When Dunbar Davis, Keeper of the United States Life-Saving Service Station Oak Island, went to bed on Monday night of August 28, 1893, he would never have dreamed of responding to four different shipwrecks mostly by himself the next day, and saving 23 men during a violent hurricane, over a course of 55 consecutive hours, without food, without water and little if any sleep or rest… but he really did.
There is probably no match in the annals of all rescues. The full story is Chapter 9 in my book Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Dramatic Rescues and Fantastic Wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
What I experienced recently was nowhere near that exhausting, but it made me think of Keeper Davis.
When I went to bed on Sunday night of May 8, 2022, I also never dreamed it would be 96 hours before I returned home, but it was! N.C. Highway 12 closed the next morning. The usual storm overwash of tide and sand blocked the road. We were forced to stay in Kitty Hawk for days. All that time away from home, with no recliners, no TV info, and no kitchen. Yes, we had plenty of food, water, and sleep, but no home.
Here is our “May Nor’easter of 2022” saga.
DAY 1: Monday, May 9
As Keeper James, the U.S. Life-Saving Service storyteller, I was hired by the Our State Magazine/AAA Travel group touring the Outer Banks. They had a four-day itinerary based at the Hilton Garden Inn at Kitty Hawk. I was to present on their first night, Monday, May 9, after I shared dinner with them and my wife Linda. That would be a one-hour presentation, but we had reserved a room so we would not have to drive back to our Hatteras Island home in the dark; a little ‘mini-vacation’ adventure for us!
We had a spacious private event space meeting room for the “dinner and a show.” The catered dinner was delightful. I sat at one table and Linda at another so we could interact with some of the guests. Then it was showtime. Inspiration and creativity somehow magically took over my mind, my body, and my voice. I delivered THE best program I had ever done, and there have been hundreds. I always make direct eye contact with all audience members multiple times throughout every presentation – each contact seems to me at that moment that I am addressing only that person, so I really see them. I was amazed to see that every single one of the 50 audience members were looking directly at me the entire time, in absolute silence.
Normally, when I finish, we do Q&A and usually, there are a lot of them. This time there were none. I was surprised. Later, I learned that they had plenty of them, but they were stunned. So, with a glass of wine, we retired to our room to review the wonderful evening.
DAY 2: Tuesday, May 10
When we originally left home, we were aware of the possible nor’easter. I did not think it would be so bad, but we planned to leave Tuesday morning for the low-tide mark on Hatteras Island just to be safe. We all now know what happened next.
After getting dressed, I checked the NCDOT NC 12 Facebook page. To my dismay, our road was closed. No way to get home. Linda and I had some figurin’ to do. It was apparent that we needed to re-reserve the room. After that, what to do, besides wait?
So, we started with a great hotel breakfast. Then, we decided to get out and about; might as well run some errands. Picked up items at Walgreens. I had been having trouble with my new phone, so we went to a store and had it fixed. We kept running into members of last night’s audience. They were surprised that we were still here. But we got a lot more questions and compliments, so all was not lost.
We even got invited to go to dinner with them again that night. A long bus ride from Hilton to Sugar Creek Restaurant. We filled up half of one room! Food and conversations were terrific. On the bus ride back, I realized that of all the thousands of times that I had traveled this road, I had never been a passenger there on a bus at night. Good night. Maybe better news in the morning.
DAY 3: Wednesday, May 11
Nope. N.C. Highway 12 was still closed. All the while, the nor’easter seemed to be getting stronger. After three days of closely watching the raging surf from our vantage point of the room’s balcony, the surf was still very rough; wind gusts were so strong that they altered standing and walking. Not reassuring. Re-reserved the room another day. The Hilton staff was extremely helpful and gracious.
This time, we decided to make a day of it! We started with another, even-better hotel breakfast. Then, after nearly blowing away getting to the car, we headed out. Since we were out of things we had packed for an overnighter, went to Walmart for supplies. It was the first time that I had ever really enjoyed spending time in a large store… we had the time, so we could relax, shop, and enjoy.
After checking out with a sizable cache, I wanted to have a leisurely visit to one of my all-time favorite OBX spots – the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Great improvements. Pleasant visit.
Then we went to what I think is one of the Outer Banks’ coolest yet generally unknown stores: the Stop N Shop on the corner of Highway 12 and Colington Road. The variety of unique and different products is simply amazing – not to mention the Deli with awesome sandwiches. Naturally, we ordered two of those for our hotel room dinner.
Another bit of bad luck: that night at 4ish in the morning, the power went out in the hotel. It was fixed by the time I got up, however.
DAY 4: Thursday, May 12
We had heard the night before that there was a possibility of Highway 12 being opened at low tide, but even then, it might only be temporarily. We decided then and there we would ‘make a break’ for it. Up early, showered, dressed, and down for another breakfast. Linda had gotten up even earlier. By the time I was ready, she had re-packed the entire car – she was ready to go!
Low tide was 2:00 p.m. but we decided that we would just go now and wait in the inevitable line. But there was to be one more, great big, piece of good fortune. Amy Jo Wood Pasquini is the Our State Magazine Travel and Events Director. She was on this trip and was in the Monday night presentation audience. As I got to the lobby, I saw Linda and Amy talking, both with a cat-that-got-the-canary grin. Then Amy asked if I would like to be a speaker at their January 2023 meeting.
I was speechless. Later, she emailed me this comment to be published:
“James is a master storyteller of harrowing ocean rescue missions by the United States Life-Saving Service. He will have you on the edge of your chair saying – ‘and then?’ He is outstanding.” – Amy Wood Pasquini, Our State Travel and Events Director.
We made the Marc Basnight Bridge fast and we were feeling good. Waiting was going to be okay indeed, as we were now good at it. N.C. Highway 12 opened even sooner than expected. NCDOT had done an incredible job clearing the highway.
I witnessed something on the way home that I had never seen before – and hopefully will never see again. From entering the village of Rodanthe, traffic in the opposite (northbound) lane was literally bumper-to-bumper. Literally. Zero space between cars. It went on for four miles. Amazingly, it ended exactly at the left turn onto my street. At noonish, we arrived home. Richer in many ways. Very, very slowly, we made multiple trips to unpack the car and relish being home.
Still, to make a true Hollywood ending, we had one more negative incident. A cable was cut the next day, Friday (the 13th!), terminating all Hatteras Island Wi-Fi, cell phones, landlines, internet, and cable TV. So, we spent a pleasantly quiet night watching video tapes.
That week we had one big dose of bad luck. But we also had quite a few servings of really good luck!
And that was Keeper James’ Longest Day.
James D. Charlet is the author of the new book “2020 Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Dramatic Rescues and Fantastic Wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Globe Pequot Press.