881, Captain Morice, after realizing that all hope was lost, retrieved his private stash of brandy and allowed each of the crew to take a drink. Other versions, including one originally reported by The New York Herald and then largely circulated worldwide, explained that a portrait of the Madonna was obtained from below decks of the bark before it broke apart and that many members of the crew, prior to slitting their own throats, prayed for salvation from their plight. Additional versions, including the narrative included in the Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1881, indicated that Captain Bebensee and his crew attempted earlier in the morning to reach what they thought was a stranded/grounded bark off shore. The version stated that heavy waves and fog hindered their ability to launch their surfboat off of the beach and that they attempted to cross the bar instead. By the time they had braved the breaking surf, the bark had disappeared. The report indicates that the discovery of the wreckage on which Sala was clinging was not reached until the mid-afternoon which is not aligned with the bulk of original newspaper coverage. In addition, the narrative identifies Sala as the skipper of the vessel, which is clearly an erroneous statement based on the bulk of available information.

4 The crew of lifesavers included Captain Charles Bebensee, Albert Carman, William Eifers (Elfes), John Weight (White), James Howardie (Howatt), William Ahrend (Arend), and Charles Allen. The alternate spellings of the several of the crews’ last names varied based on newspaper articles. The New York Times also listed the name of Fred Moschelle as a member of the rescue crew.

5 Sala, who spoke a mixture of Italian, Greek, and broken English, recounted his tale to the lifesavers and reporters with the aid of an interpreter named Mr. Martella. Ironically, Martella, an Italian engaged in the provisions business, knew Captain Morice, skipper of the Ajace and had met with him and sailed upon the Ajace seven years earlier when he immigrated to the United States. According to Martella, whenever Captain Morice visited New York, he would always call upon him at his place of business.

6 Curiosity seekers and wreckers came by the hundreds to see the wreckage of the Ajace and the damage to the shoreline by the wrath of the early March 1881 gale. Special trains were provided by several enterprising entrepreneurs including the management of the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad Company, to capitalize on those wishing to gaze upon the wreck, pick the beach, and search for the poor souls who were lost during the storm.

7 Salvaged from the stern section – the portion of the wreck that had saved Sala from death – was a sextant, a chronometer, a mate’s chest, and an assortment of clothing. Crew lockers in the wreckage were also pillaged and a bag of French two sous pieces were found. No gold twenty dollar pieces, despite rumors, were found aboard that portion of the wreck. Wreckers were also successful in removing the capstan from the forward section of the Ajace which had been cast ashore at a different location. In addition to the varied remains cast ashore from the bark, hundreds of empty wooden barrels marked “Standard Oil Company – Refined Standard Petroleum, Long Island City” were recovered. Many wreckers collected the barrels to resell for a profit. One wrecker, Michael Lennon, aka Dublin, collected fifty dollars for his toil. (He sold the barrels after he confirmed with the local District Attorney that no underwriter for the cargo had come forward to lay claim to the wreckage.) Also amongst the flotsam that washed ashore were an odd assortment of “demi-johns, kegs, and bottles” of gin, brandy, and whisky. The alcohol was first found by “two little boys who soon became very drunk.” Older combers soon followed the young lad’s example and though no one allegedly “became obstreperous,” the bounty of booze was summarily and joyfully consumed by a throng of combers, curiosity-seekers, and wreckers.

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