Time and Tide Nantucket

The Great Gale of 1879

May 07, 2020 Host: Evan Schwanfelder Season 1 Episode 5
Time and Tide Nantucket
The Great Gale of 1879
Show Notes

In the late nineteenth century, Nantucket Sound, located in between the major ports of New York and Boston, was one of the most heavily trafficked marine highways in the country.  Before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal in 1916, thousands of sailing vessels, every year, bound on coastal and transatlantic routes had one of two navigational decisions to make.  Take the longer, more exposed, ocean route south of Nantucket and around the dangerous south shoals, or take the shorter, relatively more sheltered passage through Nantucket Sound.  Many vessels, especially those plying the northeastern coastal trade, chose the latter. 

However, the sound is not without considerable hazards to navigation.  The treacherous  Muskeget channel, Tuckernuck and Muskeget Shoals, and the Nantucket Bar lie to the west and the south of the sound, while to the east there sits a narrow passage between the Great Point of Nantucket and Monomoy Island off the southeast elbow of Cape Cod.  All around this channel is a veritable maze of shoals, rips and sandbars which have seen many a shipwreck over the centuries. 

The greatest threat to mariners occurred during the winter and early spring season when violet storms blowing in a northerly direction arrived with little notice, catching ships off guard, and running them aground on the shoals and rips.  Ships could be broken up in a matter of days or even hours in the pounding surf, with sailors facing great risk to life and limb because of the cold water end extreme weather.   

Many had only to cling to the rigging, pray and wait for the life saving crews from Nantucket to take action and come to their rescue.  Such was the case in late March during the Great Gale of 1879, when 11 shipwrecks occurred around the Island, and the bravery of Nantucket’s volunteer lifesavers would be put to the ultimate test.


Stackpole, Edouard: "Life Saving Nantucket," Stern-Majestic Press; 1972. 
p. 144-148

Music and Narration: Performed, Produced and Edited by Evan Schwanfelder.
Special Thanks to Katie Schwanfelder for all your help and for joining the discussion