Sunday, November 28, 2010

Shelter for Shipwrecked Sailors

Outside my deck, the waves crash loudly against the shore. I've never heard the roar of the ocean so clearly, even though we've often rented seaside condos while on vacation. I believe that what I'm hearing is the sound of the tide jostled by a ridge of rocks that runs parallel to the land. North of here, those rocks form a quiet pool of water called Bathtub Beach. Near Bathtub Beach is a place called House of Refuge, a name so romantic and lovely that it begs you to learn more of its history. A "house of refuge" was a sort of sailor's aid station, a place where shipwrecked seafaring men lucky enough to make it ashore could receive medical care, food, and shelter until they could find a ride back to their homes.

Think about that. A hundred and thirty years ago, if you were lucky enough to make it to land, you couldn't just hop in a cab, jump onto a train, hitch a ride on the highway, or take a bus to the local airport. You had to wait until a ship would happen by that could give you a ride home!

And of course, that's presupposing that you lived long enough to make that journey homeward. Many sailors didn't. Their ships followed the Gulf Stream, pulling them close to the coast of Florida. Often, the squalls and storms and hurricanes caused them to crash into a reef of rocks, part of the vast underpinning of the entire Sunshine State. So many ships ran into these hidden barriers that this area gained the nickname "Treasure Coast" for the vast riches spilled into its waters. On October 28 of this year, a woman and her daughter found a five-inch tall gold pelican that had rested under the water for nearly 300 years, a piece lost from one of the eleven Spanish ships that ran aground.

The first recorded shipwreck was in 1696, when the Reformation was run ashore during a hurricane.

In 1876, a report to Congress suggested building five houses of refuge along the coast of Florida, rescue and residential homes for sea-going persons unlucky enough to become castaways on the largely deserted shores of the southern shores of our nation. Each of these were of sufficient size and provisions to support 25 people for ten days.

Today only one of these building still remains, the Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island. Their records list no less than 34 accounts of shipwrecks. The keeper of the House of Refuge was required to maintain a log, detailing what attempts they made to rescue distressed vessels and their crews.

That's a picture of the House of Refuge at the top of the post. Inside they have the most unusual and fascinating display of handicrafts you can imagine. Although today, we think of crafters as women, back then, sailors with time on their hands made pictures out of seashells, knotted ropes into designs (early macrame and crochet), sewed, carved, and whittled. I hope to go visit soon, and when I do, I hope I can take photos of the crafts to share with all of you.

What would you like to know about the House of Refuge? I'll be sure to take your questions along with when I visit.


Linda O. Johnston said...

What a wonderful setting for a story, Joanna--either historical or contemporary!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

It's a fabulous setting, Linda. I've been noodling around a way to use it.

Betty Hechtman said...

It sounds like your new digs are giving you inspiration.