Age Does Matter: The Heartbreaking Fate of the Florence Shay

Welcome back to our series on the shipwrecks of North Carolina! In this fourth episode, we delve into the poignant story of the Florence Shay, a schooner-barge whose final voyage ended in tragedy off the coast of Virginia Beach.

The Final Voyage of Florence Shay

On November 12, 1908, the last shipwreck involving loss of life under the jurisdiction of the United States Life-Saving Service occurred at Virginia Beach. The vessel in question was the forty-one-year-old schooner-barge Florence Shay. Her tragic fate can be attributed to a fierce northeast gale and the vessel’s deteriorating condition. On its final voyage from Norfolk to New York, the Florence Shay carried a cargo of creosoted paving blocks. The old schooner, now reduced to a barge, was being towed by the barge Nichols, both of which were towed by the tug Asher J. Hudson. The Florence Shay’s condition had worsened due to her age and damage sustained in a recent storm off Cape Henry.

The Stranding

The Florence Shay was supposed to be towed the entire distance to New York, as she had limited sails and only one small anchor on board. When left behind, she was helpless against the gale-force winds that pushed her down the coast. By sunrise on November 12, the vessel was three miles north of the False Cape Life-Saving Station and one mile offshore. Leonard E. Eaton, Surfman Number Five from the Little Island Station, discovered the vessel at 7:00 A.M. and called Keeper John W. Partridge to the tower where they both saw the Shay struggling offshore.

The Rescue Attempt

The Florence Shay, with her crew of six, struck the outer sandbar less than three hundred yards from shore, three and a half miles south of the Little Island Life-Saving Station. The surf swept across her decks with increasing fury. Two of the crew, exhausted from their all-night battle with the raging sea and suffering from exposure, died shortly after the stranding. The Little Island crew reached the vessel at 8:20 A.M., with the False Cape crew arriving shortly after. Despite three shots from the Lyle gun, the first two shots failed to place a line within reach, and the third line became tangled with other lines and debris from the vessel. The surfmen were unable to get the breeches buoy working properly.

The Rescue

The surfboat from the False Cape Station was called, and with Keeper O’Neal in charge, a boat crew from the two stations was chosen. Launching up current from the schooner, they pulled strenuously to the lee side of the vessel. The surfmen found four of the Florence Shay’s crew alive and successfully landed Captain Charles W. Gilbert, Mate John Jonson, and Seamen Frank Gotfoid and Martii Hukka. They made a second trip through the pounding surf to retrieve the bodies of the remaining crew members. At Captain Gilbert’s request, the body of one sailor was buried on the beach. The cook, Charles Molllinauk’s body, was never recovered.


The old vessel quickly broke up, and pieces of the wrecked schooner and her cargo were strewn along the beach, serving as silent reminders of the Florence Shay’s final struggle with the sea. The life-savers had done all that was humanly possible to save lives under the circumstances. The question of the cut or parted cable, which contributed to the wreck of the Shay, was never resolved. This episode stands as a testament to the bravery and dedication of the life-saving crews who risked their lives to save others from the unforgiving sea.

Join us every Saturday!
We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the history of Santore. Be sure to join us every Saturday for more episodes of “Ocean Echoes: North Carolina’s Shipwreck Chronicles.” Each week, we’ll bring you new stories of sunken ships, maritime mysteries, and the brave souls who sailed them. Don’t forget to like, comment, and subscribe to stay updated on our latest episodes.

Thank you for joining us on this journey through history. Until next time, stay curious and keep exploring!

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