Between Storms and Shoals

The lifesaver's motto was, "You have to go, but you don't have to come back." Likewise, their work earned them the title, "Guardians of the Ocean Graveyard" while they were stationed on Cape Cod between 1872 and 1915.

The lonely form of Cape Cod stretches its fist-clenched forearm 25 miles into the ocean. Thoreau described it as "...boxing with northeast storms...and heaving up her Atlantic adversary from the lap of the earth."

To the mariner, the Cape represents both a hazard and a haven, as all shipping between Boston and New York must either pass into its sheltered bay, or ground on its treacherous shoals. Combined with the forces of countless "nor'easters" and its precarious location, the Cape has been the site of more than 3,000 shipwrecks in 300 years of recorded history.

It is the shallow sand bars several hundred yards off the beach that present the greatest danger. Here is where storm driven ships ground, break into pieces under the pressure of tons of raging water, and spill their fragile contents and occupants into the bone chilling surf.

The Early Humanitarians

From the onset, Native Americans and succeeding generations of Cape Codders offered aid to shipwreck victims.

In 1785, the Massachusetts Humane Society initiated the world's first organized lifesaving service in Boston Harbor with shelters and food for shipwreck survivors. While their methods and equipment were well intended, the Humane Society members were unpaid volunteers and could not provide continuous or adequate services.

Rescuing Sailors

In the early 1800s, there was an average of two wrecks every month during the winter. The loss of life seemed especially sad when a sailor managed to get ashore on a winter night only to freeze to death after he got there.

In 1797, the Massachusetts Humane Society started putting up huts along the most dangerous sections of the Massachusetts coast in the hope that stranded sailors would find them and take shelter. It was not, however, until 1872, that a really efficient lifesaving service was put into operation by the United States government.

In 1845, Congress took the first step toward meeting the nationwide sea rescue problem by funding private organizations like the Humane Society. Finally, in 1872, the first federally constructed and staffed lifesaving stations emerged as part of the Department of Treasury. They became the U. S. Life Saving Service.

In the 1870s, nine stations were built on Cape Cod: Race Point, Highlands, Peaked Hill Bars, Pamet, Cahoon's Hollow, Nauset, Orleans, Chatham, and Monomoy Point.

Six or seven surfmen and a keeper lived in each station and kept a continuous lookout. At night, two men from each station walked the beach on patrol, met at a small half-way shelter between stations, and then returned on their same route.

As soon as a ship in distress was sighted, a flare was fired from ashore to let the crew at sea know they'd been seen. Then the lifesaving crew went into action. If the sea permitted, they launched surfboats--some equipped with air chambers to help keep them afloat, cork fenders to keep them from being smashed against the sinking ship, and righting lines to use in case they capsized.

If they could not get out by boat and if the shipwreck was near enough to shore, the lifesaving team stayed on the beach and used a small, cannon-like gun to fire a line out to the sinking ship. The crew on shore and the sailors on the wreck tied off lines, and using a clothes line-type method called the beach apparatus, men from the wreck were pulled in one-by-one in a piece of rescue equipment called the breeches buoy. The buoy was then pulled back out to the ship to haul the next man in.

Men, Equipment and Muscle

Life at these stations was a mixture of danger, glory, excitement and boredom. Usually manned by a crew of six surfmen and a keeper (or captain), the rank and responsibility of each man was carefully structured.

Endless hours of patrol were critical, especially at night and during storms when wrecks were most likely to occur. They were sometimes monotonous, but during foul weather the patrols were exhausting; surfmen often had to hold a wooden shingle in front of their faces to keep the sand out of their eyes as they patrolled. Patrols would meet at small halfway houses between stations and exchange metal tags, or punch time clocks to verify completion. In the summer months, the surfmen were released, leaving only the keeper on duty.

At the station, a strict schedule was followed, requiring different drills on specific days. However, when a wreck was sighted, the surfman on patrol would ignite a coston's flare to signal the stranded ship and alert the station crew. "Ship Ashore!" was the verbal alarm.

After laboriously carrying rescue equipment by hand or horsecart to the beach, the keeper would determine where and when to launch the specially designed surfboats. Given the names "Race Point" and "Monomoy" types, these buoyant, sturdy, and relatively lightweight boats (at 800 to 1,000 lbs. each) carried five oarsmen and the keeper at the helm. Only five victims could be safely rescued at a time, thus often many perilous return trips had to be made. Whereas hundreds of victims were rescued in this manner, only on two tragic occasions did Cape Cod lifesaving crews lose their own lives.

The Breeches Buoy

When weather and surf were too violent to launch the surf boat, the alternate method of rescue was the breeches buoy. The buoy consisted of a pair of canvas breeches fastened inside a life ring and suspended from a life line and pulley system between the stranded ship and shore. The Lyle gun (a small cannon) was used to shoot a lightweight line to the ship, which in turn was pulled on board by the ship's crew. Along with it came an instruction paddle, block and pulley, the heavier hawser line, and continuous whip lines. Simultaneously, the surfmen erected a twelve-foot wooden crotch to suspend the hawser line and breeches buoy above the surf and buried an anchor in the sand. In practice, the whole operation had to be done within five minutes. Only after all this was accomplished could one victim at a time be rescued as the breeches buoy was tediously pulled back and forth from shore. Time and effort made this less popular than using the surf boat.

End of an Era

Eventually, there was change. During the early 20th century, sturdier self-propelled steel ships began replacing sail-powered wooden vessels. Likewise, telegraphy, radio, and improved weather forecasting dramatically reduced the number of shipwrecks on Cape Cod. However, it was the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 that reduced navigation dangers and ended the colorful era of the lifesavers on Cape Cod.

Once as popular as the U. S. Cavalry, the lifesavers gradually disappeared as the stations were abandoned. Finally, in 1915, the U. S. Life Saving Service was incorporated into the newly formed U. S. Coast Guard, and the days of the Life Saving Service were over.

Read more about the US Life-Saving Service.

Old Harbor Life-Saving Station

Old Harbor Life-Saving Station was built in Chatham in 1897. The station was operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, and its precurser the U.S. Life-Saving Service, until it was decommissioned in July 1944. In the early 1970s, the building was obtained by the National Park Service. By then, it was in a precarious position on an eroding beach. In November 1977, it was moved by barge to Race Point Beach in Provincetown, where it stands today.

The station has been furnished as it would have been around 1900. The site serves as a museum, where the stories of wrecks, rescues, and the heroic life-savers are brought to life by volunteers each summer during open houses. Additionally, breeches buoy rescue re-enactments are conducted on the grounds on Thursday evenings during July and August.

Last updated: January 12, 2023

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