Point Reyes Historic Lifeboat Station
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
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.
A New Name, a New Site and New Technology
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."
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.
Our Maritime Past and Future
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.
Last updated: March 3, 2017