Surfmen trained hard before heroic Mirlo rescue 100 years ago

By on July 23, 2018

A scene from the Chicamocomico re-enactment.

Even on a beach vacation, it’s good to be reminded how hard people used to work, especially when the beach was their workplace.

More than a century ago, surfmen who patrolled our nation’s shorelines were renowned for their dedication and courage. Some called them storm fighters.

In a remarkable re-enactment of the drill once done by the men whose job was to rescue people from raging seas, a volunteer team at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station aptly depict the precision and skill of ordinary men working together to prepare for extraordinary missions.

The program provides an eyewitness view of their weekly training routine in the days before helicopters and advanced technology.

Restarted last year after a 2-year pause, the breeches buoy apparatus drill, as it’s technically known, is conducted for visitors every Thursday in the summer at the site in Rodanthe. They can watch the men in action as they would have looked 100 years ago, wearing authentic garb and using authentic equipment.

Before the drill, folks can sit in the shady porch of the 1911 station and be regaled with lessons in maritime history that few Americans have heard.

“Captain Carl” Smith, an engaging retired Coast Guard commander and master mariner, took a recent group of visitors back to the early 19th century, when seafaring conditions off the Atlantic coast were so hazardous that insurer Lloyds of London gave a vessel one-third odds that it wouldn’t make it. After numerous disasters at sea, the public demanded action, eventually resulting in creation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1878.

From that, Smith says, came lighthouses and life-saving stations, and their crews — the keeper and his surfmen. The Life-Saving Service, the precursor to the Coast Guard, was run with military rules that included preparedness.

“Everybody had to do the same drill on the same day,” Smith told his rapt audience . “You do it when it’s raining. You do it when it’s hot as hell. Do rescues ever happen on nice days? Naaaaah. Do you want to do research and development when someone is drowning?” He paused. No one spoke. “The bell rings,” he continued, “ and you know it’s time to go for real and you know what to do.”

Lifesavers, Smith explained, patrolled the beach every day, stopping to exchange tokens when they met a surfman from the next station seven miles away. Otherwise, they communicated with flares they carried in their pockets.

The Mirlo rescue of 1918 depicted by artist Austin Dwyer.

On Aug. 16th, Chicamacomico will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Mirlo rescue, a feat of steely determination by the Chicamacomico crew. Led by Keeper John Allen Midgett, the surfmen plunged repeatedly into huge breakers and flaming seas to rescue the surviving sailors on the British oil tanker Mirlo, which had been full when it was hit by explosives from a German U-boat.

Chicamacomico descendants, a number of whom still live on Hatteras Island, will be in attendance.

“Everybody except one in the Mirlo crew were called Midgett,” Smith says. “And the guy not called Midgett was married to a Midgett.”

In past decades, the drill re-enactment was executed by a team with the National Park Service. When federal dollars dried up, a team of civilians from the community carried the ball in the 1990s. Then when insurance costs became unsustainable, the Coast Guard took over. But a few years ago, partly because of staff demands, the drills stopped altogether.

Still, other lifesaving stations have done the drill sporadically, if at all, said Jeff Shook, with the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association.

“Chicamacomico has done it the longest that I know of,” Shook said.

By 2017, the stars aligned for the Rodanthe station, and Larry Grubbs, the keeper on the former civilian team, was asked about pulling a team back together.

Grubbs, who works as a paramedic for Dare County, says he leapt at the opportunity, and immediately started making phone calls. Within a couple of hours, he says, five men from his former team had agreed to come back, and it didn’t take long to find another four to fill out the team, which ranges in age from about 25 to 55.

All of their uniforms — the summer outfit looks similar to white sailor uniforms — were originally sewn by islanders Linda Hooper, and more lately by Carol Busbey, Grubbs says.

“The most important thing to our team is historical accuracy,” says Grubbs, who when in character wears the typical keepers uniform: dark pants, light shirt, dark vest with a white handkerchief and a dark cap.

This recent iteration of the re-enactment is shorter than the Coast Guard version, he says, putting more of the program in the shade rather than under the broiling sun. Also, the Coast Guard, understandably, wore their own uniforms, making it appear more like a demonstration than an enactment.

Going literally “by the book” — the official manual — the beach drill is an elaborate and exacting regiment that calls for step-by-step procedures with each of seven surfman assigned a specific role. Every detail, from the words used in commands, to the placement of the hemp rope on the shoulder, to alignment of the ½-ton cart to the wind direction, among many others, were expected to be done expertly, ideally completing the set-up in 2 minutes and 30 seconds but less than 5 minutes.

The goal is to fire a line with a small cannon known as a Lyle gun toward a pole on the beach 75 yards away that represents a ship’s mast. Then a series of lines and pulleys are erected to rig the breeches buoy — which looks like a life ring with short pants inside — to rescue the victims.

During the drill, Grubbs directs “his” men as he would as keeper. A child is always asked to volunteer to demonstrate the breeches buoy, which works like a primitive zip line. The lucky young participant is awarded an honorary surfman certificate.

Eventually, the station hopes to build up attendance at the drill to what it was in the old days, when hundreds would come, says Ralph Buxton, the treasurer of the nonprofit Chicamacomico Historical Association.

“These guys do it with a passion,” he says of the drill team.

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