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Pages of History: Soldiers of the Surf

Surfmen wearing cork lifebelts

Surfmen wearing cork lifebelts. Photo courtesy of USLSS Heritage Association

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.

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