Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/January 1894/Uncle Sam's Life Savers
|UNCLE SAM'S LIFE SAVERS.|
THE United States Life-saving Service is now one of the great institutions of our Government. Its system embraces the dangerous parts of our Great Lakes and oceans, and its hundreds of stations cover a coast line of more than ten thousand miles in length. It began to be as far back as 1848, but in its present organization its life commenced in 1871, when Congress made an appropriation of $200,000 and established some experimental stations along the New Jersey coast. These at once showed the value of the system, and to-day on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico there are one hundred and eighty-two different stations, while there are about fifty on the chain of the Great Lakes, and a steadily increasing number on the Pacific.
The buildings are located sufficiently far from the water line to be safe from high tides. They are plain structures, designed to serve as barracks for the crews and to afford convenient storage for boats and apparatus. Each station is generally equipped with two surfboats and their accessories, two sets of "breeches-buoy" apparatus, life lines, life car, a vehicle for the transportation of boats to points where needed, a Lyle gun, cork jackets, signal lights, rockets and flags, well-equipped medicine chest, instruments of various kinds, together with everything necessary for the comfort and well-being of the crews. Where practicable along the Atlantic coast, the stations are connected by telephone. At a few points there are long stretches of uninhabitable coast, and houses of refuge have been established at intervals of about twenty miles for the shelter of shipwrecked persons. They are supplied with cots and provisions for twenty-five persons for ten days. On the Ohio River, at Louisville, there is a floating station. The great rise and fall of the river renders impracticable the use of a stationary building. In recent floods the crew of this station were of incalculable service to the people of Louisville. Hundreds of imperiled persons were rescued, and thousands who for days could not leave their houses were supplied with food and other necessaries.Each station and its crew are in charge of a "keeper," who
must be of good character and habits, sound, able-bodied, and a master of boatcraft and "surfing" He must live at the station, exercise absolute control over the crew, and direct all operations. In times of danger he must lead where duty calls, sharing with the men all the perils of wind and wave. The crew usually numbers six or seven, who are selected with especial reference to their fitness for the service required of them. It is indispensable that they be experienced surf men and skilled in the handling of boats. It may be here remarked that political considerations have not the slightest influence in the life-saving service from its chief down. If politics were permitted to dictate appointments, a serious impairment of the service would speedily result.
A surfman is paid sixty-five dollars per month, with no allowances except quarters at the station. He provides his own food and clothing. No man or officer is permitted to have an interest in any wrecking apparatus, or to be connected with any wrecking company; nor is he entitled to salvage upon any property saved. If disabled in the line of duty, a member of the crew receives full pay during such disability, not exceeding one year. If he loses his—life and this is not infrequent—his widow or children under the age of sixteen are entitled to his pay for two years.
When the season of active duty begins, the men establish themselves at the station for a residence of eight months, embracing on the sea-coast the autumn, winter, and spring seasons. On the Great Lakes their active service is from the opening to the close of navigation. For domestic convenience they resolve themselves into a committee of the whole which they term a "mess."
They take weekly turns in catering and cooking. The keeper organizes his crew for the season, designating them as Number 1, Number 2, etc., in the order of merit and efficiency. Each man holds rank according to his number. Watches are kept by day and patrols by night. If two stations are within communicating distance, the patrols meet midway each time they traverse their beats. Every patrolman is equipped with signal lights with which to warn vessels or to give an alarm in case a vessel in distress is discovered.The members of the crew are drilled daily in the handling of boats and life-saving appliances. By practice they acquire agility and expertness that are almost incredible. The highest possible efficiency in times of actual service is thus secured. The men are also instructed and practiced in applying the most approved methods for the restoration of persons apparently drowned. In some cases this is accomplished after twenty or thirty minutes of unconsciousness. It will be readily understood that these men must possess great courage and powers of endurance. Their service is full of danger and often their lives are in extreme
jeopardy. Their devotion to duty and humanity are beyond praise.
For convenience of supervision the stations are grouped into districts, of which there are twelve. Each is in charge of a superintendent, who must, at least once a quarter, visit the stations in his district, and who is held responsible for their condition in all respects.
The means employed to rescue people from stranded vessels are everywhere essentially the same. The tumultuous waters between
the wreck and the shore are either crossed by a lifeboat or are spanned by strong lines over which a car or breeches buoy is passed to and from a wreck. There are many kinds of lifeboats and many other devices for effecting communication by lines between a wreck and the shore. The type of boat in most general use in our service is distinctively known as a surfboat. It is made of white cedar upon a white-oak frame. It is from twenty-five to twenty-seven feet in length, with its other dimensions proportionate. It is propelled by six oars, and will carry, besides the crew, from ten to fifteen persons. The excellence of these boats is shown by the record during the eighteen years they have been used in the hands of the life-saving crews. They have been launched in actual service six thousand seven hundred and thirty times, and have safely landed from wrecked vessels six thousand seven hundred and thirty-five persons. They have capsized but fourteen times, six of these accidents being attended with loss of life. Of the boats' crews, twenty-seven were drowned, being one for every two hundred and forty lives saved.
A "self-righting" lifeboat is largely used in the English service, and in our own to a limited extent by way of experiment. This boat is constructed with air-chambers at the bow and stern and several hundred pounds of iron in the keel. These cause the boat to "right" itself when capsized by the waves. It is of necessity heavy and cumbersome, and the record for actual service is on the whole favorable to the smaller and lighter surfboats adopted by our own Government. The proportionate loss of life from capsizing is considerably less with the surfboats. The self-righting boat is fourfold heavier than the other, weighing about four thousand pounds. Boats are being constantly improved and perfected, one of the latest devices being for self-bailing, by which water that may be "shipped," or fills the boat as the result of a capsize, is instantly expelled. A boat combining successfully the properties of self-righting and self-bailing would seem to be the nearest possible approach to the ideal.
The "Lyle gun" is the means adopted for effecting line communication with stranded vessels. It is of bronze, and of 2i-inch bore. It weighs with its carriage but a hundred and eighty-five pounds, and throws a shot weighing seventeen pounds. This projectile is a solid cylinder fourteen inches and a half in length, into the base of which is fixed an eyebolt for attaching the shot-line. The latter is from an eighth to a quarter of an inch in diameter, and pays out from a coil as the projectile flies upon its way. The aim is to carry the projectile directly over the vessel in distress. The line falling upon the deck is seized by the sailors, and by it a large line is hauled from the shore and made fast, affording means for the immediate use of the life-saving appliances. The Lyle gun will project a line, under favorable conditions, a distance of seven hundred yards. It is easily operated by day or night. During a storm at night great skillfulness of aim is necessary, as there is no guide save the dim light upon the swaying vessel. When the distance is not too great, the practiced eye rarely fails.
The vehicle in most common use, in this and other countries, for transporting persons to the shore, is the "breeches buoy." It is a primitive, simple, and yet most effectual means of saving life. It will carry but one person at a time, but it is easily and rapidly handled, and this fact renders it invaluable. It is made of stout canvas, something like a pair of breeches for the legs, from which it takes its name. From a circular float which comes just under the armpits ropes are attached, which suspend the buoy from a pulley block running upon the large line. It takes but a minute for a man to fix himself in the "breeches," and then he is hauled through the air—perhaps part of the way through the water—to the shore. Whenever practicable, the line at the vessel is fastened
tight upon a mast, so that the passage may be made without immersion. Many thousands of lives in all parts of the world have been saved by this simple but effective device.
The "life car" is brought into requisition when the number of persons to be saved is large and circumstances require that the work be done quickly, as when a vessel shows signs of breaking up. It is a covered boat, perfectly tight with the exception of a few small holes for the admission of the air. It may be hauled upon the water by means of lines, or suspended from the hawser and passed to and from the wreck. It will contain six or seven persons, and is a comparatively safe and speedy means of rescue. The life car was designed by Joseph Francis, who but a short time ago received, at the hands of the President, a superb gold medal, voted by Congress in recognition of its value. Upon the first occasion of its use more than two hundred persons were safely landed from a wreck.
The value of the telephone as a means of communication between contiguous stations was lately illustrated. During one of the worst and most destructive storms that ever visited the Atlantic coast a large number of vessels were driven ashore at and near Cape Henlopen. The crews of three life-saving stations were summoned, and their combined labor effected the rescue of a hundred and ninety-four persons from twenty-two vessels. Of these, a hundred and thirty-five were landed with the "breeches buoy." Not one life was lost during the operations. Crews, with their boats and apparatus, are often transported long distances by rail to meet emergencies. On the shore of Lake Superior such a trip was once made a distance of a hundred and ten miles, the railway train running at the utmost possible speed. The spot was reached at midnight, and in the midst of a blinding snowstorm thirty-four persons were brought safely to shore from two stranded vessels.
At the stations shipwrecked persons are cared for with dry clothing, nourishment, and medicines. Often they are exhausted by exposure or hunger, or injured by the accidents of wreck and rescue. Frequently they are to all appearances dead. The record shows that during the existence of the life-saving service there have been treated a hundred and eighteen cases of apparent death. In sixty of these resuscitation was successful, failing in fifty-eight. In a few instances respiration was restored after several hours had elapsed. While the saving of life is the primary object of the service, it has a secondary duty in the saving of property, which runs up into the millions.
Before the service was established no statistics of loss of life were recorded, so that it is not possible to show by comparison the decrease of deaths by shipwreck as the result of the efforts of the life-savers. It is learned from authentic information, however, that upon the Long Island and New Jersey coasts, during the twenty years from 1850 to 1870, the average annual loss of life was twenty-five; while during eighteen years of the service the yearly average has been but seven. No doubt a similar ratio would apply to other points of danger along our coasts. Each successive year shows a better record, as life-saving appliances are more nearly perfected, abundantly attesting the efficiency and value of this branch of Government effort in behalf of its people.