August 4, 1790
Creation of the United States Coast Guard
One of the many responsibilities of today’s Coast Guard is that of saving the lives of those in danger on the sea. In the Sring 1992 issue of Naval History, Lieutenant Commander Robert V. Hulse of the Coast Guard vividly describes the typical duties of a surfman at a life saving station in the 1930s, shortly after the U. S. Life Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service merged together to form the Coast Guard. Hulse’s article reflects nostalgically on his own experience in his service:
In this present age of rampant greed and glorified self-aggrandizement, I often find it comforting to think back to an earlier era on the coastal beaches of this country—when certain groups of men spent their entire working lives in only one pursuit: saving the lives of shipwrecked mariners. I am referring to the U. S. Life Saving Service, established by a caring federal government to save the lives of imperiled sailors and the passengers in their charge.
Let’s take as an example the Blue Point Station (Fire Island, Long Island, New York) where I served in the 1930s. Sitting atop the roof of each two-storied lifesaving station was an observation tower. There a lookout was stationed during the daylight hour to note in his log every vessel that passed. He had a pair of binoculars as well as a spyglass to aid in his observations. Once night had fallen, foot patrols would start out from each station.
These nightly jaunts over the sand were not intended to enhance our physical fitness. Rather, we were required to keep a watchful eye on any ship passing by. If we saw red and green running lights too clearly, it usually indicated that the vessel had strayed in too close to shore. If the ship kept on her present course she was bound to plow right into the outer sandbar.
In such a case you had to quickly haul a Coston flare out of your knapsack. A few seconds sufficed to twist off the outer cover and ignite the light. You held it aloft so that the reddish-orange glow would clearly be seen out at sea. The signal burned for a good five minutes. Its clear message was: “You are coming in too close to shore. Change course immediately. You are in danger.” (Of course, it was a primitive means of communication, but bear in mind that the radio is a rather recent invention; it wasn’t until after World War II that all seagoing vessels carried radio equipment.)
Now, assume that you are standing there looking out to sea. You strain your eyes to discern whether the ship has actually changed course and is heading out to open sea. The wind is blowing even harder now, coming in at you off the ocean. You have to brace yourself against it to maintain your concentration. Even as you do you note the running lights have remained stationary. The ship hasn’t moved at all! Then above the roar of the waves crashing on shore you hear the sound of diesel engines being revved up. There is a definite whine as they strain at their task, then a pause. Now the engines try once more.
The ship has indeed fetched up! Her captain is trying to shake her loose. You look at the luminous dial of your wristwatch. Just as you thought, the tide’s going out, and that skipper is in bad trouble. Indeed, the wind is blowing even more fiercely, wedging the ship more firmly onto the sandbar. You ignite another flare. The sight of this one signifies, “You have been seen. Help is on the way.”
As you run back to the station, you try and guess how big a ship she is. The bigger the ship, the larger the crew—perhaps even passengers on board—and therefore a greater number of people to be rescued. You decide to let your captain do all that figuring. He’s the boss man; he’s paid to do the thinking.
You rush back to the station, open the big front door, and enter. Hurrying past the mess hall you reach the captain’s quarters. After two quick knocks on the door you fling it wide open. The skipper greets you with a loud snore. Flat on his back, his usually grim face looks relaxed and peaceful. You have to shake him several times to dislodge him from dreamland. He comes to with a snort. “Ship’s ashore one mile east of the station,” you report. He leaps out of bed in the general direction of a chair on which his clothes are draped.
“Rouse out all hands!” he orders, “and hitch up the horse.”
“Aye, aye, skipper,” you reply.
Rushing topside to the crew’s dormitory, you go from bunk to bunk to wake up your shipmates. A minute later and you are outside putting the harness over old Bill, the 16-year-old station horse. He should have been put out to pasture long ago, but here he is once more on a rescue mission. If he could only talk, what stories he could tell!
You lead Bill out of the stable to the boathouse that adjoins the station. Its large doors are being opened by the captain and his number one surfman, Tom Keegan. Soon Bill is hitched up to the four-wheeled wooden carrier cart on which the surfboat is cradled.
Rolling the cart out of the boathouse is easy. Just ahead, however, is deep, loose sand, and all eight surfmen are now positioned on either side of the cart to keep it moving forward. Poor old Bill would never be able to drag it over to the water’s edge without such help. The surfboat weighs a good thousand pounds, and that’s not counting the gear.
You and your shipmates have succeeded in rolling the carrier cart down close to the water where the sand is more compact and the going is easier. Bill can handle it better now, but everyone still helps propel the cart along.
Finally, you and your mates have drawn abreast of the shipwreck. The rescue attempt is about to begin. Captain Bennett, of course, is in total command; many lives depend on his experience and judgment.
Carefully, you help slide the surfboat off the cart into the freezing cold water swirling around your feet. Captain Bennett is studying the sea. It is he who must decide on the most propitious moment to launch.
Sandy (the number eight surfman and the youngest) has already led Bill and his cart back near the overhanging sand dunes. You see him adjusting the feedbag onto Bill’s head and are glad you remembered to bring that bag of oats. That ought to keep Bill happy for a while.
Sandy has returned and all are lined up on either side of the boat. You and the others are knee deep in the numbing cold water, steadying the surfboat whose bow is pointed straight out into that ugly, unforgiving ocean. After a split second more of appraisal, your gruff old skipper suddenly roars out, “All right, men, let’s go!”
With that you and your mates rush the boat out into the foaming surf. With one last frantic shove, all push the boat forward and quickly scramble aboard. Seconds later the oars are in the thole pins and you and the rest of the crew are rowing away as if your lives depended upon it. And they really do!
“HEAVE on those oars, men,” the skipper commands. “All together now men—HEAVE! “ As the surfboat crashes her way through the angry, threatening waves, you note that Captain Bennett already has his long steering oar out at the stem and is piloting us toward the stranded ship.
A persistent punishing wind is contesting every inch of our forward progress—it must be blowing a good 25 miles an hour. But all hands persevere, and as you twist about on your seat to have a look, you see that the ship is indeed quite close now. She is ablaze with lights: every cabin and companionway must be lit, and now an overhead cargo light catches you in its beam. You have to turn away to avoid its blinding glare. The searchlight dances its way across the water to the surfboat as if in a welcoming gesture.
You see that Captain Bennett is steering us in on the lee side of the ship. Drawing even closer now, you see that the ship has a slight list to starboard. She appears to be a small coastal ship, perhaps 1,000 tons.
Drawing alongside, you and the others on the port side have raised your oars out of the thole pins as directed and have lowered them down into the boat. Those on the starboard side are sitting motionless, resting on their oars as the surfboat glides in alongside the ship. A big, burly man on deck has just slung several fenders alongside to prevent damage to our boat. He catches the line flung to him and we are now tied up. At this moment the burly man—who must be the chief mate for he has a gold emblem on his cap—lowers a Jacob’s ladder over the side.
The moment the rescue begins, the ship’s captain loses his authority; he must submit to orders from our captain. Captain Bennett mounts the ladder. He quickly climbs the seven rungs and steps aboard the ship. He disappears for a good five minutes, then reappears. He descends the ladder and is with us once more.
“Eight are coming aboard,” he announces. “Six seamen, the captain, and his wife. Make room for them. They’ll be with us in a minute.”
The mate appears again and asks our skipper, “Okay to start coming on board, captain?”
“Yes, Mr. Mate, you may proceed,” our skipper replies. A slim, young woman slings first one leg and then the other over the side and descends. As she steps off the bottom rung she turns around and faces us. Her face is red and splotchy, her eyes reddened. She has been crying and looks frightened and distraught as Captain Bennett directs her to a bow seat.
Five crewmen and the mate quickly join us. Finally, a weary, disgusted-looking captain of about 45, with a beefy build, takes a last, resigned look at his ship and slowly comes down the ladder. It won’t be easy for him to get another command. First there will be hearings at which he must explain just how he managed to lose his ship.
Standing in the bow, Sandy has a boat hook in his hands. You too are on your feet, a boat hook at the ready, awaiting orders. The captain turns to Tom Keegan. “Cut the line, Tom,” he orders. Tom grabs an ax from the emergency tool kit at his feet, strikes a sharp blow, and we are free.
Directing his attention now to you and Sandy, he shouts, “Shove off, men.” The two of you push the boat away from the brightly lit, doomed ship. Quickly, the boat hooks are stowed away. As you take your place, Bennett cries out, “Man your oars, men. Put your backs into it, men. We’re headed for home!”
You and your shipmates find rowing toward shore relatively easy. The wind is now whipping us forward toward that bit of sand that offers warmth, shelter, and safety. So far, we’ve eluded the fury of the sea, but Neptune will soon have another shot at us.
You know full well that the most tricky and difficult part of the whole operation lies just ahead. With the crescendo of waves crashing on shore becoming louder and louder, you realize Captain Bennett has to pick exactly the right wave to ride us in on. If he falters and picks the wrong one, the following sea will crash over us, upending the boat and smashing us all up into one great big mess of splintered wood and shattered humanity.
The noise of the waves is becoming well-nigh deafening. We are extremely close to the point of impact, but Captain Bennett seems to be taking all the time in the world. He’s calm and confident; almost carefree. He has slowed the pace of rowing, and we are now just bobbing up and down in that troubled sea.
As you continue to concentrate on your captain, all at once the muscles around his jaw tighten. He looks tough and determined as he shouts in a stentorian tone, “All right, men, in we go! Heave on those oars! Put your backs into it. FAST now, men. In we go, go, GO!” The great wave picks us up as if we were a bit of driftwood and rushes us forward. It’s like we’re in a great sluiceway going down, down, down. All of a sudden you hear the boat scraping on the sandy bottom.
“Out of the boat, men,” our master orders. “Drag her up on the beach.”
Instinctively, we have pulled in our oars and at the same time jumped over the side. You are hip deep in water as you and your mates rush the boat up on shore, just beating out that threatening wave that towered up behind us. We’ve made it!
The ship captain and his crew have jumped over the side too and are helping. The captain’s lady is still sitting quietly in the bow, a little smile on her tear-stained face.
The rest will be routine and a bit boring. We’ll have to help Bill haul the surfboat back to the station, and we’ll have to help the ship captain, his wife, and his crew make it back there. But warmth and a change of clothing await us, as do hot coffee and extra rations. It won’t take long!
In the foregoing account I’ve tried to give you an idea of what it was like to be a Fire Island surfman setting out to sea on a rescue mission. There were times, however, when the service’s aphorism—“You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back”—was totally inapplicable. Storms lashing the coast were sometimes so ferocious that any attempt to launch a surfboat would surely result in the maiming or death of the surfmen, thus negating any chance of rescuing the shipwrecked mariners.
In circumstances of this nature, the life savers had another resource at their disposal, a rather ingenious rescue apparatus—the breeches buoy. To illustrate how this type of rescue equipment was used, assume once again that you are a surfman assigned to the Blue Point station. A vicious Nor’easter has been lashing the coast all night. When last checked, the wind was coming in at 55 miles an hour.
On this bleak December morning you are due to take the first tower watch of the day. Once dawn breaks and chow is over, you will ascend to your lofty perch for four hours of total boredom looking out upon that hostile ocean. At least the snow has stopped, so visibility should be fairly good. Tom Keegan has the galley assignment this week, and you can hear him rattling pots and pans around on the coal-fired stove. The coffee smells good but you hope that today, anyway, Tom will use less grease in frying the eggs. He is the most experienced surfman at the station, our number one man, but he’s a barely tolerable cook. Each of us—except, of course, the captain—has to take his turn at cooking. But Tom hates and resents the galley assignment and is apparently venting his frustration by slamming around the kitchenware.
The kerosene lamp on the mess hall table has started to smoke a little and you adjust the wick. It will, you realize, have to be trimmed. At this very moment the front door swings wide open and Sandy stumbles in, followed by a blast of cold air and a cloud of sand. He had the last eastward patrol of the night, and the very fact that he has used the front door means something is wrong. To avoid having sand blown or trampled in, the rear door must be used except in an emergency.
Sandy is breathless; he’s apparently been running. He finally gets his breath back and manages to gasp, “Twomasted schooner aground half mile east.”
Captain Bennett, who had been having an early cup of coffee in his office, joins us. “We’ll have to use the breeches buoy,” our leader decides. “Can’t chance the surfboat in this damn weather. Rouse out all hands!”
Breakfast is put on indefinite hold and once again you are dispatched to the stable to hitch up old Bill. As per Bennett’s orders, you completely blindfold the horse after putting on the harness. Bill has been through many storms without faltering, but this one is so fierce, the ugly waves so menacing, that if our old nag caught sight of them he might well bolt, carrying the cart away with him.
You have led Bill out of the stable and now have him secured to the breeches buoy cart stored in the boathouse. While this one is lighter than the surfboat cart, it’s still mighty heavy, and you and your fellow surfmen have to help pull the cart over the deep sand and down to the water’s edge.
On firmer footing now the cart is moving easier. Bill flinches when a wave breaks high and swirls around his hoofs. But a few pats on the head and some words of encouragement in his ear reassure the old veteran and we continue on our way. The sky is much lighter now despite the dark, low-scudding clouds, and you catch sight of the schooner. She seems to be in a bad way. Buffeted by incoming waves and wind, the ship is partly heeled over. She is in danger of breaking up in another few hours. You and your mates breathe a collective sigh of relief when you finally draw abreast of the wreck.
First, you and Tom lift the tarpaulin out of the cart and spread it out over the sand where Captain Bennett has decreed that we will set up shop. You and your shipmates go about the tasks that many long weekly drills have made almost second nature. One by one the parts of the rescue equipment are lifted out of the cart and lined up in orderly rows on the tarpaulin.
Next, Tom, Sandy, you, and the captain lift the heavy bronze cannon out and carefully lower it down to its designated spot. To the rear of the gun and beyond the tarp Sandy has joined two others digging a deep hole for the sand anchor. Captain Bennett has dropped down on his hands and knees and is sighting and aiming the Lyle rescue gun, named after its inventor, U.S. Army Colonel David A. Lyle.
Back at the cart once again, you lift out the I8-pound iron projectile with an explosive charge attached to its base. With exceedingly great care you lower the missile down into the muzzle of the gun. At its tip is a protruding iron ring. By this time Tom has lowered to the ground the “faking” box that contains the line which will be shot out to the ship. You grab hold of the end of the shot line and tie it securely to the iron ring. Tom now removes from the box the wooden pins that have kept layer upon layer of the line in orderly rows. The shot line is now free to leap out of the box without fear of snarling or entanglement.
You watch as the captain straightens up, the lanyard in his hands. He’s standing now about two feet to the side of the gun. Bennett yanks on the lanyard and the gun explodes in a sheet of flame. In its recoil the gun jumps back a good couple of feet. The projectile hurtles toward the ship, the shot line streaking out behind it. A good shot! The line has landed on the deck just aft of the bow. Attached to the line are small wooden tags with instructions in English, French, and Spanish: “Pull on this line.”
Captain Bennett has been peering out at the schooner through his binoculars. He nods approvingly and hands the glasses to you. Two seamen on board are indeed pulling in the line. As you watch you see them haul aboard the tail block with its endless whip line attached. The two men are reading the instructions attached to the block and are now obediently climbing the mast and tying the block onto it.
Now indeed we can go into action!
The captain, Tom, and Sandy have just tied a three-inch manila hawser onto the whip line. You join the others in hauling in the whip line so that the hawser will be pulled out to the ship. Attached to this stout rope are further instructions: “Tie this line two feet above the block.””
Bennett is once again surveying the scene through his glasses. “Good!” he exclaims. “They’ve tied the hawser onto the mast. We’re about ready to go!” With a strong line on board, you know things will move much more quickly. Tom and the captain place the hawser atop a traveler block to which the breeches buoy is attached. Essentially, the buoy consists of a cork life ring with a pair of strong canvas breeches attached.
Next, Sandy ties one part of the whip line onto the far side of the traveler block and attaches the other end of the line to the shore side of the block. Thus there now exists a means of sending the breeches buoy out to the ship. After one of the mariners hoists himself into the buoy by pulling on the other end of the whip line, we can haul him to the safety of terra firma.
Tom, Sandy, you, and the captain join three other surfmen in bending the end of the hawser onto the rope that leads to the buried sand anchor. Finally, the ten-foot high wooden ”X” beam is raised under the hawser to prop it up and make it more taut and high. At this point Captain Bennett sings out, “All right men, haul away!” All hands join in pulling on the whip line, which causes the traveler block and its attached breeches buoy to rapidly scoot above those vengeful waves out to the stricken ship.
Once again Captain Bennett has his binoculars trained on the ship. “Okay, men,”the captain cries out, “haul away; we’ve got one of them!” You and your mates now begin to haul away hand over hand to bring the burdened breeches buoy in toward shore. You are glad you remembered to bring your heavy-duty gloves because the line has become iced over. Without gloves, the iceencrusted line would surely tear into your hands.
As the breeches buoy slowly comes closer to shore, you see the long legs of a man dangling out of the breeches. A high wave slaps up against those legs and temporarily slows down progress. But you and your mates persevere and now the man is quite close to safety, just above the breaking waves. You and the others rush down to the water’s edge to help him in. He is a tall, frightened-looking man of about 55. He looks half frozen, his beard and eyebrows iced over. Likewise, the peacoat he’s wearing is a sheet of ice. Captain Bennett helps the man out of the life ring and asks, “How many more still on board?” Dazed and half frozen from his ordeal, the man moves his lips, but no words come out. Captain Bennett steps even closer to him and shouts, “How many on board? I’ve got to know!” “Only two more,” the man replies in a weak, hesitant voice.
The remaining two crewmen are soon quickly hauled ashore. Shortly thereafter, we pack up our gear and head for the warmth of the station and a celebratory hot meal. Usually, you could expect to find a pot of slumgullion simmering away, but you never quite knew what was in this stew. It all depended on the imagination and ingenuity of those on the previous watches. Sometimes you’d find only pieces of eel, carrots, and potatoes as you filled your bowl. Or you might find pieces of rabbit meat. Once in a great while you might find a lamb chop or two that had been spirited away from a station galley. Once I was sure I was eating snake meat, for it was quite dissimilar from the prevalent eels. It was very good, despite people’s aversion to the reptile. Whatever landed in your bowl always tasted good and helped prepare you for the next occasion when you’d be called on to assist a shipwrecked party.
The era of rescuing shipwrecked sailors by surfboat or breeches buoy is long gone. Indeed, the U.S. Life Saving Service ceased to exist as a separate organization when, in 1915, it was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The old stations, however, continued to be manned by surfmen who continued to rescue imperiled mariners until the end of World War II.
With the war over and ships free to roam the seven seas without fear of attack by German submarines, a reappraisal of the role of Life Saving stations was in order. The resultant study made clear that the great majority of stations were no longer needed. Improvements in navigation, radar, sonar, and the helicopter combined to render the stations obsolete. Most were sold at auction or torn down. The Life Saving Service as a separate entity existed for only 44 years. During that time surfmen went to the rescue of 178,741 men, women, and children, 177,286 of whom were saved! For those who contend that the federal government can do nothing right, let them have a look at this impressive record!