Sure To Save

On March 29, 1869 two soldiers, Sgt. Adams and Pvt. McLoughlin, stood upon the shore of Newport Harbor. They braced themselves against Rhode Island’s biting, late-winter wind by pulling their blue, army-issued wool coats tighter around their shoulders. The young private blew a few hot breaths into his cupped hands before raising his gaze toward Fort Adams in the distance, which stood resolute against the ominous clouds beyond. 

They’d spent their short leave in the bustle of Newport, but they needed to get back to their posts before nightfall. The day had been unremittingly colorless and cold, and the rumble in the distance warned them that a storm was brewing. The harbor, though somewhat protected from the wild waters of the Atlantic, was infamous for becoming treacherous quickly.

But the two soldiers had hired a boy, a young sailor who’d sworn he’d be able to guide them to the safety of the fort in even the roughest weather. And they did really need to get back to their posts.

As soon as they set off dark clouds descended on them. The late-evening light withered into darkness, the wind began to howl, and the waters around them begin to roil and spill over the sides of the boat. 

The men were soldiers, not sailors. They had little experience with the grey, icy waters that churned beneath them, and they were beginning to see that their 14-year-old guide was far less experienced than he’d led them to believe. The rain lashed against them, soaking them to the bone, their heavy coats growing even heavier. As the wind spun them round and the waves toss them side to side, the three men became disoriented, uncertain whether the safety of the fort lay ahead or behind. 

Then through the squall they saw the faintest glimmer of light. 

From the lamp room of the Lime Rock Lighthouse a light shone faithfully—as it had since the day the Lewis family had first been given the task of caring for it. 

But if the three beleaguered men felt any sense of relief, it was quickly dashed as a mighty wave overturned their boat and tossed them into the icy water.

Meanwhile, in the lighthouse sat Ida Lewis, the eldest daughter of the light keeper. She was sick with a cold and trying to keep warm by the stove as the wind howled outside, forcing the shutters to crash against the house in an irregular staccato. 

Then Ida heard something, panicked shouts mingled with the howling wind and rain.

In a flash, she was out of her chair, throwing open the door to the fury of the storm outside. From the lighthouse’s perch atop the craggy island, she could see men in the water, struggling to find handholds on the upturned keel of a boat. She knew that the billowing waves would soon take the men out into open water.

Without stopping to put on a coat or shoes, Ida ran out into the night. 

She clambered over the rocks, slick with rain, and into her rowboat. As she pushed off from shore the wind and freezing rain threatened to drive her back, but she rowed with all her might. 

Wave after wave crashed over the bow, nearly sinking her, but the men’s desperate pleas gave her the strength to press on, her progress painfully slow. 

By the time she reached them there were only two souls left to save. The young sailor had slipped under the water almost as soon as their boat had capsized. But to save Adams and McLoughlin, Ida summoned all the strength in her 103-pound frame and dragged the nearly-unconscious men into the boat with her, lifting them over the stern as her father had taught her in order to minimize the risk of capsizing herself. 

When Ida finally reached the safety of the lighthouse she was frostbitten, Adams could hardly walk, and McLoughlin was unconscious. Yet in the end, both men lived. 

The men she plucked out of the storm that day were counted among the total of 18 lives that Ida would save throughout her life in the lighthouse, first as the child of the light keeper and then as the light keeper herself.

Of her, a poet once wrote:

In this world there’s none beside her,
none more true and brave.
In the tempest, on the wave,
none more sure to save.

In our lives the tempest and the wave will surely come. Be they disappointments, tragedies, worries, or unanswerable questions, each of us will have moments where we’ll find ourselves overcome by the roar of the squall and the rush of the tide. We will lose our way. Our lives will be caught up and capsized. 

And in the midst of those storms we may even see a light burning steady and true, but we find ourselves hopeless to reach it. We feel too far, too weak, too lost. 

But the glorious truth is that the light keeper’s child has already come to our rescue. He’s left the safety of his home, rowed out upon the troubled sea of our world, and braved the worst storms of this life so that we who are shipwrecked can be saved.

In the tempest, on the wave,
none more sure to save.

To see a performance of this story visit willowcreek.tv

Behind the scenes photography by Tyler Hoff

Primary source:
Skomal, Lenore (2010-06-15). Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter: The Remarkable True Story Of American Heroine Ida Lewis. Globe Pequot Press. Kindle Edition.