The light from my lantern casts a feeble glow on the wet sand of the beach near Rehoboth Beach, Del. A few paces away, a thick white line barely visible in the mist of a chilly winter night marks the Atlantic Ocean. Alex Peterson, docent at the Indian River Life-Saving Station, stands nearby telling a group of visitors stories about the men who worked here a century ago.
Their jobs were harsh. The surfmen, as they were called, walked the beach nightly from September through April, on the lookout for ships in distress. When they found them, the surfmen went out to the rescue, in all weather, just like their descendants in the U.S. Coast Guard whose exploits are extolled in the new Disney film “The Finest Hour.” Their unofficial slogan summed it up: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” During the 37 years the U.S. Life-Saving Service existed, 69 men died on duty.
Indian River is one of 279 stations that dotted the shores of the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes. Some were built in the early 1800s for volunteer rescue groups. Others were built after the federal government officially established the service in 1878, in response to the high number of people who died in shipwrecks (and the mounting costs of lost cargo).
When the service was merged into the newly created Coast Guard in 1915, the stations went with it. But the need for all of them dwindled because of advances in technology. “We can send a helicopter out at 100 miles per hour to a ship, instead of a lifeboat,” explained William Thiesen, a Coast Guard historian. “Plus, you have fewer passenger ships than you did in the past. During the peak of immigration, you had a huge loss of life from shipwrecks.”
Many stations were decommissioned, and some just fell apart over time. About 100 remain, 15 of which are on the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association’s threatened and endangered list. Indian River, thankfully, is not. The pumpkin-colored wooden building with dark red gingerbread trim has been restored to look as it did in 1905, when it was home for a keeper and his crew of seven surfmen.
The keeper was a privileged guy — he had a room to himself on the second floor with a coal stove and a view of the bay. The crew, however, shared an unheated room with six beds. Since one man was on duty all the time, there was no need for a seventh. Getting warm meant crawling under the covers with a brick heated on the kitchen stove downstairs. The view from their window? The two-hole privy.
The tools of the service’s trade are on the first floor in the boathouse. For wrecks close to the shore, the surfmen sent out a breeches buoy — basically a tough canvas diaper-like harness suspended from a line rigged between the ship and an apparatus on the beach and used to convey people from the wrecked vessel to shore.
Otherwise, a surfboat was called into action. The crew lugged the 2,000-pound wooden vessel from the station to beach — sometimes for several miles — before launching it into the surf. The keeper steered from the stern as the surfmen rowed, often through a wall of waves and blinding snow.
Between wrecks, keepers and surfmen followed a strict schedule. On Mondays and Thursdays, they practiced launching the breeches buoy, which they had to do in 5 minutes. Tuesdays found them launching and sometimes capsizing the boat. They spent Wednesdays sending coded messages with flags. Fridays were devoted to emergency care, such as resuscitation and treating hypothermia. The crew did routine maintenance around the station on Saturdays and had Sundays off — unless storms were brewing.
“You were either bored out of your mind, or scared out of your mind,” said Dennis Noble, a former Coast Guardsman who’s written numerous histories of the lifesaving service. “My heart was always with the station because it was for search and rescue. And when that alarm goes, everything you’ve learned kicks into gear.”
Baltimore-based Robin T. Reid has written for Smithsonian, USA Weekend, National Geographic and other publications.