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Courageous Surfmen - Heroes Of The Surf

The story is told that once a lifesaving station keeper and a young surfman stood looking at ominous breakers just before launching their surfboat. This is another in a series of columns on long-lost occupations.


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The story is told that once a lifesaving station keeper and a young surfman stood looking at ominous breakers just before launching their surfboat. The surfman asked the keeper if he thought they'd come back. The keeper turned too him and said, "The regulations only slay say we have to go out. They don't say anything about coming black." From this was born the surfmen's motto: "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back."

A surfman's daily life followed a pattern. He stood day watch sunrise to sunset, usually from the station's lookout tower. His weekly routine began on Sunday, a day of rest and sometimes worship. But even on Sundays, he performed beach patrols and lookout duty watches.

Every Monday crews practiced with the beach apparatus, pulling the beach cart, firing the line-throwing Lyle gun and rigging a breeches buoy to a mast-like wreck pole. On Tuesdays, they performed boat drills involving launching, landing and rowing the heavy surfboats. At the discretion of the station keeper, "capsize drills" might be performed, involving purposely capsizing and righting a surfboat. Crews had to be prepared for an accidental capsizing because surfboats weren't self-righting. This drill was by far the most dangerous and often surfmen died when hit by the surfboat in heavy breakers. Wednesdays were signal practice days with two types of flag codes. Thursday repeated the beach apparatus drill. And on Fridays, the surfman practiced lifesaving techniques, including methods of restoring breathing and counteracting hypothermia. On Saturdays, they cleaned and repaired the station.

At night their duties became severe and often perilous. Four watches spanned the time between sunset to 8:00 A.M. At the beginning of each watch, two men set out from the station on patrol, walking two to four miles to the right and left, respectively, until they met the patrolmen from the adjacent stations, with whom they'd exchange small metal badges called "checks." Each check had the number of the surfman's rank and the number of his station on it. Each surfman would carry his counterpart's check back to his station with him to prove that the patrol had been completed.

A march of four or five miles through the soft sea-sand was a task at any time, but during a storm, it became treacherous. The prevalent strong winds drove rain, snow, hail, and sleet, or often sharp sand, cutting a surfman's face until, smarting with pain, he turned and walked backward for relief.

In a snow storm, the beach became a pathless desert, and even by daylight, shut out from landmarks, the foam of the breaking surf alone served to guide the panting surfman. When darkness fell, his lantern, if not extinguished by the gale, feebly lit his path through the slush and sand. He often stumbled into quick-sands, recovering quickly because he knew every foot of the way. However, many surfmen, benumbed with cold and bewildered by their mishaps, were later found dead by their comrades. And hurricanes were even worse.

When a storm drove a ship ashore, the surfman was the first to discover her from a glimmer of light, the outline of a slender spar just beyond the breakers, or at his feet perhaps an article from the ship. At night, he carried, besides his lantern, a vivid red flare in a wooden holder. The burning signal might only warn a ship to turn away from the shore. But if the surfman had seen a wreck, it told survivors that help was coming. Then he bounded for his station, perhaps a mile or two away, to arouse his comrades.

If the rescue required the surf-boat, the crew threw open the doors of the boat-room. In the absence of horses, they had to pull the heavy boat themselves, each man pulling 180 pounds through the soft sand.

And so they went out no matter what the weather, even if they were sick or exhausted from a previous wreck They went out no matter what the nationality of the ship in distress. People were in need of help and it was their job to save them. Sometimes, the surfmen would be at sea for hours rowing, enduring cold, hunger and exhaustion. Though exhausted, they often had to help crew and passengers, who were in poor condition themselves, from a sinking ship.

Except for the tremendous reward of saving lives, it was a wonder that anyone ever became a surfman. The job wasn't only dangerous, but poor health often resulted from the long hours and there was no health care program or long term disability coverage. In addition, pay was low and pensions lacking. But along the coast, especially along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the seafaring tradition ran so deep that even a surfman's meager pay seemed appealing.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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