Lifeboat Station History at Point Reyes

Point Reyes Historic Lifeboat Station
How many prayers went unanswered along this prominent point? How many lives were lost and how many tears of sorrow fell for those who drowned in a cold dangerous sea? If you were fated to wreck along the rocky headlands or to beach in the pounding surf of Point Reyes beach, your cries for help and mercy would often be lost among the unrelenting waves of the Pacific.

A Call to Action
Before the establishment of Life Saving and Lifeboat Stations, the remains of vessels littered the beaches and the rocks along the United States coastline. Horrified spectators witnessed the drowning of passengers and crew, helpless to do anything. In the same waves that smashed hulls and took lives of the unsuspecting, some heard a call to action.

Though lifesaving's role in maritime history begins in the 1780’s, it was not until 1871 that a coordinated government agency was established to aid distressed mariners. The United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) provided hope for those whose fate was once sealed by pounding ocean waves and foreboding coastlines of the United States. The USLSS was a model agency and its surfmen would earn a place in the hearts of Americans for their feats of bravery.

A New Hope at Point Reyes
In 1890, alone on the long stretch of empty beach, the Point Reyes Life-Saving Station opened with a crew of eight and a seasoned keeper on a lonely stretch of Great Beach known for its notorious pounding surf and bad weather. Their positions were poorly paid, difficult and full of danger. The surfmen patrolled the beaches of Point Reyes with an ever-vigilant eye, looking for shipwrecks and their desperate crews. They walked the beaches day and night, with the fog chilling them to the bone and the wind blasting sand at the unprotected skin of their faces.

Surfboat & crew heading out through the surf. Point Reyes National Seashore Museum, HPRC Rec. No. 013330.
Surfboat and crew heading out through the surf of the Point Reyes Beach.

When a wreck was found, the surfmen did what they did best, they saved lives. A shipwrecked mariner you could be assured that the surfmen's presence gave you close to a 99% chance of survival. Equipped with a surf boat and breeches buoys, a keeper would determine the best way to aid those in distress. Using a surfboat with the eight surfmen rowing and the keeper steering, the crew of the lifesaving station would take the imperiled mariners back to shore. But there were times when the boat could not safely reach a wreck. In those instances the breeches buoy and Lyle gun were used. Using a small cannon called a Lyle gun, a line would be shot to the wreck. The breeches buoy which was a life preserver ring with an oversize pair of canvas legs would then be sent to the wreck to remove crew and passengers one at a time.

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A New Name, a New Site and New Technology
As the century turned, The United States Lifesaving Service was combined with the US Revenue Cutter Service to form the Coast Guard. This newly formed agency was now charged with aiding those in distress. Very little changed in the first years under Coast Guard management, but, in 1927, operations moved from Great Beach to the protected waters of Chimney Rock. At Chimney Rock, a new station was built as longer, heavier, motorized lifeboats replaced the old, human-powered, surfboats.

US Coast Guard Motorized Lifeboat CG-36542 with crew on Drakes Bay. Point Reyes National Seashore Museum, HPRC Rec. No. 006650.
US Coast Guard Motorized Lifeboat
CG-36542 with crew on Drakes Bay.

The size and weight of these boats meant that they had to be launched using a pier and a marine railway that descended from the Boathouse to the water. Chimney Rock and the calm protected waters was the ideal place. With the calm waters, its proximity to the headlands, the new faster boats had a greater command of the Point Reyes Peninsula.

In the early years of lifesaving at Point Reyes, the surfmen knew of danger. But it was not the isolation of the beach or the vast open ocean that they feared. It was the unrelenting, pounding surf that lay between. Strong surf could keep a rescue operation at bay for hours or capsize a surfboat, taking a man's life in a cold sea. In the first three years of operation, three surfman lost their lives while they honed their lifesaving skills in drills. These experiences resonated throughout the Life Saving Service in its motto "Ye have to go out but ye don't have to come in."

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Point Reyes Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock. Point Reyes National Seashore Museum, HPRC Rec. No. 002690.
Point Reyes Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock.

The move to Chimney Rock in 1927 relieved many who faced the dangers of the Great Beach surf but lives risked and lost in the pursuit of saving others were not a thing of the past. After only two months at the new site, the men of the station responded to their first rescue saving the crew from a burning vessel. As the years passed and the Coast Guardsmen left their marks in the Station's logbooks, hints of their bravery can often found. Life saving crews risked their lives in rough seas, near the rocky headlands and among towering waves saving the lives of many. In the process they lost two of their own. In 1960, on Thanksgiving Eve two Coast Guardsmen were lost in an ordinary call for assistance. After securing a disabled vessel in Bodega Bay, the two-man crew radioed their arrival time to the Life Boat Station. That was the last that was heard from the crew. In the morning, their boat was found grounded on Great Beach with the propellers still turning. What happened to the crew? The answer was lost with them, leaving a mystery in its place.

Whatever the answer, there is no question of the surfman's bravery. Even with all these tragedies, the lives and vessel saved far outnumbered those lost by the duty bound. In the 80 years of life saving at Point Reyes, countless vessels, their crews and passengers and millions of dollars worth of ships and cargo were saved.

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Our Maritime Past and Future
Eventually modern technologies eclipsed the need for the Lifeboat Station at Point Reyes. The quick response of larger faster coast Guard Cutters and helicopters have meant the need for fewer lifesaving sites and less staff. In 1969 the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station was closed. Much of this history and these lives lived in service to others are now gone. All that remains in its place is a building. Silent and decommissioned, it embodies all the perils endured, and all the lives saved that would have otherwise be lost forever. The Historic Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock stands as a monument to their stories of service and sacrifice.

These stations and those who staffed them fulfilled their roles in the development of coastal cities and industries. Today the Historic Lifeboat Station at Point Reyes National Seashore is used as a educational facility for non-profit groups learning about the resources of the natural and cultural resources of Point Reyes. The building is visible from the Chimney Rock Trail and is sometimes open to the public on weekends and holidays from January to mid-March. For more information, please call the National Seashore at 415-464-5100.

Check out our Chimney Rock page for more information about visiting this beautiful location.

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Last updated: March 3, 2017

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Mailing Address:

1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956


(415) 464-5100
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