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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

The icy and heroic rescue of the Castagna

Perhaps you’re wondering why that ship’s steering wheel pictured above is missing a spoke.

Would you believe it was because the first mate’s hand was frozen to it and the spoke had to be sawed off to free him?

That was the case during the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 1914, when the Italian bark Castagna ran aground off the coast of South Wellfleet, just south of the Marconi Wireless Station. The stormy and icy conditions claimed five lives.

It could have been much worse.

The crew of 13 had spent two months at sea, hauling a load of guano and cattle horns from Montevideo, Uruguay. Dressed in summer clothes, the men were no match for the single digit temperatures, howling winds, driving snow, and pounding surf of a Cape Cod winter.

When the ship struck the bar, the men climbed into the mizzenmast. The captain fell, hit his head on the icy deck, and was swept away by a wave. The cabin boy met a similar fate. Two other men froze to death in the masts, turning into mummies encased in ice.

Fortunately for the rest of the crew, the crews of the Nauset and Cahoon’s Hollow Lifesaving Stations were able to reach the ship. The first mate, barely alive, was frozen to the wheel, and eventually freed when young Bernard Collins, son of Nauset’s No. 1 surf man, sawed away the spoke that the crew member’s hand was frozen to.

The first mate died shortly after, but, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Lifesavers, the remaining eight crew members were saved.

This Wednesday night (and again on Aug. 10) at 7 p.m., I’ll be doing a talk at the Eastham Historical Society’s 1869 Schoolhouse Museum, offering up many more of the details that I’ve uncovered while researching this dramatic rescue mission.

The talk will also feature audio interview footage from Bernard Collins. The museum is now home to the ship’s wheel, minus the spoke, which Collins identified many years later.

Learn more about this talk by viewing the trailer video below ...


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