THE LIFE-SAVERS AND THEIR APPARATUS
Forming the outside boundary of Great South Bay, Long Island, a long row of sand-dunes faces the ocean. In summer groups of laughing bathers splash in the gentle surf at the foot of the low sand-hills, while the sun shines benignly over all. The irregular points of vessels' sails notch the horizon as they are swept along by the gentle summer breezes. Old Ocean is in a playful mood, and even children sport in his waters.
After the last summer visitor has gone, and the little craft that sail over the shallow bay have been hauled up high and dry, the pavilions deserted and the bathing-houses boarded up, the beaches take on a new aspect. The sun shines with a cold gleam, and the surf has an angry snarl to it as it surges up the sandy slopes and then recedes, dragging the pebbles after it with a rattling sound. The outer line of sand-bars, which in summer breaks the blue sea into sunny ripples and flashing whitecaps, then churns the water into fury and grips with a mighty hold the keel of any vessel that is unlucky enough to be driven on them. When the keen winter winds whip through the beach grasses on the dunes and throw spiteful handfuls of cutting sand and spray; when the great waves pound the beach and the crested tops are blown off into vapour, then the life-saver patrolling the beach must be most vigilant.
All along the coast, from Maine to Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific, these men patrol the beach as a policeman walks his beat. When the winds blow hardest and sleet adds cutting force to the gale, then the surfmen, whose business it is to save life regardless of their own comfort or safety, are most alert.
All day the wind whistled through the grasses and moaned round the corners of the life-saving station; the gusts were cold, damp, and penetrating. With the setting of the sun there was a lull, but when the patrols started out at eight o'clock, on their four-hours' tour of duty, the wind had risen again and was blowing with renewed force. Separating at the station, one surf man went east and the other west, following the line of the surf-beaten beach, each carrying on his back a recording clock in a leather case, and also several candle-like Coston lights and a wooden handle.
“Wind's blowing some,” said one of the men, raising his voice above the howl of the blast.
“Hope nothing hits the bar to-night,” the other answered. Then both trudged off in opposite directions.
With pea-coats buttoned tightly and sou'westers tied down securely, the surfmen fought the gale on their watch-tour of duty. At the end of his beat each man stopped to take a key attached to a post, and, inserting it in the clock, record the time of his visit at that spot, for by this means is an actual record kept of the movements of the patrol at all times.
With head bent low in deference to the force of the blast, and eyes narrowed to slits, the surfman searched the seething sea for the shadowy outlines of a vessel in trouble.
Perchance as he looked his eye caught the dark bulk of a ship in a sea of foam, or the faint lines of spars and rigging through the spume and frozen haze—the unmistakable signs of a vessel in distress. An instant's concentrated gaze to make sure, then, taking a Coston signal from his pocket and fitting it to the handle, he struck the end on the sole of his boot. Like a parlour match it caught fire and flared out a brilliant red light. This served to warn the crew of the vessel of their danger, or notified them that their distress was observed and that help was soon forthcoming; it also served, if the surfman was near enough to the station, to notify the lookout there of the ship in distress. If the distance was too great or the weather too thick, the patrol raced back with all possible speed to the station and reported what he had seen. The patrol, through his long vigils under all kinds of weather conditions, learns every foot of his beat thoroughly, and is able to tell exactly how and where a stranded vessel lies, and whether she is likely to be forced over on to the beach or whether she will stick on the outer bar far beyond the reach of a line shot from shore.
In a few words spoken quickly and exactly to the point—for upon the accuracy of his report much depends—he tells the situation. For different conditions different apparatus is needed. The vessel reported one stormy winter's night struck on the shoal that runs parallel to the outer Long Island beach, far beyond the reach of a line from shore. Deep water lies on both sides of the bar, and after the shoal is passed the broken water settles down a little and gathers speed for its rush for the beach. These conditions were favourable for surf-boat work, and as the surfman told his tale the keeper or captain of the crew decided what to do.
The crew ran the ever-ready surf-boat through the double doors of its house down the inclined plane to the beach. Resting in a carriage provided with a pair of broad-tired wheels, the light craft was hauled by its sturdy crew through the clinging sand and into the very teeth of the storm to the point nearest the wreck.