Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Breeches Buoy-bet you’ve never tried one

Wednesday Afternoon September 11, 2013
Cape Cod National Seashore


After our morning hike over to Wood End Lighthouse and my mishap, we head over to Race Point Beach for our picnic.  If you like, you can read about our morning experiences with this link.  


We plop down our chairs and get right to the lunch.  I’m hungry.  Quick self lunch picture.  The beaches here are lovely and wide.  It’s a bit windy but there are many folks here enjoying the gentle waves of the Atlantic.


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Time for an after lunch walk in the water.  Along the way I find the canines enjoying it as well.


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As we walk along, we are pretty surprised to see an RV on the beach in a National Seashore.   Investigation later reveals that in order to put the National Seashore amidst already flourishing towns deals had to be made and one of those was to grandfather in some things that had been “traditional” among those who live here year round or whose families have had homes here for generations.   Among those was fishing and camping on the beach.



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So a compromise was worked out.  A section of the beach was designed for Off road Vehicles from mid-April to mid-November.  To obtain a permit, vehicles must pass a safety inspection, owners must view an educational program and purchase a permit.  A 7 day permit is $50.  You  must have a shovel, a 14’ tow strap, rope, chain or cable of specific size, jack, jack support board, tire pressure gauge, regular standard spare tire, fire extinguisher and holding tanks with a minimum of 3 day capacity.




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Wow that is inexpensive ocean front camping for anyone willing to take an RV out there to potentially get stuck.  If I had a smaller RV or a small trailer and a big 4 wheeler, I might try it.  Wish I could have stayed around to see how these RV folks did in getting out.   Sure would be hot in the blazing sun of summer though. 



We turn around and walk back to our chairs enjoying the more coarse sand created not by shells but by these beautiful rocks which are all over.


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Not many shells at all here.  I’ve never seen anything at all like this one

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It’s a great day for walking in the water.  I decide perhaps what my boo boos from earlier in the day need  is some salt water so I go wading out above my knees.

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With the rest of our afternoon we visit the  Old Harbor Lifesaving Station. 



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Built in 1898, Old Harbor is the last in tact life-saving station of the original thirteen on Cape Cod.  The United State Lifesaving Service was created in 1871 due to the increase in shipwrecks along the Atlantic Coastline.  By the end of the 19th century nearly all the US Coastline, including that along the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, was protected by the USLS.



Shipwreck map


The large black circles on this 1902 map show the placement of the 13 lighthouses along the Cape Cod Coast.  There was one at the Wood End Light where we were this morning.  It’s the second big dot from the tip of the cape.   The small circles are all the shipwrecks to date.   Those guys must have been really busy.

The original 13 stations were located 5 to 8 miles apart and staffed with 8 surfmen and the station’s captain called the Keeper.
They lived and worked at the station.  They received $65 a month and a $10 a month food stipend.

Between 1871 and 1915 the men of the United States Life Saving Service saved 175,000 lives nation wide and prevented countless other deaths and property loss. 

In 1915 the USLS was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the US Coast Guard.


Old Harbor Light Station was built on Nauset Beach at the Chatham Harbor entrance and operated by the USLS and then the USCG until it was decommissioned in 1944.   This building was later obtained by the National Park Service and in the summer of 1977 it was moved by barge to its present location.


The floor plan of the station is rectangular and divided into two sections.  One side of the building functioned as living space featuring a keeper’s room, office, kitchen and mess room with sleeping quarters above.  A one story two bay boat room occupied the other side.  Rising between the two sections along the front of the building is a rectangular, four-story, lookout tower.


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We enter the station directly into the boat room.


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The first thing we see is the surfboat on its wagon.  This was the most important tool the surfmen used to save lives.  The 24’ boat weighs 1000 pounds.  Air chambers fore and aft help right the boat after capsizing.  Canvas wrapped cork fenders improved its buoyancy.





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The surfmen practiced every week with the boat, hauling it out on its wagon, launching it, rowing it, sometimes intentionally capsizing and right the boat.

When going to a shipwreck the crew wore cork life vests.  One is hanging over the boat in the picture above.  Good guesses on the part of yesterday’s commenters.   Our niece Amy guessed it correctly and Suzanne was on the right track.  But Paul Dahl, of course, knew exactly what it was and what it was called.  Way to go AMY!  And many thanks Paul!




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I have no clue what this is.


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Luckily, there are two very friendly and knowledgeable volunteers here to help explain some things like the cork life vest and the contraption hanging in front of the wagon doors to the beach.  They explain that when the weather and seas grew so rough it would endanger the surfmen’s lives to take the surfboat out, they used the breeches buoy and surf apparatus cart.


The crew would haul the beach apparatus cart to the shore nearest the wreck. 

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Then using the Lyle gun they would fire a projectile with a line attached out to the wreck.  The stranded crew would haul in the line to which the surfmen had tied on heavier lines. The crew on the wreck attached these lines to the mast or any solid remaining part on the ship.  Meanwhile the surfmen buried an anchor to secure the other end up to six feet deep in the sand.  Just imagine digging a six food hole in the sand in a storm.  They set up a wooden crutch to keep the line above the raging sea.

Then out came the life ring with a set of canvas “britches” sewn to it. When it reached the wreck one of the victims would sit in in the breeches buoy and be hauled to shore.


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The station has been restored and refurbished to an amazing beauty and exact detail.


From the boat room, we enter the living quarters.  The largest down stairs room is the mess room.   The detail in here is amazing.  This is the room the men ate in and played cards or read in their off hours.  Meals were at 8am, noon and 4pm.  Two men would set off after supper every day for first beach patrol.  Which meant walking the beach in each direction for 3 to 4 miles until they met up with a surfman walking from the other direction.  Each had a token to exchange to serve as proof the entire beach had been surveyed.   This was done every 4 hours all night long and more often in bad weather.


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I love the library, a box of books left for a month at which point it was passed on to the next station and one was received from the station up the line.  When the box got to the end of the line, the books were replaced with new ones.  There were of course, 13 boxes.   All of the books in the library prove to be of the period.  Some were first editions.  I was amazed.  


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Another wonderful detail is the telephone and its instructions.


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Just off the dining room is the kitchen with its pump handled sink and shining wood cook stove.


All meals were prepared here.  Some stations hired a cook.  The Old Harbor crew took turns cooking for each other.  During a surfman’s turn as cook his wife could join him at the station and they stayed in the “spare room” upstairs.   Don’t you just love that detail!


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The final room downstairs is the keeper’s quarters.

The keeper was responsible for all aspects of life at the station and all administrative duties.  He chose his own men and was their leader during rescues.  He had his own coal stove and a separate alcove for his disk at which he wrote an exact account of each day at the station.  Hezdkiah Doane of Chatham served as keeper from 1898 to 1915.  He was 70 years old when he retired from the USLSS.


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We head up the stairs to the second floor which houses the men.  There is a dormitory and the small room for the “cook” and his wife who pretty clearly came to do the cooking.

There were 8 beds in the dormitory and two in the little room.  Extra cots would be used for shipwreck victims if necessary.

In the hallway leading to both rooms were lockers where the men kept their clothing.  Judging from the size of these closets, these guys could clearly have lived in an RV. 





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They sure do have a nice view from all the windows at this station.


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It feels like stepping into a turn-of-the-century working station while the crew is out on patrol.  


Their slickers are hanging in the hallway just waiting in case one of their colleagues rushes in from patrol with news of a ship in distress.


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As you can see we spent quite a bit of time in this wonderful restoration and learn an amazing amount about a life and a career that no longer exist.  

I also find out that one of the drawbacks of being here in the off season is that we can not see the  the Beach Apparatus drill.   On Thursday evenings at 6pm in July and August they do a historical reenactment of the 1902 beach apparatus drill.  Among other things this includes watching uniformed surfmen fire a line from the canon to a “ship” in distress and haul the “victim” to shore.

That could almost make me want to be here at the end of August so I could see it.  


  1. Wow, this is fascinating, and no, I had no idea what that cork vest was. Can you imagine getting into that breeches buoy? I suppose desperation would make one do a lot of things, but I'd have to have been pretty desperate. I laughed at the idea that the wives came out to do the cooking, and dang if they didn't give them twin beds! :-)

  2. I had forgotten all about the breeches buoy. At Mystic Seaport Museum they have a demonstration that uses them. I wouldn't want to do that either :)

  3. You did a wonderful explanation of the old time Life Saving Service. You look at that equipment and wonder how anyone could ever use it and save shipwrecked victims, but they did, time and time again. Real Iron Men.

    I've seen the actual drill many times when we lived on Sandy Hook, NJ. My next door neighbor (who was a park ranger) was the "Damsel in distress" and climbed into that Breeches Buoy many times each summer. It was quite a show.

    The Lyle gun is a cherished historical item and you'll see many of them around various Coast Guard stations lovingly cared for and polished daily.

  4. I mis-guessed like the way I did when I sold my Ford stock for $ 7 after buying at $ 2.
    Looks like a great place to visit.

    It is wonderful people take good care of such great artifacts.

    Oh by the way, I left the bird alone for today.

  5. Gosh today's post was like stepping back into time. I love the historical posts, Ok I love it all. I sometimes feel like I am right there with you though I can't quite smell the ocean breezes.

  6. Just read the last post too ... hope your finger is all better today! hate falling on rocks. especially wet rocks.

    very interesting tour . I was there ... in the late 80s. Provincetown was just the bomb. love quaint places like that... and Cape Cod... yes, I would like to go back... you always make me wanna... ;)

  7. Sherry this was a great post! You make me feel like I was there with you enjoying a great history lesson

  8. Great Post...I could smell the salt air!! It is amazing how beautiful the restoration appears:o))

  9. Like the looks of that beach camping, but not sure we are carrying all the right equipment they require. We camped on the beach at Lone Rock on Lake Powell near Page, AZ and there was a white truck that sat and waited for people to get stuck. He would then go to their rescue, at a high price we suspect.

  10. I enjoyed a similar visit to a restored Life Saving Station on the Outer Banks of NC last summer. There used to also be a station on what is now Pea Island NWR that was manned by an all black crew.

  11. A little bit of beach, a little bit of history, a little bit of hiking, a little bit of eating, a little bit of RVing, and all over again. What a life! :)

  12. Neat place! I like when details are so real, it doesn't seem like history! They certainly had unique routines. I, too, liked the book swap. Fun day :)

  13. I'm amazed you didn't go for a swim.

    I've both camped and got stuck on Pismo Beach, CA with an old Chevy van. And at Lake Powell where the stuck large RVs provided quite the show.

    Those rocks, pebbles and sand colors are marvelous. Looks like a few agates. I'd have my pockets full, weighing down the RV. Guess that's why photos, stories and memories are better.

    Those USLS guys were braver than I would be, watching from the shore. Or better through a window in that perfectly set up station. Love the library.

    You two really know how to fill a day. Thanks for taking us along.

    Hope the hand is good.

  14. Fascinating to step back in time and see how things used to be. The reenactment would be fun to watch.

  15. Funny experience. I looked at the thing with the shorts hanging down and the words breeches buoy came right to my mind and my tongue. I've read the words, but had no real idea of what they described. I lacked a mental picture yet I knew it when I saw it. The brain is an amazing organ. I loved today's tour. People worked very hard in the past to earn a living. Not that they don't work hard today too, but most of us are able to stay indoors when it storms.

  16. Beautifully done! You really did a great job explaining the life saving station & the terrifying breeches buoy. That thrilling ride would provide a story good for a lifetime. Hard for me to imagine what strong and brave men these were who would go out in a rough sea and risk their own lives to save others. A lot like being a fireman I guess - lots of adventure, risk is just part of what they do.


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