Volunteers take visitors back in time to the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station’s heyday during the Beach Apparatus Drill. Photo by Don Bowers
The Lost Colony in Manteo may be the best-known live entertainment option on the Outer Banks, but Hatteras Island has its own historic outdoor drama that has been a weekly event for decades, and which has returned again for the 2023 summer season.
During the heyday of the life-saving stations, the crews at all island stations had a set, weekly routine that was only interrupted when a rescue was required. The routine included mundane tasks like housekeeping and chores, but it also included regular and repetitive training on the requirements for conducting a rescue in ocean waters.
Considering that rescues were typically orchestrated in less than ideal conditions, (like hurricanes, nor’easters, or during times of warfare), the drills helped to ensure that tasks like setting up the breeches buoy and firing the line-throwing Lyle Gun were second nature for the surfmen.
This routine of drills included the U.S. Life-Saving Service’s Beach Apparatus Drill, which is the task that is currently performed to visiting crowds on a weekly basis at Rodanthe’s Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station site.
In fact, Chicamacomico is now the only place in the country—and likely the world, for that matter—that regularly performs the complete drill, including live black powder firing and live shots, conducted by volunteers and active-duty U.S. Coast Guard personnel.
During this roughly seven-minute procedure, each member of an eight-man team, led by the Drill Keeper, (or station commander), has a specific role to play in order to successfully launch a breeches buoy – a rescue apparatus that looks like a lifesaver with built-in shorts – out into the ocean in order to pull ashore stranded victims.
Decked out in canvas “summer uniforms,” (which are much less comfortable than a modern bathing suit), the team pulls a half-ton wagon across the soft sand to the edge of the oceanfront dune line. From there, a Lyle Gun is fired to set the pulley system that will eventually haul the people in peril to shore, while other members of the team set up the crotch poles and heavy rope lines that will keep the pulley system stable and operational.
It’s a flurry of movement, with ropes flying in every direction, surfmen climbing to the top of a wreck pole over the dunes, and loud gunfire that startles any onlookers. And the volunteers who perform the demonstration every week are truly time travelers, with spectators easily forgetting that they are witnessing a reenactment, instead of a regular routine of life-savers from a century ago.
It’s an impressive and action-packed drama, and for folks who have never seen a century-old life-saving rescue operation in person, (which is the majority of the population), it’s a unique and introspective look into a slice of local history.
The weekly reenactment for 2023 will continue through Labor Day Weekend, so if you haven’t had a chance to catch the Thursday outdoor drama just yet, there’s still plenty of time.
Like the original life-savers that came before, the modern volunteer surfmen will be at it again every week, perfecting the drill as a perfect routine, to the delight of modern spectators and time travelers everywhere.
How to catch the show
The weekly Breeches Buoy Apparatus Drill is held every week on Thursdays at 2 p.m. at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station and Historic Site in Rodanthe. For more information, visit https://chicamacomico.org/.