History came alive at the former Wood Island Life Saving Station this past weekend; some local eateries got to showcase their stuff; and we were again reminded why Kittery, Maine, is such an awesome place to live.
But oddly enough, this story starts in Rodanthe, North Carolina.
Last month, our family embarked on a road trip entirely inspired by a certain member’s fanatical obsession with the teen-oriented TV show “Outer Banks.” (Don’t ask!) During our visit to the “real” Outer Banks, we learned of a former life saving station on Hatteras Island that had been transformed into an historical site.
We proceeded to the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station in Rodanthe on a Thursday afternoon, and upon arrival learned we had just missed their celebrated weekly “breeches buoy” rescue drill. But as we headed into the gift shop, we overheard the site’s executive director, John Griffin, tell someone the reenactors were heading up to Kittery, Maine, the following month to provide a demonstration here.
Naturally, this perked our ears up. We approached Griffin and informed him we had actually just come down from Kittery. He confirmed they were indeed planning to perform their drill at Wood Island, and I assured him we were quite familiar with the ongoing renovation of our local station.
“Ah, the envy of the nation,” Griffin proclaimed.
For those not familiar with the old United States Life Saving Service, this was the precursor to today’s U.S. Coast Guard. Starting back in the 1870s, the rugged men of this agency – known as surfmen – were charged with heading out in wooden rowboats during stormy seas to rescue mariners in distress.
I’ve become fascinated with the legacy of the surfmen over the past few years, so naturally geeked out at Chicamacomico. The site includes two original station structures and several other outbuildings, all preserved in spectacular fashion. It’s quite an impressive and well-run facility, very much in line with what I would love to see here at Wood Island in the not-so-distant future.
But we were bummed to miss the breeches buoy drill, which is apparently conducted there every Thursday afternoon.
Then last week, we learned the Chicamacomico reenactors were to be at Wood Island on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, their demonstration was to coincide with the 3rd annual Taste of Kittery in the local post office parking lot. This event has become something of a family tradition for us in its very short history, and we had arranged for four generations to attend.
That’s one of the ordeals we have to wrassle here in Maine’s Oldest Town – sometimes there’s just so much to do, you have to prioritize. The wife and I decided to go ahead and paddle out to the picturesque island from Fort Foster around noonish – me in my kayak, her on her paddleboard – with the idea of checking out as much as we could before heading back to shore and catching the rest of the Taste festivities.
The non-profit Wood Island Life Saving Station Association, which oversees the restoration of the Kittery station, was hosting the annual meeting of the US Life Saving Service Heritage Association, a group of like-minded folks from all across the country, including Alaska. The schedule called for the Chicamacomico crew to demonstrate their skills after a Coast Guard helicopter training exercise, which meant we would have to depart before that part of the itinerary.
But it’s funny how things work out sometimes. As we beached our stuff and headed up toward the iconic pearl-and-crimson station, we saw the North Carolina reenactors getting into position for their drill. By some dumb stroke of luck, the scheduled events had been reversed and we were able to observe the team’s rescue drill.
And at this point, it’s probably a good time to summarize this unique exercise.
Back in the day, if a stranded vessel was close enough to shore, the local surfmen of the US Life Saving Service would conduct a breeches buoy rescue. There simply isn’t enough space here to justly describe the procedure, but safe to say it’s pretty damn cool to witness. It requires both ingenuity and sinew, as well as lines, pulleys and a small cannon-like gadget known as a Lyle gun.
Decked out in the summer whites of the Life Saving Service, the crew last Saturday wrestled into position a cart bearing the heavy gear (the demonstration is also known as a beach apparatus drill). The man in charge of each station used to be known as the keeper, and the keeper of the Chicamacomico team, an imposing-looking gent named Larry Grubbs, also happens to be the president of the North Carolina station’s board of directors. He would also be at the top of my call list if I ever had to cast the role of a hardy keeper.
Grubbs aimed the Lyle gun and fired a line of rope over the yardarm of Wood Island’s 30-foot wreck pole, installed for such training. Then the crew secured lines which enabled one of their members to sit atop a sort of floatable harness designed to put one’s legs through (hence the term “breeches buoy”) and be hauled hand-over-hand down to safety. Keep in mind this was all accomplished within mere minutes, which was the point of the weekly drills conducted by the surfmen of yesteryear.
Not long after this 19th-century drill was concluded, a 21st-century Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter arrived at the scene to take part in a search-and-rescue exercise for members of the local Coast Guard station here in Portsmouth Harbor. Likewise, it was quite stirring to see individuals wearing the uniforms of the old Life Saving Service posing for pictures with the young men and women currently serving in the Coast Guard.
And the wife and I still managed to get back in time to indulge in the offerings of local dining establishments and breweries at the Taste of Kittery.
The Chicamacomico folks believe they may be the only station in the country to conduct the breeches buoy drill on a regular basis. But WILSSA hopes to open their own maritime museum at Wood Island next summer, and to eventually acquire the expertise to perform the historic drill here. As it is, Wood Island is the only station to boast a marine railway, which was used Saturday to launch a restored surfboat.
Saturday was the first time in nearly 80 years the iconic rescue drill has taken place at Wood Island, but might turn out to be just a hint of things to come.
D. Allan Kerr is an ex-dockworker, former newspaperman and U.S. Navy veteran living in Kittery, Maine.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Kerr: Another tale of why Kittery, Maine’s a cool place to live