Friday, June 21, 2013

The United States Life-Saving Service: Beach Rescues

by Naomi Rawlings

Hi Everyone,

I'm glad to be back with you today, talking some more about the United States Life-Saving Service. For a brief review before we delve back in, the United States Life-Saving Service ran from 1848 until 1915 for the purpose of rescuing sailors and passengers stranded on wrecked vessels. If you've missed posts the past two months, I have discussed:

Today we're talking about one of my absolute favorite parts of the Unite States Life-Saving Service: The Beach Rescues.

Now remember, the daring men who sacrificed both their time and safety to dart into storm-ravaged waves and save others were not as well equipped as the modern day Coast Guard with its helicopters and radios. But the did have some specially designed items that helped them brave dangerous storms.

The Beach Apparatus: The beach apparatus refers to the cart and equipment life-savers would use for a shore to ship rescue. In instances where a wreck occurred close to shore, the life-savers would not use a lifeboat or surfboat to rescue stranded sailors and passengers. Instead they would pull a cart that carried their rescue equipment along desolate, storm swept beaches to the sight of the wreck. Keep in mind that most life-saving stations didn't have horses, so the cart was pulled by the surfmen, and in very wet, dangerous conditions.

Sketch of beach apparatus being pulled during a storm

Beech apparatus being used for routine weekly drills

The Lyle Gun: Once the life-savers reached the site of the wreck, they needed a way to get a lifeline to the sinking ship. Fortunately they didn't have to personally go into the waves for this. Instead they used a Lyle gun (think of a small cannon no longer than a man's forearm), which could shoot a rope nearly 700 feet to the floundering ship. Once the sailors on the ship secured the rope, a pulley system was set up, which allowed the life-savers to transport people well above the waves and to the safety of the beach.

Lyle gun

Lyle gun being fired from shore

The Breeches Buoy: The most common item used to transport sailors over the stormy sea was the breeches buoy. I'm sure you've seen similar the buoyant life rings still in use today. Breeches buoys were life rings with shortpants to hold a person's legs and ropes that connected the buoy to the lifeline and allowed a person to be pulled to shore.

British painting of rescue using breeches buoy

Sketch of man in breeches buoy

Breeches buoy being sent from shore to ship

The Life Car: The other piece of equipment used for beach rescues was called a life car. This little car wasn't nearly as common as the breeches buoy, and it looked something like a mini submersible capsule or possibly even a submarine. The top of it sealed so that the passengers were kept away from the water, and it was designed to carry 4-5 people at once. However, some stories exist of eleven people cramming themselves into the tiny life car.

Sketch of life car

Okay, I think I've about exhausted our topic for today, but goodness, can you imagine clinging to a breeches buoy as you're pulled over a churning sea? Its not an experience I hope to ever have myself. But I'm glad these brave life-savers were able to rescue others. Equally amazing to me is the Lyle gun. I've seen one of these personally (along with a life car, breeches buoy, and beach cart) and that little Lyle gun is SMALL. Not any bigger than the length of my forearm. It's amazing something so small can be so powerful.

All right. I'll be back again in July to talk about the water rescues the life-savers would preform. And then in August I hope tell you about a really astounding water rescue that took place not to far from where I live.

A mother of two young boys, Naomi Rawlings spends her days picking up, cleaning, playing and, of course, writing. Her husband pastors a small church in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, where her family shares its ten wooded acres with black bears, wolves, coyotes, deer and bald eagles. Naomi and her family live only three miles from Lake Superior, where the scenery is beautiful and they average 200 inches of snow per winter, and she is looking forward to the release of her next book, The Wyoming Heir, in January 2014. For more information about Naomi, please visit her website at


  1. I love the old photos you've found! Pretty amazing! I'd never heard of many of these types of rescue equipment. Very interesting - thanks!

    1. Thanks Bethany. Some of this equipment really is amazing, isn't it?

    2. It really is! They made great use of their resources, and were quite inventive! I love the breeches buoy - looks a little ridiculous, but I'm sure those who used it were quite thankful.

  2. Very interesting information on life-saving/rescue techniques. I've lived in West Michigan all my life, and being close to Lake Michigan we've had our share of drownings and near drownings. Then there are the shipwrecks on Lake Superior. Thanks for sharing the information and photos!

  3. Once again a fascinating article! Yikes, not sure I would trust those "breeches" in wild weather either. Amazing that there were that many brave men back in the days being willing to risk their lives to save others!
    Susan P

  4. Thanks for stopping by, ladies. Those breeches certainly don't look comfortable, do they?

  5. What a fascinating post. I'm saving it in my book research file for future reference. I may have to put some characters in peril just to use a life car!

  6. Very interesting, Naomi. Great pictures too. I have never heard of any of these devices.