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In Our Waters - The Banana Bounty of the Grounded "Gwent"

September 24, 2020

Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Hines of Stratford, Connecticut stepped off of the rail car onto the cement platform of the train station. Clutching the hands of Mrs. Hines were their two young children. Mr. Hines looked at some of his fellow passengers from the steamer Gwent that stood behind him and his family. It was clear by the expressions on their faces that they too were excited to have reached the end of their tremendously stressful plight.  Suddenly, as Mr. Hines turned around, he saw a bevy of hawking reporters rushing toward them along the platform. This was certainly not the planned end of their voyage that had started in Gibara, Cuba a week earlier. As the reporters continued to shout and ask them how they had fared on the final day and night of the voyage, Mr. Hines shook his head and thought to himself, this is bananas.
On March 26, 1901, the United Fruit Company steamship Gwent  under the command of Captain Titland became engulfed in a thick blanket of fog. Coupled with the blinding bank of mist were whipped waves and wind. Captain Titland ordered that the ship’s engine room make revolutions for half-speed. The steamship began to slow its forward progression through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. He was not going to take any chances in the inclement weather. He walked over to the bridge’s chart table and loomed over the navigational charts. If his calculations were correct, he was approaching the southern coastline of Long Island, New York on his way toward the southern approaches to New York Harbor. The steamship’s owners put pressure on him to ensure the safe arrival of its cargo. Also weighing heavily on his mind was his responsibility to the passengers. Better, he resolved to himself, to arrive late than never to arrive at all. The Gwent  continued on her eastward and northern approach to New York Harbor.
The Gwent, a steamship of three hundred and seven tons, was one hundred and ninety feet in length, with a twenty-eight foot beam and a draft of thirteen and a half feet. She had been built in West Hartlepool, England and had been launched in 1878. For many years, she had plied the waters between the fruit rich ports of the Caribbean to points in New York and New England. On this voyage northbound, the steamer’s cargo holds were filled to the brim with bunches of bananas. Unfortunately, for the passengers and the cargo, Captain Titland had lost his way amidst the disorienting fog and the swirling swells.
At a little past nine o’clock in the evening the Gwent  shuddered violently as it struck a sandbar. On the bridge Captain Titland stumbled forward from the shock but quickly regained his footing. With the inability to see and his position unclear, he knew he had to react quickly to save his charge, his passengers, and his cargo. The Gwent, resting on its foamy fulcrum amidships like a sea-bound seesaw, teetered fore and aft with each and every passing swell. His efforts were futile to back off of the sandbar into deeper water. The steamship’s hull and decks creaked and wailed like a helpless soul being stretched on a medieval rack of terrible torture.  
Captain Titland ordered his officers to immediately report all damage. The violent grounding had alarmed the passengers, and the Captain ordered his crew to reassure them that all was under control. To all aboard the violent jarring and tossing and turning without making momentum had caused a mild panic. The ship’s officers hurried to the worried passengers and attempted to calm their nerves. The Gwent continued to be rocked by the mounting seas and winds. Captain Titland contemplated his situation and decided to take action.
Captain Titland briefed his officers. He believed the passengers would be safer if they were launched into the steamer’s lifeboat and dinghy. As the Gwent's audible creaks and groans continued emanating from its steel skeleton amidst the storm, the passengers, he believed, could at least try and make it to the beach. The officers and crew of the Gwent would remain aboard with prayers that the steamer would not break in two. The officers quickly assisted the passengers into the lifeboat and the dinghy and both boats were lowered into the torrent without incident. For the passengers aboard the two small boats their hell had just begun.
Aboard the dinghy, Arthur Hernandez wrestled with the oars in the tempest of waves and wind. He began his arduous task of maneuvering the dinghy to the beach.  He had more than his own life to worry about as he looked upon his wife huddled in the bow, their two children nestled in fear against her bosom.  Despite his heroic efforts, the seas and surf had other plans for the four souls. The conditions were against them. Filling with water, the dinghy was being pushed out to the open sea.
The passengers in the nearby lifeboat were facing the same challenge. No matter how hard they tried, the lifeboat was getting pushed out to sea and filling up with water with each swamping swell. The passengers frantically bailed the water to try and remain afloat as the others aboard rowed in vain. The officers aboard the Gwent strained to keep track of the two small boats through the maelstrom. The decision to launch both of the boats with all of the steamer’s passengers suddenly appeared to have been a poor choice.  They watched in horror as the two boats began to be swept further out to sea. Suddenly, in the distance, came the hail of rescue. Captain Titland’s first officer spotted the rescuers and pulled on his skipper’s jacket sleeve at the sight. The first officer pointed into the surf line. A rescue surfboat was on its way to the steamer.
Unbeknownst to Captain Titland, shortly before he launched the lifeboat and dinghy into the water, a United States Life Saving Servicemen, on his nightly beach patrol, had spotted the distressed steamer and had harkened his brethren to the scene with their lifesaving equipment.  The surfboat now out past the breakers was on scene. The keeper of the station, Richard Van Wicklen, maneuvered toward the wayward lifeboat and pulled the passengers aboard the surfboat.  The same was done for the souls aboard the dinghy. The surfboat maneuvered back to the steamer. Orders were quickly passed. The passengers would be transferred back to the steamer and all hands would remain aboard until first light. The conditions would be shifting to calmer seas and a rescue ashore would be safer. Captain Titland agreed with the Keeper’s orders. With all of the rescued passengers safely returned to the Gwent, the lifesavers turned back toward the beach. The lifesavers maintained a vigil on the wind-swept strand for the remainder of the night.
As the dawn of the new day broke, the men of the Long Beach United States Lifesaving Service Station effected the rescue of all eight passengers. After being provided succor at the unit’s station house, they were then transferred to the Long Island Rail Road for transportation to New York City and to their initially planned final destinations. Meanwhile, two miles east of the United States Life Saving station, the Gwent remained stranded on her precarious perch of sand. The two cylinder Blair & Company compound engine strained to provide enough power to pull the steamer from the sandbar and additional efforts by Captain Titland and his officers and crew to free their charge were fruitless.  The salvage would have to be turned over to the experts.
By mid-day, the salvers from Merritt-Chapman aboard the tug W.E. Chapman had arrived on the scene. They began lightening the ship of her cargo with the intention of towing the steamer into deeper waters. It would not be an easy task. After consultation with Captain Titland, the salvagers learned that the steamer had a total of twenty-two thousand bunches of bananas in the cargo holds. Captain Dunbar of Merritt-Chapman ordered his men to start tossing the fruit into the surf. Long Islanders who had come to witness the stranded steamer quickly identified a unique entrepreneurial opportunity. Many of the locals waded into the frigid five-foot deep water and began pulling the bobbing bunches of bananas to the beach. Approximately five thousand bunches were collected during the initial stage of the lightening operation. Locals, their carts packed to the brim, hurried from the scene and headed to nearby fruit dealers. The locals sold their salty catches at the cost of only fifty cents. This was highly appealing to the willing buyers on Long Island as a normal bunch cost a dollar more in the city. Shortly after the initial lightening, Captain Dunbar was advised that the United Fruit Company had arranged for a special freight train of fourteen cargo cars to be sent to Long Beach. No more fruit would be tossed into the waves for the brave locals to purloin.
The remaining seventeen thousand bunches of bananas were removed from the cargo holds of the Gwentt, under more appropriate control, and transferred to New York City as originally intended.  The salvagers continued to work on the Gwent and freeing her from her stranded position. Finally, on March 31st, 1901, the steamer was pulled free from her sandy confines and into deeper water. On April 1, 1901, under the command of Captain Titland, the steamer arrived in New York City.  Though she had been battered and beached, the sturdy steamer was reported no worse the wear. Freed from her sandy lodging, the Gwent returned to her normal trade of transporting fruit along the eastern seaboard and to the Caribbean. Ultimately though the sturdy steamer would meet her end along the shoreline of Langanes, Iceland on July 18, 1908. She had been ferrying a cargo of coal between Vapnafjord to Husavik when she met her demise.
The grounding of the Gwent on March 26, 1901 had provided a fruitful bounty for the locals of Long Beach, New York.  Five thousand bunches of bananas had been salvaged from the surf and sold off for a sweet profit. Though the Gwent survived and returned to service to the benefit of the officials of United Fruit Company, the locals, though wet and cold from their ventures into the shallows, also benefited from the fruits of their labor when the Gwent  went aground in our waters.


 

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