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Pages of History: Soldiers of the Surf

Surfmen aboard The Victory lifeboat in Provincetown

Surfmen aboard the 36-foot The Victory in Provincetown. This self-bailing, self-righting motor lifeboat was the first of its kind on the East Coast.

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!”

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