The Dreadful Hardships of the Nightly Beach Patrol

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Beach Patrol
Photo Courtesy of James Claflin

A USLSS surfman
walks the beach

Throughout the history of the United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS), coverage of the organization’s amazing humanitarian feats of valor included such images as that of crews with their surfboat, breeches buoy, Lyle gun, and even the cumbersome beach cart. Though there’s no question that something like the Lyle gun’s ability to hurtle a projectile straight into the face of a raging tempest, or the crew’s adeptness at riding the crest of harrowing waves in a surfboat tend to be the more glamorous bygone images from the lifesaving era, there was one nightly activity that was just as safeguarding human lives.

Every night, and many times during the day when visibility was low or nonexistent, the only way to spot a potential shipwreck in the offing was to be patrolling the desolate, sea-swept sands or ledges of America’s coastline. The beach patrol was an essential activity of the United States Life-Saving Service, but it is often times overlooked in favor of the daring rescue operations that followed in the wake of discovering a stricken vessel.

Without this arduous tramp into the domain of darkness and peril, countless lives would have no doubt perished aboard shipwrecks in the late 1800s and early 1900s – when the prompt discovery and action on the part of the lifesavers was often the difference between life and death.

Sumner Kimball, General Superintendent of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, keenly understood the immense value of the beach patrol as the 1881 Annual Report of the USLSS attests. Kimball notes, “...the duty is necessary in the interest of seafarers, and nothing so much as this stern and noble watch upon the beaches has contributed to the success of the Life-Saving Service, because its performances involves the early discovery of vessels driven ashore, and the opportunity to rescue their crews before the surf can destroy them.”

Every evening from sunset to sunrise two surfmen from each lifesaving crew set out from their warm and snug station at four hour intervals where they would take leave of each other and begin their patrol in opposite directions along the beach. All along the way of this cumbersome and dangerous walk at water’s edge the surfmen were tasked with attentively scanning the offing for ships straying precariously close to shore or having wrecked on deadly shoals just beyond the angry breakers.

Storm swept beach
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Storm swept beach

There are but few more undesirable places than a winter beach on a bitter cold night in February at 2 o’clock in the morning. The solitary patrolman might struggle against horrific elements or fight the confusion spawned by the eerie darkness. William D. O’Connor, Assistant General Superintendent of the USLSS, captures the dreadful essence associated with carrying out the duty of the beach patrol. O’Connor notes, “The way is long, dreary, obscure, lonesome, sinister, difficult and perilous...the fitful lights and shadows of a lantern alone mark the somber way.”

O’Connor goes on to state, “Winter and rough weather are the companions of the journey – all known between the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, bitter cold, rain in torrents, cutting sleet, blinding flights of sand and spray, tides that flood the very dunes behind the beaches, the terrible snowstorm and the suffocating blasts of the hurricane.”

Throughout the 44-year history of the service many surfmen sustained serious injuries from the performance of the beach patrol, while nine surfmen paid the ultimate price, succumbing to one of the many deadly hazards that lurked along a foreboding seascape. Debris washed ashore by the sea posed a constant danger to the patrolman who struggled amidst the realm of darkness with but a small lantern to light the sands and obstacles before their feet – provided they could keep the lantern lit in the face of blowing rain or snow.

The unforgiving elements proved to be quite a formidable adversary for the surfmen on many a night when the ceaseless blast of the wind, the blinding effect of flying sand and the inundating power of the sea reigned supreme during a time of utmost chaos. On a desolate beach, all these dangers and more were more than enough to contend with, but one that was most fearful might very well have been the presence of frequent and dangerous lightning, which a surfman was made extremely vulnerable to on an open beach. In fact, three surfmen were killed in the line of duty while on beach patrol from being struck in a violent split second by a lightning bolt.

In addition to the three fatal instances involving lightning, six other surfmen also perished while traipsing along over saturated quick sands during bitter coastal nights. One surfman drowned due to unknown circumstances, though it was no secret to the solitary sand dwellers that rushing sea waters could rapidly fill up in soft gullies and dune areas to create sudden life-threatening situations.

USLSS Surfman
Photo Courtesy James Claflin

A USLSS surfman patrols
the rocky coast

Another surfman suffered a heart attack that could have easily been brought on by the physical demands of the arduous patrol, and yet another died from the effects of having stepped on a piece of driftwood and subsequently driving a nail into his foot that caused a deadly infection. Three other patrolmen were killed when they hit by railroad trains – a fate that seems rather peculiar to most but not surprising when you consider the fact that many train tracks ran parallel to the shoreline in certain places throughout the country.

Today these valiant heroes and their selfless contributions to humanity have mostly faded from our national conscience. Despite this lamentable fact, the countless lives saved by the faithful performance of the beach patrol continues to shine from the pages of American history as a key contribution to the enduring legacy of the United States Life-Saving Service and its positive impact on our nation’s proud maritime heritage.