L.I.’S Early Life Savers,The Surfmen in the Rough
    By Kathleen Lonetto

           Long before the age of radar and radio, many ships became disoriented during fog and storms.
    Many of these ships were cast ashore along the coast of Long Island, The fate of these ships and
    their cargo was often sad. The fate of the passengers and crew was all too frequently tragic.
    Within the coastal towns, the populace received these horrible wrecks with mixed emotions. At
    times, a useful or exotic cargo floated to shore from these ships. However, with these cargos came
    the sorrowful task of dealing with bodies washed ashore and the sight of humanity suffering a cruel
    and harrowing death on the seas. A life saving service was truly needed and eventually came into
           In 1790, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton dealt with the vast resources of
    salvageable cargo from shipwrecks by establishing the Revenue Cutter Service. However, this
    service provided for the shipping trade and their problems without special regard for the victims of
    these wrecks. The public was increasingly aware of the tragedies of lost lives. After too many lives
    were claimed by freezing water and pounding waves, Congress responded to public outcry in 1837 by
    directing patrols along the coast and assuring more awareness of the plight of victims of ships in
    distress. In 1848, the first life saving station was established in the perilous area of Sandy Hook,
    New Jersey. By 1849, the need for these stations was evident on Long Island and the Life Saving
    Benevolent Association of New York was influential in establishing 10 stations here.
           These 10 stations were located at Amagansett, Quogue, Moriches, Fisher’s Island, Eaton’s
    Neck, Bridgehampton, Long Beach, Mastic, Barren Island and Fire Island. The stations immediately
    improved conditions associated with traveling along the coast; however, their total effectiveness was
    increased with time.
           In 1854, Congress again approached the life saving situation and designated a $200 per year
    salary for keepers at the life saving stations. There were more stations added at Fire Island in the
    areas of Blue Point, Point 0’ Woods, Smith Point and Lone Hill.
           By 1871, the lifesaving stations served a full and orderly function. The Revenue Marine
    Bureau controlled the stations which consisted of a keeper with boatswains rank and six surfmen
    who were ranked according to experience. The life Saving Service existed formally until 1915 when
    the Coast Guard became the official coastal patrol.
           The men who manned the life saving stations were called surf men. They were employed by
    the civil service process and enough politics and salary entered into the picture to make the job
    desirable. The crew consisted of six men at each station with local volunteers available. The
    maximum age of service for the men was 45 years.
           Neal Bullington, Assistant Chief Ranger for the Fire Island National Seashore, has an interest
    in the Life Saving Stations. He has become a local expert on the subject. Bullington states that “it
    was a government civil service job... and off season, most of the surfmen spent all of their life
    working on the water. “Most of them, during the off season, were out clamming or oystering or
    fishing or maybe guiding shooting parties to the wild water fowl.” Many of the surfmen were
    experienced whalers, especially those from the South Fork. These surfmen were well acquainted
    with the coastal peculiarities, the sand bars, the currents, the inlets and tides, and they used this
    knowledge to aid ships in distress.
           The stations themselves were small and many times in need of repairs. There was no plumbing
    and inadequate heating. The station house was a two story structure with a lookout tower on the
    roof. One section of the building was used as a boat room while other sections were utilized as a
    mess area, storage space and office. On the second floor, there were sleeping quarters for the men
    not on a patrol shift.  A ramp led from the boat room to the beach and the station house was
    painted red for easy visibility. The doors were all placed facing toward the leeward side of the shore
    in order to facilitate their opening quickly and without difficulty in case of a strong wind.
    There were other buildings located on the government site such as storage sheds and a barn to
    shelter the horses that pulled the boat wagon. A pole was set up to simulate a mast or other rigging.
    The surfmen practiced their life saving skills constantly.
           Most of the time, the surfmen would occupy themselves by drilling, cleaning equipment or
    patrolling. Much like a modern military operation or fire department, they practiced preventative
    measures and drilling for actual emergency conditions. “They would live out there in the station all
    through the wreck season which was from fall through spring, and they’d patrol the beach every
    night and also during the day if the weather was bad and visibility was poor,” states Bullington.
    ”Many times, they were able to warn ships off before they actually hit the beach. In other cases,
    they had to go to the rescue of ships that were already stranded.”
           Throughout the years, the surf men acquired useful equipment for their lifesaving purposes.
    This equipment was constantly being tested and improved. Basically, the men used small boats for
    pushing through the waves to reach a ship in distress. When the surf was too rough, the men would
    shoot a projectile to the ship for the stranded sailors to attach to the mast or other sound rigging.
    Then some form of life car would use the line attached to the ship and shore to transport the
    passengers and crew.
           First of all, the small craft that cut through the surf was not a standard skiff or rowboat. The
    boats were made of metal since the limited use of the boat and constant storage out of water caused
    the wood to rot. The boats could accommodate a crew of 10 to 12 people. At one time, an experiment
    was made using a boat that could not swamp and could right itself. However, the surfmen found this
    craft to be too difficult to maneuver and too bulky to handle. No matter what modifications were
    made throughout the years to improve these boats, more often than not, many of the shipwrecks
    occurred in heavy surf where not even the best of craft could clear the waves. Once the use of
    power boats became widespread, the hazards and near impossibility of crossing the surf line were
           Projectiles were an important part of the lifesaving service. The most widespread projectile
    used was the Lyle gun. David Lyle was a young Army officer in 1877 when he was assigned the task
    of producing a rocket cannon that would safely and efficiently carry a line from the shore to a
    stranded vessel Most cannons were bulky and stationary or not powerful enough when modified to
    reach the vessels.
           Lyle invented a gun that eventually became a bronze 185 pound cannon. The shot was 17
    pounds and could be used with relative accuracy. A long, metal projectile was attached to a line that
    was coiled perfectly within a wooden box placed next to the cannon. This shot line was projected to
    the stranded vessel and would unravel without tangles. Also attached to the line were instructions
    written in many languages. Basically, the instructions called for sailors aboard the vessel to attach
    the line to the mast or any other firm rigging. Once the line was secured, a series of other lines and
    pulleys were transported from shore to the ship. Finally, a life car would be sent for the passengers.
           The proximity to shore often fooled people into believing that they did not need a life car. The
    passengers or crew would be lulled by the closeness of the Fire Island beach, for instance, into
    attempting to swim to shore. “The most dangerous thing that they could do would be to try to get
    ashore by themselves,” explains Bullington. “From out on the shipwreck, they would be looking in
    toward the beach over the tops of the waves and it would often appear deceptively calm and smooth
    when in fact the surf would be quite rough.” Unfortunately, most of these people drowned before a
    life saving vessel could reach them.
           The final element in lifesaving was the life cars. A metal life car was invented in 1849 in which
    the passenger or crew member would lie down inside the car for transportation to shore. However,
    this car was often too slow and bulky. The breeches buoy was used more efficiently. This was a
    modified round life saver attached to a line. The passenger would dangle somewhat appreciatively
    above the sea. Of course, ‘women and children first’ applied to the use of any of this equipment.
    Practicing with the surf boats, projectiles, breeches buoy and keeping the various lines clean and in
    top working order was the weekly task of the surfmen. The men had to maintain the station house,
    keeping it clean and orderly. They had to oversee the food items that provided a basic sustenance
    for the shipwreck victims after rescue.
           They took turns at the watch tower, on shore patrol and in the mess. If a vessel was sighted
    off shore, the surf men would fire a red flare called a Coston flare to warn the ship away from
    shore. The men would walk the patrol halfway from their own station to the next station. At the
    halfway point, a small warming hut was provided for the two men who reached it during the patrol.
    “Every week, they did the same thing on that day as they had clone on the previous week,” states
    Bullington. “On Thursday, for example, they practiced beach rescue drill. On another day, they
    practiced with the signal flags. On another day, they practiced first aid and lifesaving techniques for
    rescued swimmers. It was like a military organization.”
           The work was often exciting, frequently routine and constantly hazardous. The surf- men were
    rewarded with good pay and the respect of their neighbors as well as the relentless gratitude of the
    rescued shipwreck victims. Surfmen lived in relative isolation, especially in the seven Fire Island
    stations which were cut off during the winter from the mainland. There were rumors that the
    families of these surfmen frequently lived near the stations, perhaps even on the government
    grounds. On Fire Island, a basic education was provided for the surfmen’s children. Worship and
    other basic social amenities were also available.
           The men hunted, grew vegetables, fished and lived very quiet lives with their families.
    Supplies were limited to good weather runs and the elements made life rigorous too often and
    isolated even in the best of times.
           Tales of the surfmen’s bravery are recorded on public records and in history books such as the
    respected source book of the Long Island shipwrecks, Jeannette Rattray’s Ship Ashore!. However,
    there are times that the lifesavers distinguished themselves and reached beyond the call of duty.
    In February of 1895, the three masted schooner, 163 foot Louis V. Place ran off course. She was
    carrying 1,100 tons of coal and a crew of eight men. She was covered with ice and floundering
    heavily in poor visibility. “There were eight men on board and before they could be rescued, six of
    them died from exposure to the cold, froze to death in the riggings,” stated Bullington. “The other
    two were brought ashore and one of them died in a couple of days. So, out of the eight, only one
    man survived the wreck.”
           The crew from the Lone Hill station was occupied on the frigid day with rescue operations for
    the stranded John B. Manning. They managed to save the entire crew of the John B. Manning, but
    were exhausted and frostbitten. Hours after returning to the station, the Louis V. Place was
    sighted. She was over 300 yards from shore with extremely heavy seas and ice cakes coating the
    beach, six to eight feet deep in spots There were two sailors hanging on the frozen rigging and the
    surfmen battled to save these men.
           Attempts were made to launch a life boat, but the heavy surf prevented them from leaving the
    shore. Aboard the Louis Place, the sailors were too exhausted too scramble for the line shot to
    them from the Lyle gun. For two nights, fires burned on the shore as rescue attempts were
    unsuccessful. Finally, the crew managed to push a lifeboat through the ice to the vessel and the two
    sailors were rescued, one surviving.
           Today, the US Coast Guard performs the duties of the surfmen. Ships do not become stranded
    quite as easily due to sonar, radar and excellent communication systems. However, the lone figure
    patrolling the beach with gale wind, beating rain and isolation as companions is one who should be
    revered as a hero in the pages of Long Island history books. He was needed for a special task at a
    certain time and did not hesitate to answer the call.

First Published in Long Island Heritage