Surfmen of the Michigan City, Ind., lifesaving station on Trail Creek strike a leisurely pose for the camera in 1905. The man in the stern, steering oar in hand, is likely the station’s keeper, Alan Kent.The placid scene belies the duty of the lifesaver: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back” — that was the surfman’s motto, coined by Lake Michigan station keeper Patrick Etheridge. Led by these hard-bitten, coldly courageous keepers, the surfmen lived up to it.
The cry of “Wreck ashore!” came at the height of a storm, when the peril for the rescuers and those needing rescue was greatest. This was precisely when the surfman would don his oilskins, give his belongings to the cook or the keeper’s wife for safekeeping, then haul the lifeboat from its shed and launch it into the boiling surf. With their cork belts secured, the crew would row into the maelstrom, hoping they’d make it back.
Keeper George Plough of the Sand Harbor (Mich.) Station didn’t know whether he’d be able to come back when he set out on a nighttime mission during an October 1888 gale. But he and his men went out and rescued the nine-man crew of a sinking schooner-barge anyway. With the wind howling against him and his lifeboat now dangerously overcrowded, Plough made a course south, running before the storm for the safety of the St. Clair River 60 miles away.
They set a reefed sail. The surfboat nearly broached, and they switched to oars. The lantern blew out, and they couldn’t read the compass. They managed to relight it with the last of their dry matches. By dawn, off Port Sanilac in a full gale, everyone in the boat was suffering from hypothermia. Plough made a desperate try to shoot past the crib pier and into the harbor. A “last tremendous wave,” as one report described it, capsized the boat, spilling everyone into the water. Eleven people survived, including all of the surfmen, thanks, contemporary accounts say, to those cork belts — their PFDs.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.