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Pages of History: Soldiers of the Surf

Surfmen in uniform

Surfmen in uniform. They began wearing uniforms in 1889.

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.

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