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Just yesterday: The life of a lifesaver

The U.S. Life-Saving Service grew from roots planted along the shores of Cape Cod in the 18th century, with men assembling at times of need to pluck mariners from the sea along that long and sometimes treacherous Massachusetts coast. By the mid-1800s, the official service had come into being, supported in part by federal funds. The men who braved the weather to save others were called “storm warriors.” By the time the service was folded into the Coast Guard in 1915, it had been credited with saving more than 180,000 lives.

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Members lived and worked as a team based at stations on the beach. The keeper and his seven or eight surfmen followed a strict schedule that was standard throughout the service. It kept things running smoothly and fought off the boredom of a lonely life.

On Monday and Thursday the crew set up a breeches buoy, firing a line with a 17-pound weight from a cannon toward a pole representing the main mast of a stranded vessel 75 yards away. A good crew could then set up the necessary lines and pulleys required to rig the breeches buoy in less than three minutes — in the dark.

On Tuesday they launched the 2,000-pound surf boat and exercised at the oars for a half-hour, capsizing and righting the boat, too. Wednesday meant drilling with letter- and numerical flags, wig-wag flags and making night signals with lights and flares. On Friday the crew gathered to practice “restoring the apparently drowned,” using such varied methods as brandy, mustard plasters and an early form of artificial resuscitation.

They worked at maintenance around the station on Saturday, sweeping, painting, cleaning. Sunday was a well-deserved day of rest and, perhaps, a trip into town. Then it was back to the beach, with an eye on the weather.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.


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