Monday, June 3, 2013

Life-Savers & Their Equipment

Chicamacomico Crew (1914)
Most U.S. Life-Saving Service facilities were built to similar designs. Stations were manned by 7 surfmen and a keeper, who was responsible for all aspects of the station's operation. Although the stations were only manned in winter, the keeper was responsible for mustering a volunteer crew and carrying out the rescue in the event of an off-season shipwreck.

John Woodhouse Sparrow
Virginia Beach Life-Saving
Station, Early 1900s
Photo: Charles A. Harbaugh
Surfmen maintained beach patrols 24 hours a day during storms, and in hours of darkness during calm weather. Surfmen would walk patrols of at least 5 miles round trip, and sometimes up to 10 miles. In the event of a wreck, the surfman on beach patrol would light his flare to let the ship know they had been spotted, then rush back to the station to give the alarm. In pre-telephone days, the dash back to the station seriously slowed the rescuers, but there was an odd resistance to giving beach patrols horses so they could make haste more quickly. In populated areas beach patrols often enlisted the assistance of residents to speed word of a wreck, but in isolated areas they simply had to trek back to the station.

Time did not always allow for the surfman to return to the station for help. Surfman Rasmus S. Midgett, walking beach patrol from the Gull Shoal Station in North Carolina, single handedly rescued 10 people from the Priscilla, a barkentine that wrecked some three miles from the station. Although he was on horseback and thus could return to the station quickly, beach conditions would have held up arrival of the lifesavers for hours. Realizing there was only one hope for the crew, Midgett dashed into the surf 10 times, each time bringing back one of the ship's crew. The last three trips were made carrying injured members of the crew. Although the keeper thought his actions did not warrant special recognition, he received the Gold Life Saving Medal and became one of the Life Saving Service's, and later the Coast Guard's, most celebrated figures.

When ships were too close to shore for surfboat rescue, or when seas were too high to launch the boats, the breeches buoy was used. A heavy line was passed out to the ship, a sort of "life-ring with trousers" was hung beneath it, and people were brought in from the ship one at a time. The beach apparatus associated with the breeches buoy was complex and cumbersome, but many times it was the only way.

In this view most of the beach gear is laid out: at left rear are the shovels and pick used to dig in the sand anchor, the crossed wooden boards directly in front of the shovels. The sand anchor secured the inshore end of the main hawser. The cannon-like device is the Lyle gun, used to shoot a line out to the stricken ship. Its shot is the cylinder leaning against the wooden box; the box holds the shot-line itself. The spike-like devices were used to coil the shotline so it would run freely when the gun was fired. The lightweight line running under the sand anchor is the whip line, used to haul the breeches buoy back and forth from ship to shore. The heavy line run through blocks in the center foreground was used to tension the main hawser. The A-frame-like wooden timbers at right are the crutches used to support the inshore end of the hawser. Atop the crutch is the breeches buoy itself; the main hawser runs through the block resting atop the buoy.

All this equipment, along with the hundreds of feet of line required for the setup, were carried on a beach cart. This cart was usually drawn by the lifesavers themselves, but sometimes a horse was employed. Dragging the cart to the scene of the shipwreck could be the worst part of the entire operation.

For a description of a hauling out process read the United States Life-Saving Service Beach-Apparatus Drill. It illustrates the proper way to set up and display a Beach Apparatus Cart per the service's regulations in 1883.

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