The beach apparatus or breeches buoy was a fairly common rescue technique utilized by the US Life-Saving Service on the Outer Banks since so many of the shipwrecks occurred near or on the beach or in seas that prohibited the use of the surfboat. To effectively use the breeches buoy took skill and timing. Surfmen practiced it in their Beach Apparatus Drill each week. Each man had to know exactly what to do at the proper time or the entire rescue would become a disaster.
Other important aspects of the beach apparatus procedure included securing the breeches buoy line or hawser to a wooden anchor buried in the sand, using block and tackle to maintain tension on it, and keeping it above the water using a wooden prop called a crotch. Only then could the breeches buoy be sent out and the survivors pulled to safety one at a time.
Circumstances such as extremely rough seas or a wreck at a substantial distance from shore made the use of the breeches buoy impractical since it put the person being rescued at risk of drowning. In such situations, the surfmen could instead employ the lifecar, a cigar-shaped metal device with room inside for several people. Though claustrophobic and uncomfortable, the enclosed compartment protected survivors from the dangers outside as it was pulled across the water. Problems with the lifecar included its excessive weight, the strain on the hawser line, and the limited breathable air inside. But the advantages of protection and the number of people that could be transported at one time often outweighed these disadvantages and the lifecar became a favored lifesaving method when there was a large number of people to be rescued.
The breeches buoy and lifecar may appear to be rather peculiar forms of lifesaving but they worked very well; thousands of lives were saved through their use. This method of lifesaving continued in practice with the US Coast Guard until replaced by the helicopter as a means of rescue in the 1950s.
A breeches buoy is a rope-based rescue device used to extract people from wrecked vessels, or to transfer people from one place to another in situations of danger. The device resembles a round emergency personal flotation device with a leg harness attached. It is similar to a zip line. The breeches buoy may be deployed from shore to ship, ship to ship, or ship to shore using a Manby mortar, rocket, kite system, or a Lyle gun, and allowed evacuations of one person at a time. A line is attached to the ship, and the person being rescued is pulled to shore in the breeches buoy.
Eventually the Manby mortar was replaced by rockets to shoot lines to ships in distress. In 1967 a documentary on the inventor George Manby was made. Locations included Denver, Downham Market and Great Yarmouth. Scenes include the use of the mortar, rocket and breeches buoy. The recording is now available on the East Anglian Film Archive website.
In Sea Scouts, use of a breeches buoy has become one of the events that are competed in at regattas such as the Old Salts' Regatta and the Ancient Mariner Sea Scout Regatta. The competition simulates an actual breeches buoy rescue situation.
Shipwrecks and the ensuing loss of life and property were a constant threat in seaport communities like Cape Ann throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. While little could be done to render aid to a ship that foundered at sea, if a vessel was wrecked along the coastline, assistance could often be rendered, and lives saved. The breeches buoy was one of the tools available to lifesavers that could be used to rescue passengers and crew off vessels shipwrecked close to shore.
Operation of the breeches buoy was straightforward and was overseen by men employed in the United States Life-Saving Service. When word was received of a shipwreck, the breeches buoy was loaded onto a cart along with other gear by members of the lifesaving crew (who would have been stationed at various sites around Cape Ann) and dragged across the beach. Torches were lit to signal to the shipwrecked mariners that help had arrived and to be ready to receive the shot-line. Using a small cannon known as a Lyle Gun, a shot-line was fired into the rigging of the stricken vessel and secured to its mast. Attached to the shot-line was a sturdy hawser that would be pulled across to the vessel in distress; attached to the hawser was the breeches buoy. The buoy was essentially a pair of heavy-duty canvas shorts (or breeches) attached to a cork life ring. Once the breeches buoy was pulled across to the vessel, one by one the crew of the distressed ship and passengers, if there were any, would be secured into it and pulled safely back to the beach.
The next piece of equipment necessary for the rescue was the hawser. The hawser is the lifeline of the drill. The hawser was transported out to the ship by attaching it to the whip line after the tail of the whip was made fast to the ship. The Surfmen would then shift on the opposite side of the whip from the hawser, pulling the hawser out to the ship, where it would be made fast to the mast above the whip block. The hawser is the largest diameter line and carries the traveling block. The traveling block has a sister hook attached, which is opened to allow attachment of the breeches buoy. The breeches buoy is essentially a life ring with a pair of shorts sewn into it for the shipwreck victim to sit in while being pulled to shore. The traveling block is made fast to the Whip lines, which, with the whip block tied to the mast of the ship, allows the breeches buoy to be pulled out to the ship, a sailor to get in and be brought ashore by the surfmen then pulling on the opposite end of the whip. The hawser is put under tension in two ways; by the fall, a 4:1 ratio block-and-tackle device, and by standing the crotch pole.
After all of these things are in place, the Hawser is under great tension and is elevated to keep the breeches buoy up, out of the surf. The breeches buoy is hanging from the hawser and is attached to the Whip at the sister hooks and buoy Bridle, the Apparatus is used by simply pulling one side of the Whip to get the buoy out to the wreck, then shifting on the other side of the Whip to transport the buoy back to the shore. This was done as many times as necessary until all persons were safely ashore.
A view of a breeches buoy from The U. S. Life-Saving Service: Heroes, Rescues, and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard by Ralph Shanks, Wick York and Lisa Woo Shanks (eds.), published by Costano Books, Petaluma, California, 1996. A breeches buoy is a rescue device.
Boats in distress need larger lines. Lyle guns were designed to throw projectiles weighing approximately 18 pounds, carrying heavier rope to ranges as great as 700 yards. Once the line was fired to the ship, shore crews sent out breeches buoy equipment and instructions to the stranded sailors. Once the breeches buoy lines were assembled, the sailors could be removed from the vessel.
" ACTION."(Current supposed to be running from the right; wind also from the right.)Captain puts on his haversack; 4 throws buoy off the cart; 5, 6, and 7 unload the shovel, pick, and sand-anchor, and proceed at once to bury the anchor where directed by the captain; 2 and 3 remove the shot-line box. Captain and 1 remove the gun, and place it in
In the meanwhile 4 unloads and carries the crotch to a point at a suitable distance from the water, on the bluff of the bank, if possible, on a line between the sand-anchor and wreck, and ?pens it wide, span on the left, the legs forming a straight line parallel with the beach, and then carries the breeches-buoy and end of hawser to a point just in front of the crotch.
The hawser being made fast on board the wreck, and the whip cast off, land 2 overhaul back the whip until the bend is reached, which the lee man casts off, while the weather man snaps traveler-block onto the hawser, and they then bend ends of whip into the strap of the breeches-buoy block, (1 at the outer, 2 at inner end,) making each end fast with a round turn and two half-hitches; at the same time the captain, and 3, 4, 5, 6,and 7, haul through the slack of the hawser by hand, when 3, 4, 5, and 6 put the tackle on, 3 and 4 at the outer block, 3 with the strap, 5 and 6 at the inner block, 5 making a cat's-paw in the hauling part of the hawser, into which 6 hooks the inner block.
No. 4.-Unload buoy from cart; place crotch, hawser, and buoy in position; stretch tackle, (inner block;) haul right part of whip from reel; if to windward, reeve end of whip through sand-anchor block, otherwise, bend ends of whip together; man weather part of whip when sending off the hawser; haul in slack of hawser; hook on outer block of tackle; man fall, right leg of crotch, and am shifting man on the whip.
When practicing, as soon as the gun is discharged, 6 will go to the pole representing the wreck and haul oft' and make fast the whip and hawser, unless some other person willing to perform that duty is present, 4 throws the buoy off the cart that it may not interfere with removing the gun from the cart.
Instances may occur when the wreck is breaking up rapidly, and there is not sufficient time to send off the whip and hawser, or the crew are too much exhausted to haul the gear off. In such cases, after communication is made by means of the shot-line, cut the shot- line, and bend the shore end onto a single part of the whip; when the end of the whip has reached the wreck, bend the bight of the whip into the slings of the buoy, (block removed,) and let the buoy be pulled off through the surf to the wreck.
Work can be facilitated if, after the gear is set up and in working order, a good man from one of the adjacent crews be sent off in the breeches-buoy to the wreck, who will superintend the work at that end, assisting the people into the buoy, &c.
As they departed, a plan was hatching onboard the Pollux to secure a line from ship to shore. Some of the men who abandoned ship had landed near a rocky ledge that lay about 65 feet from the sinking ship. If the men onboard could throw a line to their crewmates on shore, then they could rig a breeches buoy. Lieutenant William Grindley went below deck and returned with a fishing line that had a telephone receiver tied to one end. If they could throw this to a man on shore, they could create a breeches buoy. 59ce067264