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Upcoming Events

Seaside Holiday Fair, December 11-12, 10 a.m.

Holiday Craft Workshops for Adults, December 11-12.

Holiday Gift-Making Workshops for Children Ages 7-12

Maritime Artisans Speaker Series, Sept. 9-Dec. 16.

Upcoming Races

Crash-Bobs, January 29.

Snow Row, March 5.

Race Results

Race Results--The Icebreaker

Race Results--Head of the Weir

Race Results
Head of the Quinnipiac,
hosted by the Sound School, New Haven, CT

United States Lifesaving Service

In the mid-19th century, as the nation’s commerce and population grew, so did the threat to life and cargo posed by shipwrecks. The loosely organized system of volunteer lifesaving, such as that carried forward by the Massachusetts Humane Society, was insufficient - both in terms of administration and manpower - to keep pace with the number of vessels running aground near growing, major ports of the nation. Attempts at federalizing a lifesaving service began after the catastrophic wreck of the Mexico [story w. etching, phase 2] off the New Jersey coast in 1837 - but the debate raged in Congress for another 11 years. In 1848, the federal government allocated $10,000, specifically to be used to strengthen lifesaving apparatus along the New Jersey coast. During the mid-1850's funds were allocated to create more stations and pay Keepers $200 a year, but still no money was earmarked to create crews of surfmen or to provide oversight for lifesaving operations or stations.

By the end of the Civil War, as loss of property through shipwreck mounted, momentum was growing to more strictly regulate the maritime safety infrastructure of the country's ocean and lake shorelines. In response, Abraham Lincoln named Sumner Increase Kimball [photo, phase one] the General Superintendent of the United States Life Saving Service (U.S.L.S.S.) in 1878. He would remain in that position, improving the system and advocating for its men, for the next 37 years, the entire life of the service. During the era of the USLSS, from 1878 through 1914, the men of the service assisted 28,121 vessels and 178,741 people. Of those aided by the U.S.L.S.S., only 2,424 ships were total losses and 1,512 people died. In other words, the U.S.L.S.S. lost less than one percent of the people it endeavored to save during its 36-year history. Only 8% of the vessels were lost during that same time.

At its height, the U.S.L.S.S. was comprised of 271 stations nationwide, with 32 located in Massachusetts. Within the Service, the country was divided into regions and districts, each closely supervised to maintain profession alism, often in adverse conditions and remote locals. While the lifesavers of the U.S.L.S.S., commonly known as Surfmen, were lauded in folklore as "Heroes of the Storm" an d "Storm Warriors," the real of life of a surfman typically was a frustrating combination of long stretches of boredom, loneliness, and routine interspersed with bursts of extreme terror - for insupportably low wages and no retirement benefits. Surfmen's lives revolved around drills, preparing for readiness in the event of danger. Their daily routine included rowing and cap size drills, [photo, phase one] working with sig nal flags, sw ift deployment of the breeches buoy app aratus, and the basic housekeeping of the statio n. Typically, eight men were assigned to a station - a Keeper and his crew, ranked surfmen #'s 1 - 7 depe nding upon seniority. This designation also indicated duties during boat and breeches buoy drills and particulars of li ving conditions, such as the seating arrangement at the dinner table. During the ten months of the year that stations were manned, a constant lookout patrolled the beaches near the Stations - their duty being to meet up with the patrol from a neighboring station and to exchange "checks", or small metal badges, to prove that they had completed their rounds. If a wreck was sited, the patrol would illuminate a Coston Flare, [image, phase one] which would be spotted by the crewman standing watch in the Station's observation tower or cupola. Then, swiftly, the crew would determine if the rescue would be affected by surfboat or breeches buoy - and the work would begin.

The surfboat and breeches buoy were the weapons in the Storm Warriors' arsenal. The Breeches Buoy [image or two, phase one] is a mechanical device that allows for shore-based rescue without imperiling the lives of the rescuers. In a Breeches Buoy rescue, a stout line is stretched taught between shore and ship, and, one by one, shipwreck survivors are pulleyed to shore in a life-ring with pants (breeches) sewn in, which then is returned to the ship for the next survivor. A small cannon-like device, a Lyle Gun [image, phase one], was conveyed to the wreck site and positioned facing the ship. If wind direction allowed, and the ship was aground within 500 yards of shore, the crew would prepare the Breeches Buoy apparatus - including burying the sand anchor, positioning and sighting the Lyle Gun, and readying the Faking Box [image] with its intricate weave of shot line to carry smoothly out to the wreck. If the Lyle Gun projectile - a 20 lb. lead sash-weight shaped object, was successful on the first shot at reaching the ship's rigging, the crew could begin the process of establishing the heavier lines for the rescue. If the shot line fouled, or the projectile was poorly aimed or swept off co urse by wind, the intricate procedure might have to be repeated many times - with freezing, wet lines and fingers. The life car [image] was established using the same rigging as the breeches buoy, but was used when the lines were tied too low to the water for the exposed breeches buoy to be effective. The enclosed, metal life car, which could hold several passengers, was considered highly effective -- and utterly terrifying. On more than one occasion, wreck survivors chose to stay on board ship and perish than risk being entrapped inside the life car.

The surfboat, the device for which Joshua James and his crew were most renowned, was the second method of rescue. Many types of surfboats [image] were designed and used, both in the Massachusetts Humane Society and the U.S.L.S.S. - the Race Point surfboat, the Monomoy surfboat, the various Beebe McLellands - some self-baling and self-righting, all employing the characteristic cork fenders. Made to both transit the most unimaginable waters that nature could conjure and to return through the same surf loaded with the storm's victims, these boats required a degree of skill unparalleled among mariners. Keen knowledge of the vagaries of breaking surf, instant, explosive power to take advantage of the interval between combers and relentless grit to continue rowing while beyond exhaustion were prerequisites to a crew even entering a surfboat.

In 1915, Woodrow Wilson signed into law the “Act to Create the Coast Guard,” combining the Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1939, the Lighthouse Service also was assumed into the Coast Guard. The nation’s 19th century maritime services were finally unified in 1946 when the Bureau of Marine Inspection (the former Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection) was also made part of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2003, the Coast Guard was formally transferred from the Department of Transportation to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

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