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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

Tools of the lifesaving trade

‘The Life Line,’ by Winslow Homer, 1884, shows a breeches buoy in use during a Lifesaving Service rescue operation.

Long before the Cape Cod Canal made life so much easier for mariners, ships had to make their way around the outer bars of the peninsula. On many occasions, these ships ran aground, costing thousands of lives.

That casualty total might have been even higher had it not been for the rescue efforts of the U.S. Lifesaving Service (1872-1915) and the U.S. Coast Guard at 13 stations along the outer beach.

The tools of their trade were referred to as “beach apparatus.” Among the items included were a breeches buoy, a Lyle gun (a small cannon), projectiles, a sand anchor, and a faking box. These were all pulled down the beach in a cart, by either the Lifesaving crew, a horse, or, in later years, a tractor.

Surfmen patrolled the beach at night, one going north and another to the south. When a distressed ship was spotted, the surfman would light a Coston flare, which would summon those on watch at the nearby station and inform those on board the ship that help was on the way.

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