Pages of History: Soldiers of the Surf
Cape & Islands surfmen were among the courageous heroes of the U.S. Life-Saving Service
Photos courtesy of Coast Guard Heritage Museum
It’s just after dusk, an evening in late November, circa 1880, and the winds of a fierce nor’easter whip and howl against the drafty Red House at Cahoon Hollow Station, where three “surfmen” and the “keeper” huddle by the light of oil lamps. Two other surfmen are diving into their suppers, having just completed their patrol shifts. The remaining two men are out there now, one up in the watchtower, the other trudging up the beach toward the Pamet River Station. Rain and spray-soaked oilskin jackets hang dripping inside the Red House. The room smells of salt, of smoke from the keeper’s tobacco pipe, and of damp. The waves crash incessantly. Outside, the sky is as dark and foreboding as the depths of the Atlantic. Unspoken among the surfmen is the near certainty that this could be one of those nights.
As the first surfman walks his stretch of this beach between Wellfleet and Truro, he peers, near blind in this weather, out across the percussive waves. Rain cascades over the wide brim of his hat. Miles out in the distance, the occasional flicker of running lights from passing schooners blinks into momentary focus. Some 30 minutes later, the patrol reaches his destination, the halfway house, a shack in the dunes midway between Red Houses. His counterpart from the Pamet River Station has arrived already. They greet each other in their usual fashion, exchanging their brass shields, proof of their completed patrols. They comment upon the storm and the likelihood of a wreck, then part ways and head back along their respective beach territories.
When the first surfman returns to Cahoon Hollow, he climbs the watchtower, and the second surfman begins his own patrol, walking south toward the Nauset Station. He’s about one-third of the way to the halfway house when he spots the first sign of trouble—a ship’s running lights that are too bright, too close to shore. Then follows the sound of sails flapping, snapping in the gusts. From inside his jacket, he withdraws a Coston flare, loaded in its wooden and brass holder. He strikes the brass plunger to fire the flare, signaling to the ship. His message should be clear: “Stay with your vessel; help is on its way.” Back at the watchtower, the first surfman spots the flare and sounds the alarm, shouting to the other six men in the Red House, “Ship ashore! All hands perishing!”
The keeper and surfmen are ready. They’ve run weekly practice drills, and all are veteran Life Savers. No matter how fierce the surf, no matter how wild the wind, they’ll attempt to launch the station’s surfboat. They roll the heavy craft down to the break and crash through the waves, oars digging into the tempestuous water. They pull. And they pull, driving through the surf, knowing they can arrive in time, hoping that no sailors aboard the schooner panic. If the sailors just stay put, if they just hold on, the surfmen can rescue them, bring them to the safety of shore, to the warmth of the Red House. The surfmen pull so hard against the raging Atlantic that they function as a single engine, a machine devoid of doubt, bound for heroism or for death.
These are the brave men of the United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS), a precursor of the U.S. Coast Guard. Established in 1871, the federal government commissioned the building of about 260 stations along the nation’s coasts, including on the Great Lakes. Historian and former retired Coast Guard senior chief, Dr. Dennis L. Noble wrote that although national life-saving programs started in 1848, “they were run like a volunteer fire department, but without anyone in charge, nor any inspection system. …” While commerce and the number of cargo ships grew, more vessels wrecked, and the programs failed to keep pace. Noble writes, “The American Civil War caused the neglect of the government’s shore based lifesaving network. This neglect continued until 1870, when another vicious storm ripped into the East Coast and many lives were lost.” Newspapers and public outcry created a demand for a better safety apparatus. Historian Dick Boonisar, who actually owns a former station in Plymouth, points out another driving force. “Insurance companies,” he says, “started screeching and hollering,” which helped accelerate reform. Under the purview of the Treasury Department, Sumner Increase Kimball, a lawyer from Maine, would take the lead in this project. In short time, its success was measurable and its reputation positive, so much so that Noble claims, “the organization that contributed the most to the U.S. Coast Guard’s image as a lifesaver was the U.S. Life-Saving Service.”
Not only was the life of a surfman rugged, the job carried very few benefits. The government provided station houses where the men lived, but little more. Dick Ryder of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association relates that the pay was $65/month for surfmen, but they received nothing during the months of June and July. Ryder explains, “The summer wasn’t seen as dangerous. The water was warmer, and the days were longer.” Thus, the work season for surfmen began in August and ran through May. “The beach patrol was unique to the U.S.,” says Dick Boonisar. By 1872, there were nine stations called Red Houses on the Outer Cape, and by the early 1900s, there were four on Nantucket, one on Gay Head, one on Cuttyhunk, and four more on the Cape. Ryder says, “Men got one day off a week, if the weather was okay. It was tough duty. If they were injured, they were just sent home.” They had to purchase their own food and uniforms. If they needed any additional days off, they would have to hire a substitute.
The lives of surfmen and keepers were very structured, with a number of standard procedures built into their schedules. Boonisar says, “They had a very prescribed week. They’d practice with the surfboats and the breeches buoy, conduct regular drills.” The men would row and perform maneuvers in the surfboats, craft of about 25 feet with enclosed air chambers fore and aft. They would conduct capsize drills on Tuesdays and signal drills on Wednesdays. On Mondays and Thursdays, they would practice firing the Lyle gun, a small cannon that would shoot a weighted line up to 600 yards offshore. They used this to set up the breeches buoy, a life ring with a canvas harness shaped like a big pair of shorts, or breeches, that a sailor would sit inside. A pulley apparatus like a zipline would carry men from ship to shore. On Fridays, the men trained in first aid and resuscitation, or “restoring the apparently drowned.” And, of course, they kept watch. With no retirement, no medical benefits, and little compensation for widows, they ended up forming their own insurance company. Ryder notes that nine surfmen were lost on the Cape—seven in the 1902 Monomoy Disaster, the other two in Truro. It would take until the 1915 merger of the USLSS with the Revenue Cutter Service—which formed the U.S. Coast Guard—for the surfmen to receive job security and full benefits.
The era of the USLSS spanned about 45 years, and, nationwide, its heroes would ultimately save over 177,000 lives. These numbers show both the effectiveness of the organization and the sheer volume of ships. Ryder says, “In one year, 22,000 ships were sailing past Handkerchief Shoal, off Monomoy, all with no power.” Boonisar further explains, “Visualize I-95 running 20 miles offshore with schooners carrying cargo such as granite and ice from the north and lumber from the south. In the winter, the Cape is a lee shore, with the east wind. Combine this with heavily-loaded schooners…” The ships, which typically carried crews of two hands for each of its masts—often a total of only six men aboard a 100-foot vessel—would blow off course and in toward shore; there were a lot of wrecks in those days.
The completion of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 and advances in engine technology would contribute to improvements in safety upon the seas, but the heroic efforts of the men in the U.S. Life-Saving Service had become both widely known and popular. Fiction writers spun tales of surfmen, the USLSS published annual reports that glorified their deeds, and authors wrote true-life accounts of their work, such as J.W. Dalton’s 1901 book, “The Lifesavers of Cape Cod,” for which he visited every station on the Cape and devoted at least one paragraph to each surfman and keeper, including Seth Ellis, the sole survivor of the Monomoy Disaster. Milton Bradley even created a board game based upon the work of these courageous men. Women also took part in the USLSS; the Blue Anchor Society, a division within the Women’s National Relief Association, provided the stations with trunks of clothing for the rescued sailors, and Martha Coston, who invented the flares the men used to signal ships, was instrumental to the program’s success.
Today, the United States Coast Guard carries out the life-saving missions that were once the bailiwick of the USLSS, but the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association works to preserve the organization’s stories and memories. The Old Harbor Station, now located in Provincetown, has been restored as a museum, and Dick Ryder narrates a breeches buoy drill there every Thursday night throughout the summer. He says, “Our group in Provincetown has been doing this according to the book for over 40 years. There are only three places in the country that still practice the drill—one in North Carolina, one in Delaware, and our station here on Cape Cod.” Dick Boonisar, who served as the Heritage Association’s first president, owns a station in Plymouth, which he has painstakingly restored. “It’s set up with all the original equipment,” he says. “It’s taken me 40 years to collect everything. But if there’s ever a schooner up on Duxbury Beach, I can send out a line and take ‘em off.”
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