225 Years of Saving Lives -July 2015
The history of the U.S. Coast Guard on Nantucket
by: John Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
It was a storm of Shakespearean magnitude, a tempest that blew in with no warning on a Monday morning in the spring of 1879.
“The sea grew white as if by magic and as the elements raged more violently, the thoughts of all reverted to the numerous vessels seen in the sound that morning,” read a story in the next issue of The Inquirer and Mirror. “It being evident to each one that shipwreck must inevitably follow such fury of the elements.”
At first light the next morning, Thomas Sandsbury got his Massachusetts Humane Society surfboat crew together, hired a team of horses, and hauled a dory six miles to Eel Point. From there they launched their surfboat, rowed four miles out to the schooner Emma J. Edwards, wrecked on Tuckernuck Shoal and filling with water. The crew and captain had spent the night lashed to the rigging, only to be swept away one by one into the sea, so that by morning only two were left alive. Sandsbury and his crew rowed 11 miles back to Nantucket with the survivors and the bodies. Then they rowed back to assist other mariners stranded in the waters around Tuckernuck and Muskeget. They did this for 32 straight hours.
“Too much credit cannot be accorded Mr. Thomas F. Sandsbury and his crew in their efforts to save life,” said the newspaper. “Notice of his heroic conduct, as well as that of others on the boat, will be communicated to the Massachusetts Humane Society.”
Sandsbury was awarded a gold medal. His crew was awarded silver medals. When the U.S. Life-Saving Service opened a station in Madaket, Sandsbury was appointed its first keeper.
The U.S. Life-Saving Service praised Sandsbury – and crew members James Sandsbury, Henry Coffin, George Coffin, Marcus Dunham, John Dunham, Andrew Brooks and Edwin Smith – for “persistence to the last measure of the need.”
Persistence to the last measure of the need. It is a phrase Matt Welsh understands. Twenty years ago he was a young Coast Guard coxswain stationed in Provincetown and on his first major search and rescue mission. A sailboat had been dismasted, 20 miles east of Peaked Hill Shoal, in 20-foot seas, with the wind gusting up to 50 knots. The ship had been bound for New York, out of Halifax. On board were a husband, wife and two young children.
“It took us six and a half or seven hours just to get on the scene in our 44-footer,” Welsh said. “We finally make it to this boat, with no clue how we’re going to do this. The current was really ripping, and every time we’d be behind the sea we’d lose sight of the boat. My first thought was to take them off and let the boat go. But the hull wasn’t breached. Somehow we got a line over to them. It took us 181⁄2 hours to tow them home.”
Welsh grew up on the water, on Cape Cod, in Chatham. He worked as a commercial fisherman be-
fore joining the Coast Guard. Even in the early 1990s it was beginning to look like commercial fishing was never again going to provide the living it once did. So the plan was to put in four years in the Coast Guard, one tour, and take advantage of the GI Bill to go to college. But back at the dock, after rescuing the family on that sailboat, his plans changed.
“What stayed with me when we first arrived on scene was the look on the people’s faces,” he said. “You would have thought they just hit the lottery, that there was nothing wrong with the world, like it was flat calm and everything was great just because they saw us coming for them. It made me feel, ‘You know what? I can do this.’ Once you get a taste of that, the feeling that you can reach beyond yourself and make a difference to somebody, it stays with you. It’s hard to let it go.”
Two decades later Welsh is senior chief of U.S. Coast Guard Station Brant Point. He keeps a small stack of thank-you cards from people who understand what it is to be in trouble on the sea and know that the Coast Guard is coming to your rescue.
“I keep them here because there are always days when things don’t go right or you get upset, and I take them out and look at them and it’s tangible evidence that you made a difference to somebody,” he said.
Persistence to the last measure of need. History is a circle. Thomas Sandsbury would no doubt understand.
YOU HAVE TO GO OUT ... YOU DON’T HAVE TO COME BACK
Maurice Gibbs is sitting at a table in the Anglers' Club talking about the connection that runs from the early days of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service today’s U.S. Coast Guard. This year marks the 225th Anniversary of the Coast Guard.
“These guys here today, I look at them and it’s a mirror image of what’s happened in the past,” he said. “The names are different, the uniforms are different, the technology is different, but it’s the same challenges. It’s the very same challenges when suddenly we hear a Mayday call.”
Gibbs comes by his opinions of the Coast Guard by both lineage and experience. His grandfather, also named Maurice, was a surfman stationed at the U.S. Life-Saving station at Surfside. He was just on the job when he witnessed what might be the saddest shipwreck in island history. The T.B. Witherspoon, a schooner heading to Boston, delivering a cargo of sugar, molasses, limes and spices from Surinam, was running before a ferocious January storm. Through the snow squalls the crew thought they had spotted Montauk Light and adjusted their course appropriately. Unfortunately, the light they saw came from Sankaty Light. Their course corrections proved to be ill-fated. They wrecked just 100 yards from the south shore.
A day-long struggle to get a line or a boat out to the Witherspoon could only save two on board. Those on board could be seen from shore, dropping out of the rigging into the frigid water and their death. Five crew members, plus the mate’s wife and small child, died. While on patrol a week later, Gibbs’ grandfather found one of the bodies washed up on the shore.
After his own long career in the U.S. Navy, Gibbs is now president emeritus of the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum and at 81 still serves in the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
“The spirit is still there,” he said, of the young men and women who serve in the Coast Guard today. “I am motivated by them. People ask me why at age 81 I still do this. But I still believe in what they’re doing. It’s uplifting to me to even be over there and see how they perform. They have some great young Coasties there.”
The lineage of today’s Coast Guard reflects the importance of maritime trade and shipping to a very young and growing nation. The Humane Society of Massachusetts was based on similar groups that had been working to save mariners in distress in both Holland and Great Britain, since 1767 and 1774, respectively. In 1785 they began building what were called “huts of refuge” along the shore for victims of shipwrecks.
After the Revolutionary War a newly-formed Congress made one of its first acts the establishment of the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1789. Lighthouse keepers went beyond maintaining navigational aids and often rescued mariners in danger close to shore. A year later Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, authorized the creation of an armed maritime service to enforce customs laws. It was called the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service.
The organization that established the modern Coast Guard’s role in search and rescue was the U.S. Life-Saving Service. It came out of the volunteer Humane Society crews and was formalized as a professional service in 1871. There were 289 stations nationwide. The oldest building in the country that was once a life-saving station, and is still on the spot where it was originally built, is the Star of the Sea youth hostel near Surfside beach.
In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service merged and the name U.S. Coast Guard was first used.
Welsh feels the pull of more recent history.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “Do you know whose chair I’m sitting in? Chief Ormsby from the Pendleton rescue, Jack Downey, Sheila Lucey. Are you kidding me? They’re all legends in the Coast Guard. The magnitude is not lost on me and I’m thankful for it. The light-keepers, I’m sitting in their house, built in 1856, I think. We all walk a path that was carved by those before us.”
Chief boatswain’s mate Ralph Ormsby was in command of Station Brant Point during the Pendleton/Fort Mercer rescue in 1952. The two tankers broke up near Chatham Bar and Pollock Rip Shoal in an intense nor’easter in January. Coast Guard boats from both Chatham and Nantucket raced to the scene. It is considered one of the most daring rescues in Coast Guard history.
Stories about the rescue rightly focus on the efforts of the crew from Coast Guard Station Chatham, but often leave out the fact that the crew from Brant Point also responded that night.
“Our crew is forgotten in the history books but they went out in blizzard conditions to the Fort Mercer, in a single-engine 90-horsepower open boat, and they went out that night to attempt a rescue,” Gibbs said. “Our guys weren’t in the headlines as heroes but, my God, what they did that night.”
The core challenges facing today’s Coast Guard have a great deal in common with the challenges facing the crews who served in those early life-saving stations, Gibbs said.
“When suddenly we hear a Mayday we have pretty much the same initial problem they had 100 years ago,” he said. “Defining who is in distress where, and how many, so they can respond appropriately.”
He mentions the famous rescue of the British cargo schooner H.P. Kirkham, by the Coskata Life-Saving crew in the winter of 1892. The ship was aground on Rose and Crown Shoal, breaking up some 15 miles offshore. It took 36 hours in a blinding snow storm and single-digit temperatures to rescue them.
“They knew roughly where there was a wreck in progress and that was all they knew,” Gibbs said. “The unknown is still there today, although we have a lot more technology to get our arms around that. When that first call comes in you still have the unknowns. The technology allows you to figure things out sooner and more accurately. In the old days they had a sort of fatalism about them, I think.”
The Coast Guard has always put advances in communication to work in finetuning its ability to reach mariners in trouble.
“Communications have always been important, from the days of flag systems, to flares, to crank telephones,” Gibbs said. “Now, of course, we have instantaneous communications. I can look at my iPhone and immediately see on a radar screen what weather might be heading here. Think about this. Without the crank telephone the Kirkham rescue would never have happened, because Sankaty Light keeper Remsen used a brand-new crank phone to call the Coskata station. That was their jump in technology. We have much bigger jumps now.”
The 225-year history of the U.S. Coast Guard is filled with famous rescues and moments of bravery. Everyday life in the Coast Guard is about being ready to respond to those moments.
In fact, when the first U.S. Life-Saving station on Nantucket was built, at Surfside, the crew trained and waited for two years before the wreck of the W.F. Marshall. The crew was able to rescue everyone on board using a technique called the breeches buoy to transfer the crew from the wreck to the shore. It was a procedure they were well-trained in.
“The bulk of our work is constantly training,” Welsh said. “Semper Paratus. It means always ready. Later today we’re getting underway to do some training – a navigation drill for one of my coxswains. Manoverboard drills. The other day we were doing two-boat training, where you tow one boat and pass equipment and personnel back and forth. Once a month we work with a helicopter to do helo-hoists with rescue swimmers.”
Every once in a while, during a storm, somebody will see the Coast Guard boats heading out and ask Gibbs whether there was a rescue, when the crew was actually heading out for training.
“You can’t do heavy-weather training on a lightwind day,” he said. “You need a day when you have some weather to work with and so they might go out to Muskeget or Great Round Shoal with some petty officer teaching them here’s how we will have to do it when the chips are down.”
Over the course of his career Welsh has been stationed at New Bedford, Provincetown, Chatham, Boston, Virginia and Nantucket. A sort of innate respect that islanders have for the ocean makes this assignment different, he said.
“Everything else is a step down from here in my humble opinion,” he said. “Nantucket is unique in and of itself, and it’s the people.”
He estimated that his crew actually responds to fewer calls here than they might at other stations of equal size. They average between 30-40 cases, or responses, and close to 100 law-enforcement boardings. Where he was last stationed they averaged between 175-200 cases and 800 law-enforcement boardings.
“That’s due to the people of the island,” he said. “They have a unique weather eye, if that makes sense. Traditionally on a sailing vessel you keep a sailing eye toward windward, to see what’s coming downwind. You pay attention more and have a better understanding of the ocean and the dangers inherent to life living on an island. So it’s far less often that our mariners here actually get into trouble. In Virginia anyone could rent a boat and stop off at the liquor store and be on their way. No telling what could happen then, when you mix alcohol and boating. I’ve seen far too many of the ramifications.”
The biggest problem he sees on the water is simple – not wearing a life jacket. “Believe it or not, we lose most people to drowning because they weren’t wearing a life jacket,” he said.
These days, of course, the Coast Guard does more than search-and-rescue operations, or overseeing aids to navigation like lighthouses and buoys. There is now a law-enforcement component that goes beyond making recreational boating-safety stops.
“Right now we have 400 men and women in the Persian Gulf, providing port security and at the height of the war we had six or seven cutters and 1,500 men and women,” he said. “But the Coast Guard has always been great for being self-deprecating. We’re not very good at tooting our own horns.”
MUSEUM CELEBRATES COAST GUARD HISTORY
The Coast Guard might not be very good at tooting its own horn, but Lisa Lazarus is happy to. She is the curator at the Nantucket Shipwreck & Life Saving Museum on Polpis Road.
“We like to honor those who through the years made a career out of keeping people safe on the water,” she said. “They are all on call to be available to go out onto the water and save anyone in distress and it doesn’t really matter if it was the 1800s or today.”
The museum traces the path from the days of the Humane Society crews to the crew stationed at Brant Point today. An exhibition celebrating the 225th anniversary of the Coast Guard opened this year, called “Heroes of the Sea.”
“It’s a humble tribute with a huge heart,” she said. “The Coast Guard is such a part of the story of this island. And there are so many different aspects of that part of our history – the lightship service, the lighthouse service are both also part of the story – we touch on all of that as part of our permanent exhibit, including films on both the Nantucket Lightship and the three lighthouses.”
Her time at the museum, and especially curating this exhibit, has made her an unabashed fan of the Coast Guard, Lazarus said.
“Just having the opportunity to work with them and talk to them and read the stories, the thought of people whose work is to go out into very bad weather and bring people who are in trouble back to shore, I just find that amazing,” she said. ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is “Wood, Sails, Dreams.”