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The Life-Savers

The hands of the clock in the life-saving station pointed to a quarter of nine, on a wild March night along the New England coast. A bitter north-easter raged outside, driving the rising tide higher and higher upon the beach. It was almost at the flood, and only a narrow ridge of stones lay between the sea and the station. The surf thundered in like a solid wall—great combers that nothing could resist, flung themselves upon the beach with a sullen roar, and broke into a seething flood of foam. This foam was not the sparkling white substance into which the waves resolve themselves in time of peace, but a turbid yellowish froth, which, by the time it reached the shore, was nearly of the consistency of white of egg, beaten stiff. Great patches of it were caught up by the fierce wind and blown far inland, while others lodged against the walls of the life-saving station, where they mingled with the pelting snow that thickly covered the weather-side of the building. The water’s edge was piled with a tangled mass of sea-weed, drift-wood, bottles, dead crabs, and a hundred different objects which the ocean had cast up. The undertow dragged out myriads of pebbles, which gave forth a peculiar musical roar as they were swept from the beach where they had lain through weeks of pleasant weather, now to be again swallowed up in the deep. The blackness out to sea was almost tangible—the force of the wind and the driving snow nearly blinded the patrolmen, struggling along their beats with every sense on the alert, and with only their beach lanterns for company. In a word, it was one of those awful nights when the government life-savers are often called upon to work like Spartan heroes, and suffer incredible hardships and dangers that imperilled lives may be saved. One such night far out-balances the long term of inactivity (broken only by daily drill) that may have preceded it.

Captain Litchfield, the keeper of the station, was in the observatory, whose windows commanded a view of the ocean and beach for a long distance in either direction. Occasionally he caught a glimpse of the lighthouse two miles to the north, but the cheerful beacon was rendered dim by the snow which filled the air, and was invisible much of the time. As a violent gust beat against the frosty panes and shook the stout building, the keeper thought of the Peruvian, and other good ships that had met their fate on the Massachusetts coast during just such nights as this. He had doubled the beach patrol and now strained his eyes in momentary expectation of seeing the signal to all that coast that a disaster had occurred. It is a thrilling time—waiting and watching to hear the news of a wreck that is certain to take place; striving to locate the doomed craft in the profound darkness out at sea; hoping against hope that some miracle may avert the impending catastrophe!

Just at dusk that evening, the men at Fourth Cliff Station (a few miles to the south) had sighted a large brig close-hauled and struggling northward under storm sails. The blinding storm had apparently prevented those on board from seeing how perilously near they were to land, but they soon after discovered their danger, for more sail was clapped on the vessel—much more than she could safely carry—and she tore through the water at a great rate, in a desperate endeavor to drive past the outlying rocks and shoals off Scituate and Cohasset. The attempt might have succeeded had it not been for the fearful leeway the craft was making, but it seemed as though every cable’s length she advanced brought her perceptibly nearer to the beach.

Night soon hid the brig from view, but the keeper’s experience told him that her fate was sealed, and he burned red rockets to warn the adjacent station to be on the lookout for the wreck which must soon take place. Thus it was that Captain Litchfield and his crew had been for several hours in momentary expectation of a summons to save human life. Half way between the two stations a rocky point jutted out into the water, and here it was that both keepers expected the brig to strike; but by an extraordinary exhibition of pluck and good seamanship, she cleared this danger.

As the minutes passed, the crowd of half-frozen villagers on the beach concluded that the vessel had managed to escape to the open sea, and began to realize that their limbs were cold and numb. The greater part betook themselves to their cottages; mayhap to listen to some harrowing tale of shipwreck and death from the lips of an octogenarian smoking his pipe in the chimney corner, while drift-wood snapped and blazed upon the fire, and the housewife heated over the remnants of a chowder with which to cheer the stomachs of the returned watchers, ere they sought the doubtful warmth of their bed rooms.

But the station crew redoubled their vigilance. They well knew the brig could not tack in that furious gale, and there was not room to wear, without taking ground;—

The signal!

A patrolman on the northern beat had suddenly ignited his Coston light—the red emblem which both tells the watchful keeper that a wreck has been sighted, and assures the crew of the unfortunate vessel that succor is at hand.

The surfmen and patrolmen passed the signal along the beats and hurried to the station, each to perform his allotted part in the work of rescue. The keeper burned a rocket to inform the Fourth Cliff crew. It was answered almost simultaneously by a distant patrolman with his handlight, and by a white rocket sent up from Fourth Cliff; the crew and apparatus from that point would soon be hurrying to the scene of the wreck.

The patrolman who gave the alarm had sighted the brig just before she went aground. She was then headed directly for the beach, bows on, her captain evidently realizing that escape was impossible, and that his only chance lay in getting the craft near the shore. The tide was high, and she had taken ground scarcely a quarter of a mile from the beach, and almost directly in front of the station. Immediately after striking, she had swung around broadside on, and now the dim outline of her canvas and rigging could be faintly distinguished through the storm.

In the station all was excitement and action, but there was no confusion. Within a few moments of the time the wreck had been sighted, the keeper issued the first order: “Open boat-room doors—man the beach-cart!”

Laden with the life-saving apparatus, and drawn by six surfmen, the cart was hauled out of the station and over the loose, yielding stones that lay between it and the ocean. The wide tires prevented the vehicle from sinking among the stones and rendered the task not difficult. The tremendous surf booming in made it impossible to launch the life-boat, and it was through the medium of the breeches buoy that the brig’s crew were to be rescued.

Bad news travels swiftly, and a rapidly increasing knot of men, boys, and even a few women was already assembled, many of whom offered assistance, while one or two did not hesitate to give advice. The keeper directed them to procure dry wood from the station and start a bonfire, which they did with alacrity, the flames soon crackling merrily.

The cart having been halted, the crew proceeded to unload it, and while Captain Litchfield placed the gun in position, the others buried the sand-anchor, prepared the shot-line box, set the crotch in the proper place, and performed other duties of importance. Everything about the stranded vessel was dark and silent. She displayed no mast-head lantern or any light whatever, her crew having probably taken to the rigging as soon as she struck to avoid being washed overboard. The fierce gale cut the faces and blinded the eyes of the life-savers when they attempted to look towards the wreck, but the keeper contrived to train the gun and raise it to the proper elevation for firing. All things being ready, he gave the lanyard a sharp pull. There was a report, a puff of smoke, and away sped the metal cylinder into the blackness, with the shot-line attached.

A few minutes passed, during which some of the crew had a chance to warm their numb fingers at the fire. The direction of the wind was favorable, and the keeper had strong hopes of getting that first line over the vessel. But there was no pull upon it—nothing to show that those on the wreck had seen it. And yet it had certainly fallen on the brig, for all attempts by those on shore to withdraw it were futile. Perhaps the unfortunate crew knew the line was on deck, but were unable to reach it without being washed away; perhaps they were too thoroughly chilled to make any exertion in their own behalf, although this seemed scarcely possible in view of the short time the vessel had been aground. But at any rate they failed to secure the line, and in trying to haul it back on shore it parted somewhere off in the darkness.

The operation had to be repeated, and a second shot was fired as quickly as the apparatus could be made ready. This was a complete failure, for it did not go over the brig at all. The third attempt promised to be crowned with success, for the line not only fell upon the vessel, but came within reach of the beleagured crew—a fact that was soon made apparent by a decided pull upon it. It was the first evidence of life upon the wreck, and sent a thrill through the breasts of the rescuers.

Number One had just bent the shot-line around the whip, and the keeper was about to signal the wreck to haul off, when the line again parted. This was a keen disappointment, for precious moments must be consumed in preparing the apparatus for another shot; and evidence was not lacking to show that the seas were making a clean breach over the wreck, sweeping her decks of everything movable. A small boat, one end in splinters, was flung upon the beach almost at the foot of the rescuers; in the edge of the surf was something that resembled a hen-coop; one of the villagers discovered a flight of steps and several planks a little to the right of the station; and other familiar objects were rapidly coming ashore.

The fourth shot proved successful, and after the brig’s crew secured the line, the whip was attached to it and those on the wreck hauled off until the whip was within their reach. The two surfmen tending the shore ends soon felt several pulls, which they interpreted as a signal that the tail-block had been made fast on the brig. Now the lee part of the whip was bent on to the hawser close to the tally-board, [17a] and while one man saw that it did not foul the hawser, others manned the weather whip and thus hauled the hawser off to the wreck. The breeches buoy block [17b] was next attached, after which operations were suspended until a signal should be received from the stranded vessel that the hawser had been made fast to one of the masts. The length of time that the brig’s crew required to perform this ordinarily simple act told the life-savers, as plainly as words could have done, how greatly they were exhausted by their two hours’ exposure to the bitter wind and icy spray. Their stiffened fingers at length gave the signal, and the station crew quickly hauled in the slack of the hawser. The crotch was now raised, which had the effect of elevating the hawser above the surface of the ocean sufficiently for the breeches buoy to travel upon it without touching the water. All was ready, and the keeper ordered: “Man lee whip—haul off!”

As the buoy slid easily along the hawser and vanished in the darkness towards the wreck, the pent-up feelings of the villagers burst forth. The boys yelled, shouted hurrahs, and danced like sprites about the fire, upon which they flung more drift-wood. Men and women pressed closer about the keeper and his assistants, shading their eyes with their hands, as they strove to follow the course of the buoy. Lips moved and limbs trembled, but as much from excitement as from cold.

At this juncture the Fourth Cliff crew arrived, having toiled for two hours through snow-drifts, and over loose stones, with their heavy apparatus. It had been found impossible to obtain horses in the neighborhood without great delay, and the men were thus compelled to set out without them. The major part of the work of rescue was already done, allowing the half-frozen crew time to warm themselves at the fire, where they held themselves in readiness to render instant service.

The signal from the brig having been given, Captain Litchfield commanded: “Man weather whip—haul ashore!” The men hauled in the whip with a will, while the villagers, eager to get a glimpse of the approaching buoy and its human freight, crowded about until the keeper was compelled to order them back.

Now the poor fellow was visible! Just as he neared the edge of the surf, a huge comber about to break reared its foaming crest and buried hawser, buoy and man in a cloud of spray, as though making a last attempt to seize its intended victim. When the buoy emerged and was drawn up to the crotch, the keeper and Number Seven stepped forward and helped the rescued seaman out. The buoy was then hurried back to the wreck, while its drenched occupant was turned over to the Fourth Cliff crew, who took him to the station.

He was a large man, and evidently a Scandinavian, but seemed exhausted or stunned to such an extent that little information could be obtained from him, except that there were seven men still on the wreck. His wet clothes were removed, and after a good rubbing, he was placed in one of the snowy beds in the upper story of the station. Here in a large, pleasant room, stood a number of single iron bedsteads with heads to the wall—one for each of the crew, besides a few extra in case of emergency. In this haven of rest the sailor fell into a deep sleep, heedless of the storm and cold without.

The next man landed proved to be the mate—a small, wiry fellow, who bore his sufferings well. He thanked the keeper and surfman who helped him out of the buoy and stamped upon the wet sand as though enjoying the sensation of having something firm beneath his feet. His hands were stiff from clinging to the rigging, and were almost useless from the action of the bitter wind and freezing water. But he picked up fast, and after borrowing a dry suit of clothes and an overcoat, insisted on returning to the beach.

He reported the vessel to be the Huron, a 400-ton brig, bound from Porto Rico to Boston, with molasses. The weather had been thick, and though for two days they had had no observation, the captain believed himself a good distance from the coast. When land was sighted on the port bow, they shook out more sail and tried to drive past; but all efforts to keep the brig off shore were futile, and seeing that she must soon strike, the captain headed her for the beach at full speed. The mate reported the wreck to be breaking up rapidly, but thought she might hold together until all had been saved.

The cook and three more seamen had been landed meanwhile, leaving only the captain and a Spanish sailor on the stranded vessel. The buoy had just started on its seventh trip to the brig, when those tending the whip noticed something wrong. The hawser suddenly slackened to such an extent as to allow the buoy to touch the water. A second more, and the great rope which had bridged the chasm between the brig and the shore became perfectly limp, and fell into the ocean! A groan broke from the throng upon the beach as they realized the extent of this misfortune. The mast which upheld the two remaining castaways—the mast to which the hawser was secured, had fallen! All communication between the wreck and the shore was effectually cut off. Even at that moment the two unfortunates were being buffeted about in the freezing water, unless they had been killed or rendered unconscious by the falling spars.

Both men had on life-preservers, which gave them a slight chance for their lives. The chance was indeed a frail one, but it was all there was left—the poor fellows might possibly be thrown upon the beach before life was extinct.

Both station crews and dozens of volunteers were marshalled into line and stationed along the edge of the surf, ready to grasp the bodies should they come within reach. Wreckage was coming ashore rapidly; and alive or dead, the keeper felt certain that the brig’s captain and his companion would soon appear in the breakers.

Scarce fifteen minutes passed before two surfmen in close proximity flashed their lanterns, and all those near by hurried to the spot. One of the bodies was in sight close to the shore. As the rescuers prepared to wade in, a breaking wave took up the limp form and hurled it down with terrific force, at the same time carrying it towards shore. The receding water drew the body back a short distance, and then left it upon the sand. Willing hands took up the burden and hurried it to the station. A glance showed it to be the captain.

The other body was discovered by the Fourth Cliff keeper, a considerable distance down the beach to the right of the station. It, too, was floating near shore. Six men ranged themselves along a rope, the keeper being at the outer end with a grappling hook, Thus they waded into the surf and endeavored to catch the body. Four successive times were those furthest out carried off their feet and thrown down in the water before their object was accomplished, and the body drawn out of the breakers. Like that of the captain, it was seemingly lifeless.

The men’s clothing was ripped off, and for several hours the crews worked over them, skilfully practicing the most approved methods for restoring the apparently drowned,—methods by which scores of people seemingly dead have been resuscitated, and in which all persons connected with the United States Life-Saving Service are required to be proficient. Every means approved by science and the wide experience of the operators was tried, but all to no purpose. The vital spark was extinguished; the captain of the brig and the Spanish sailor had drawn their last breath.

Next morning the sky was clear, the snow had ceased, the wind shifted into the north-west, and it was stinging cold. The sea had been busy with its work of destruction during the hours of darkness, and the staunch brig of yesterday was strewn piece-meal along the beach. Stout oak beams and iron girders were splintered, twisted, or rent asunder, while the thick coat of ice with which they were covered, caused them to assume strangely fantastic shapes. The two masts had come ashore; mattresses, provisions of all sorts, boxes, rigging, the cabin floor, and countless casks of molasses, lay scattered upon the beach for leagues in both directions.

Many vessels ended their careers on that terrible night, and many lives were lost, from the Delaware Capes to the shores of Nova Scotia. But scores were saved and alive next morning, who, but for the heroic exertions of the government life-savers, would have perished miserably. These men did only their duty, but in many cases that duty compelled them to take their lives in their hands, and they did it without shrinking.

People all over the country read in the papers that morning of wrecks by the dozen; of deaths innumerable from freezing, drowning, and exposure; of terrible hardships endured for many hours by unfortunates whom human aid was powerless to save; and they said, “What an awful night it was!” Then they turned to their usual occupations, and the subject was forgotten. How should those who spent the night in a warm bed, far from the sound of the waves, have any real conception of the fearful struggles with death represented by those inanimate lines?

Adventure traveler and author