Meet a Young Lighthouse Heroine
Updated: Mar 19, 2021
It always surprised Grace Darling to emerge from the shelter of a walled garden to a world exploding with gray light. She looked up at the vast open sky and took a deep breath of cool salt air. A high wind fought with her now as she pushed closed the little door in the garden wall, latching it with a firm hand.
She hauled a crate of late-season vegetables to her boat and pushed off into the sea. Grace leaned into the oars as she crossed the rough ocean to her lighthouse home a mile away. She could tell that a serious storm threatened. She'd learned to read all the signs in her years of observing the winds and the tides.
Her concern was not for herself. She'd been handling the boat alone since she was twelve. Now, at twenty-two, she often made the trip to her old family home on Brownsman Island, part of England's Farne Islands. Grace and her family still cultivated the garden there on the island surrounded by seals and seabirds.
A Puffin in its burrow on the Farne Islands
She remembered how it felt to live on Brownsman Island. Curious puffins would stroll into their old lighthouse quarters like country ladies arriving for a visit, their bright, interested eyes taking in the furnishings.
She pushed herself harder now, anxious to return to her father at their newer lighthouse post on Longstone Island. Nothing grew on the barren rocks of Longstone. There were no more puffins wandering in, no more eider ducks to tame as pets. But she was content helping her father keep the light and observing the moods of the sea off the coast of Northumberland.
Northumberland: England's northernmost county
She rarely felt uneasy, yet a deep concern grew inside her for the ships going by Longstone. She wanted to hear what her father thought about the storm brewing. But Grace knew in her heart he would confirm her own fears—it would be a terrible one.
When she arrived home, the lines on her father's face had deepened with worry. Later, Grace went up the staircase to her bedroom but was unable to sleep. She kept watch through her window. In the early morning hours of September 7, 1838, as the gale-force winds tossed the waves, Grace thought she saw a dark shape. It stood immobile out on the water by Harcar Rock.
It was a shipwreck, there could be no doubt.
She ran for her father. Together, they took turns looking through a telescope. Grace strained her eyes, trying to find any signs of life. Had all of the passengers and crew perished? She couldn't bring herself to believe it. Finally, at 7:00 a.m., she saw movement through the telescope. There were survivors stranded on the rock. And they needed help immediately.
Any rescue attempt might cost another life--her father's. Grace was insistent. He could not handle the boat alone. She headed down to the boat, and her father followed.
Battling the wind and the heavy waves, the two set a course for the rock and the survivors. With no sleep the night before, Grace had to dig deep to find the physical and emotional strength to continue rowing through the storm.
Grace Darling at the Forfarshire by Thomas Musgrave Joy
When they navigated as close to the rock as possible, they found eight men and one woman still clinging to life from the wreck of a paddle steamship, the SS Forfarshire. Grace felt heartbroken when she observed the woman holding her two young children who had died from exposure.
Coming as near as they could, Grace and her father helped the woman and four of the men into their boat. It was all the boat could hold at a time. She braced herself for the difficult journey back to the lighthouse.
Grace began tending to the grieving mother and an injured man as the boat fought its way back to Longstone. Her father headed out again with two of the rescued men to help bring the remaining survivors to safety.
Because of Grace's vigil at her window, nine desperate people had been rescued.
The story of what Grace had accomplished spread throughout Great Britain. The picture of a selfless young woman, her hair spreading out in the wind as she rowed through a storm, also captured the imagination of the world.
Grace became a very reluctant Victorian celebrity, never able to completely return to her quiet life tending to the walled garden or observing the seabirds and the ocean.
Four years later, at the age of twenty-six, Grace passed away from tuberculosis. No one who has heard her story will forget the courageous young woman who risked her life to save others.
My recreation of Grace's story is based on true events in her life.
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Linda Borromeo is the author of Mystery Shores.
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