In 1997, the crew of CG 44363 received the Coast Guard Medal, which recognizes extreme valor and is the highest such award achievable in peacetime. (3)
The second boat crew on CG 44393, consisting of BM1 Jonathan Pacido, MK2 Thomas Byrd, BM3 Marcus Martin, and SN John Stoudenmire III, was recognized with the Coast Guard Achievement Medal. (3)
Since 1871, “government men and women” have crewed rescue boats along the coastlines and interior lakes of the United States. Beginning even earlier, in 1807, volunteers staffed rescue stations to aid distressed mariners. Today’s boat crews continue this rich heritage of boat-based rescue work “so others may live.” (1)
The first organized life saving effort in the United States was modeled after the Royal Humane Society, and began in Boston, Massachussets in 1786. While its primary focus was on resuscitation methods for apparently-drowned victims, it eventually established coastal boat “stations” where local volunteers could access rescue equipment to aid shipwreck victims in getting to shore safely. By 1848, the organization reported an inventory of 16 lifeboats. (1)
The Business of Shipwrecks
Shipwrecks were common off New York and New Jersey during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when sailing ships both relied on the wind and perished at its hand. Often full of hundreds of European immigrants, sailing ships were prone to make leeway towards shore during strong winter storms. Because these “nor’easters” blew strong winds towards the west, vessels could be driven towards dangerous shoals and sand bars near the beaches of the U.S. East Coast. When a vessel ran aground it took only minutes for the pounding surf to break the craft apart. (1)
Local communities always did their best to aid survivors, but the prospect of favorable interventions was bleak in winter, when the surf ran high and the water temperature could cause unconsciousness in minutes. Furthermore, local communities rarely had the equipment to reach stranded vessels which might lie several hundred yards offshore with a veritable gulf of crashing waves in between. (1)
When cargo and passenger ships finally did break up, all matter of flotsam would wash up and down nearby beaches. In England, salvaged goods were taxed, and the United States followed suit. Eventually, the business of salvaging wrecks became a contentious issue. (1)(2)
Local wrecking crews wanted to earn a living off salvaged goods, insurance companies wanted to limit their liability, the government wanted tax revenues, and some devious vessel masters wanted to commit fraud. States soon found it necessary to designate “wreckmasters” in each community to oversee the disposition of shipwrecked vessels and cargo. (1)(2)
The title “Surfman“- a local fishermen adept at handling their boats through beach surf- was first synonymous with “boatman” before it was applied to lifesavers. However, as many volunteer lifesavers were local “Surfmen” first, the term eventually migrated into this usage. Owing to their experience and local knowledge, Surfmen were often designated by states and insurance companies as local wreckmasters. (1)(2)
Eventually, insurance underwriters awarded salvage contracts to the band of rag-tag lifesavers that went out to rescue the wreck’s crew at outset. Familiar teams of locals began working together to earn employment. (1)(2)
Part of the lifesaving heritage has been the never-ending fight for government attention and funding. In 1840 a New Jersey doctor named William Newell observed the ghastly scene of a shipwreck first-hand while walking the beach near Barnegat, New Jersey. Unable to reach the wreck, just a few hundred yards from shore, he stood by as the bodies of its thirteen crewmembers washed up at his feet. (4)(5)
From then on, Newell was compelled to do something for shipwrecked victims. In 1846, Newell was elected to Congress and worked to pass legislation for lifesaving equipment. (4)(5)
In 1848 he succeeded, and attached an amendment the Lighthouse Bill which provided $10,000 for surfboats, rockets, and other lifesaving apparatus. This marked the first time in the country’s history that federal funds were spent on organized maritime lifesaving. (4)(5)
After Newell’s appropriation, the first eight “stations” were constructed and outfitted in northern New Jersey. These were not elaborate facilities, but rather small shacks with rescue equipment, staged periodically along the coast in the event a wreck occurred. (1)(2)(4)(5)
A local “keeper” was put in charge of each shed and made custodian of its key. In theory, when a wreck came ashore, locals would sound the alarm, muster a crew, and utilize equipment from the sheds to affect the rescue. (1)(2)(4)
Early rescue equipment included buoyant surfboats, cannons, block and tackle assemblies, and the “breeches buoy,” a modified pair of pants-with-lifering that traveled across a suspended line to ferry victims to shore. Surfboats were human-powered and had to be carted to the beach, placed into the water, and rowed out through thundering surf. (1)(2)(3)(7)
Something notable happened at the time of the first appropriation: Captain Douglas Ottinger of the U.S. Revenue Marine Service (later the Revenue Cutter Service) was appointed to oversee selection of rescue apparatuses. This designation foreshadowed future officer involvement in the “enlisted man’s” world of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and later, the U.S. Coast Guard. (1)(2)(6)
Early Problems and a “Slow, Tedious, Reactionary Legislative Process”
Shipwrecks throughout the 1850s demonstrated the weaknesses of the early system. Some keepers had been appointed for political reasons. Elsewhere, equipment went missing or suffered from neglect. In the mid-1850s, several passenger vessels foundered without any effective assistance being rendered. In each case, up to 460 passengers perished within sight of shore. (1)(2)(4)
After the bad wrecks of the 1850s, Congress was compelled to act. In 1854 the first paid keeper and superintendent positions were established. Still, overall progress towards an organized lifesaving service resulted from a, “slow, tedious, reactionary legislative process [which culminated] not on shores swept by storm tides and gales, but on the floor of Congress.” (1)(2)(6)
But despite gradual improvements, the American Civil War from 1861-1865 didn’t help matters; it sent able men away from their towns to the front lines, numbed communities to the horror of shipwrecks, and effectively shut-off any federal funding for lifesaving efforts. (1)(2)
Paid Crews, More Stations and Boats: The U.S. Life-Saving Service
In 1870 Congress authorized paid crews of six Surfmen per station. Additional stations were constructed. At the end of the volunteer period, the Secretary of the Treasury reported that the unpaid service had saved over 4,000 lives for about $280,000. (1)
In 1871 the Secretary of the Treasury found a “reform minded man” to head the Revenue Cutter Service: Sumner Increase Kimball. The brand new lifesaving service came to fall under the Revenue Cutter Service and Kimball became its General Superintendent. He began by making a ruthless assessment of the service’s material and organizational condition. (1)(2)
With a focus on what was wrong, Revenue Cutter Service officers inspected lifesaving stations and made reports to Kimball. Approaching these deficiencies from a holistic standpoint, Kimball directed organizational, material, and human resources changes. In a matter of months he obtained $200,000 from Congress. The appropriations kept flowing. (1)(2)
Kimball used well-executed public relations to build the Life-Saving Service’s brand and obtain more funds. He promulgated organizational regulations, standard practices, and plans to expand the number of stations. In 1878, the “U.S. Life-Saving Service” (USLSS) was established as its own service within the Treasury Department. (1)(2)
The Golden Era of Lifesaving
During the period of expanding funding, the service experimented with different surfboats, lifeboats, and rescue apparatus. Better, bigger, and safer rescue boats began to evolve and become standard outfit at stations around the country. In 1899 the USLSS experimented with gasoline engines in its boats. (1)(2)(7)
The U.S. Life-Saving Service’s heyday lasted from the 1880s through the turn of the twentieth century, when improvements in merchant vessel safety and navigation caused its coastal caseload to diminish. The service continued to expand geographically and established stations in Washington and Oregon. (1)(2)(7)
U.S. Coast Guard
The U.S. Government moved to streamline itself in 1915 and merged several small maritime agencies into one: the U.S. Coast Guard. With this move, the U.S. Life-Saving Service and U.S. Revenue Cutter Service became one military branch. Its members received naval ranks and became eligible for standard military pay and retirement benefits. Despite the common hierarchy, the two groups remained somewhat distinct: on one side, lifesavers, and on the other, sailors and officers. Keepers maintained command of their stations and eventually became “Officers in Charge“, an enlisted position that remains to this day. (1)(2)(3)
The missions of the Coast Guard evolved dramatically through periods like Prohibition (1920-1933), World War II (1939-1945), and the Vietnam War (1955-1974). For its small boat stations, lifesaving was always a core mission set. (2)(3)
One senior officer has remarked that Coast Guard stations meandered along in “benign neglect” until the 1970s when a surge in recreational boating and commercial and recreational fishing brought big business for Coast Guard small boat stations. (3)
Gradual improvements in boating safety regulations reduced station case loads somewhat, but the war on drugs and post-9/11 homeland security initiatives once again led Coast Guard units in other directions. Today’s Coast Guard stations are a mix of search-and-rescue, law enforcement, homeland security, and environmental protection units. (3)
Rescue Boat Crews
Modern boat crews are made up of Coast Guardsmen who certify to fill specific, required roles on board boats less than 65 feet in length. The qualification process is completely standardized throughout the Coast Guard with a goal of total interoperability. Each level of qualification must be achieved sequentially, and on each type of boat assigned to a particular unit.
Boat Crewmembers (BCM) are the backbone of any small boat mission. On underway missions, BCMs “do the work” on deck by performing a variety of roles, including acting as a lookout, driving, handling lines, administering first aid, and conducting damage control during casualties. If required and safe to do so, BCMs also serve as boat-deployed surface swimmers. (8)(9)
During the USLSS era, every member of a life-saving station’s crew was considered a Surfman. In today’s terms, they were all Boat Crewmembers, except for the Surfman in command of the surfboat. (1)(2)
Engineers are senior boat crewmembers who go on to certify as experts in the small boat’s engineering systems. Before, during, and after a mission, Engineers monitor propulsion, auxiliary, and electrical systems to ensure mission success. Should a system casualty occur while underway, Engineers are trained to minimize damage and conduct repairs if possible. In the event the Coxswain is incapacitated, the Engineer is essentially “second in command.” (8)(9)
As with Engineer, certification as Coxswain is a significant achievement. The Coast Guard places unprecedented trust in its junior members and vests specific authority with the vessel’s operator: Coxswains are completely responsible for the safety of crew and passengers, the safe operation and navigation of the boat, and the completion of the mission. (8)(9)
As such, Coxswains are similar to an aircraft’s pilot-in-command. They might not physically drive at all times, but they are always responsible for maintaining situational awareness and leading their team safely. (8)(9)
Coxswains are proficient with all aspects of vessel operations, including towing, rescue and assistance, person-in-the-water recovery, and close quarters maneuvering. Depending on the boat’s capabilities, Coxswains are certified to operate in up to 10-foot seas and 30-knot winds. (8)(9)(10)
Heavy Weather Coxswain
In the early 2000s, the Coast Guard created an intermediate rough weather operator certification: the Heavy Weather Coxswain. Before this tier was created, it was common for basic Coxswains to operate up to the environmental thresholds of Surfmen (a factor in the 1997 CG 44363 mishap). Heavy Weather Coxswains are experts in rough weather assistance: passing equipment, towing, and person-in-the-water recovery. (3)(8)(9)
At the nineteen designated “surf stations”, Heavy Weather Coxswain is considered a stepping stone on the way to certification as Surfman. Once certified, operators can take a motor lifeboat out in 20-footseas, 50-knot winds, and breaking surf less than 8 feet. Time spent as a Heavy Weather Coxswain allows prospective Surfmen to gain valuable rough weather experience on their own, without extra supervision. (3)(8)(9)(10)
Elsewhere in the Coast Guard, where surf conditions are less significant, Heavy Weather Coxswains stand duty at designated “heavy weather stations”. (3)(8)(9)(10)
Surfmen rely upon years of experience as Coxswains and Heavy Weather Coxswains and are certified to operate motor lifeboats in breaking surf zones. They can serve in basic and heavy weather capacities, but add the capability to take a lifeboat out in 30-foot seas, 50-knot winds, and 20-foot breaking surf. (8)(9)(10)
Certification as a Surfman takes years of steadfast commitment to the training program and only about five percent of basic Coxswains attain it. Candidates can attend resident training at the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, Washington, but must still build proficiency at their home units and obtain their command’s blessing to be certified. There are approximately 250 Surfmen currently serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. (8)(9)(10)(11)
In addition to operational proficiency, Surfman have built upon the specific knowledge of each previous step. Once certified, Surfman have demonstrated expertise in leadership, risk management, emergency procedures, meteorology, local conditions, and surf science. (8)(9)(10)
The original Surfmen of the U.S. Life-Saving Service walked the beach and propelled their craft with oars and each of the six or eight Surfmen at a life-saving station had a number which designated their duties. Surfman No. 1 was the most senior after the Keeper and fulfilled more-supervisory roles. Surfmen No. 7 and No. 8 did the less-glamorous and more-arduous work. (1)(2)(9)
Today’s Surfmen carry on the tradition of Surfman numbers with an official Surfman Register. This listing is maintained at the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School and records a unique number for every Surfman since 1871 (earlier Surfmen are issued a number corresponding with the year they served). In April 2021, the list surpassed 570. (11)(12)
Surfmen of the Life-Saving Service also sparked the present-day tradition of Surfman Checks. In the age of the USLSS, Surfmen patrolled the beaches near their station for any signs of distress and notified the rest of their crew of a wreck with handheld flares. To ensure accountability for these beach patrols, early lifesavers exchanged brass “checks” with the Surfmen they met halfway down the beach from an adjacent station. On the morning of the next day, the checks were returned to their respective stations. (1)(2)(4)(12)(13)
These checks were stamped with the Life-Saving Service district, station number, and individual Surfman number. Later on, or where distance precluded meeting, Surfmen used punch clocks to record their rounds on the beach. Today’s Surfmen are issued a replica check with their unique number engraved on its back. (1)(2)(4)(12)(13)
the future of rescue boat crews
Since the 1980s, declines in fisheries, improvements in commercial fishing safety regulations, the popularity of four-stroke outboard engines, and the employment of bar restrictions on the Regulated Navigation Areas in Washington and Oregon have all caused steep declines in the case load at Coast Guard small boat stations. Only a decade or two ago, small boat stations with river bars might handle 300-500 cases in a year. Today, these same units respond to less than one-third the volume of cases. (14)
This trend has been mirrored in related fields like community fire departments, which have shifted focus towards prevention and regulation as actual fires have declined over the years. And yet, house fires and maritime emergencies will persist as long as there are houses and boats. The challenge for today’s rescue boat crews is to stay focused on what really matters—their raison d’etre— and to find ways to obtain experience in the face of mounting divergent demands for attention, and dwindling caseloads.
(1) CAPT (ret.) Bennett, Robert F. Sand Pounders: An Interpretation of the History of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, Based on Its Annual Reports for the Years 1870 Through 1914. U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office, 1998.
(2) Noble, Dennis L. That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915. Naval Institute Press, 1994.
(3) Noble, Dennis L. The Rescue of the Gale Runner. University Press of Florida, 2002.
(4) Buchholz, Margaret Thomas. New Jersey Shipwrecks. Down the Shore Publishing, 2009.
(5) Applegate, Lloyd R. A Life of Service: William Augustus Newell. Ocean County Historical Society, 1994.
(6) Buker, George E. The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Imposter, and the Business of Lifesaving. University Alabama Press, 2008.
(7) Wilkinson, William D., and Timothy R. Dring. American Coastal Rescue Craft. University Press of Florida, 2009.
(8) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Crew Seamanship Manual. ser. CIM16114.5C, 2003
(9) Noble, Dennis L. Lifeboat Sailors. Potomac Books, 2001
(10) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Operations and Training Manual, Volume I. ser. M16114.32D, 2018
(11) “Surfman Program.” The Office of Boat Forces, CG Portal, cg.portal.uscg.mil/units/cg731/SitePages/Surfman Program.aspx .
(12) U.S. Coast Guard Surfman Register
(13) “Surfmen of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.” National Parks Service, www.nps.gov/calo/learn/historyculture/surfmen.htm
(14) Interviews with active duty and retired members, grades E-5 to O-6: Surfmen, investigation members, Officers-in-Charge, and Commanding Officers
cover: Lifesavers from the Umpqua River, OR lifesaving station head across the bar. U.S. Coast Guard photo