Travel

See where ‘surfmen’ saved sailors on the N.C. coast

Along with sun, sand and surf, visitors to the Outer Banks village of Rodanthe can also visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station. It preserves the heritage of the U.S. Life-Saving Service “surfmen” – the dedicated men of a bygone era who put their lives at risk to save victims of shipwrecks.

Distance

From Charlotte, Rodanthe is approximately 360 miles, about a seven-hour drive.

To see and do

The U.S. Life-Saving Service formed gradually from 1848 to 1871. Beginning in 1874, lifesaving stations were constructed at 6- to 7-mile increments along the coast of North Carolina. The Chicamacomico Banks station house, built in 1874, is the oldest. Because of the area’s remoteness, the building was a prefabricated, timber-frame structure manufactured elsewhere and shipped to the coast to be re-assembled with wooden pegs on the site. When a larger station was completed in 1911, the original building took on a new role as a boathouse. After the government closed the station in 1954, the buildings fell into disrepair, but conservation efforts begun in 1997 have done much to restore the site to its original appearance.

Among many artifacts on display in the boathouse are a replica beach cart, which carried the assorted tools necessary to effect a rescue, and a horse-drawn “surfboat.” The design of this lifeboat is patterned after early 1800s whaling boats, double-ended to help the craft negotiate breaking waves while heading out and falling waves while coming back.

The two-story 1911 station house is similar in appearance to modern beach houses. Its rooms contain numerous exhibits that explain what life was like for the men garrisoned at Chicamacomico, showcase equipment and rescue procedures and detail some of the more notable rescue efforts. Among the most famous was the rescue by men of the Chicamacomico station of British seamen from the tanker Mirlo, torpedoed 6 miles offshore by a German U-boat in 1918.

From 1871 to 1915, when it merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, the Life-Saving Service rescued more than 177,000 victims, at a loss of 1,000 of its own.

A ladder on the second floor of the station house leads to the observation tower, where you can enjoy a view of the beach and ocean. Surfmen stood 4-hour shifts in this confined tower, keeping constant watch for ships in trouble along this dangerous stretch of the Hatteras coast. In addition to the original boathouse and station house, five other outbuildings are on site for self-guided tours. The site is family-oriented; special programs include such activities as storytelling, knot-tying demonstrations and rescue drills.

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