Digest>Archives> May 2009

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Coast Guard Beach Patrol

By Jim Claflin


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We recently acquired a rare and sought after item relating to the proud U.S. Life Saving Service and early Coast Guard - a Coston flare holder. Such holders were made of wood with brass banding, and were used to hold and ignite an orange Coston flare attached to the end by the beach patrolmen. These holders, carried by each beach patrolman, were used to alert vessels that were too close to shore, or for those already in distress that they had been seen and that aid was on its way. They are now exceptionally scarce and are in great demand by museums and collectors. I have seen only a few others turn up in all of 20 years. A number of readers have asked about this item, and how the beach patrol was organized.

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The Annual Report of the Coast Guard for 1927 notes: “At Life-Saving Service and early Coast Guard stations a fixed beat or patrol was laid out in each direction along the shore, varying, according to the conformation of the coast with respect to inlets, headlands, etc., from one-half to 2, 3, or 4 miles in length.

The station crew was divided into regular watches of two men each, who during the hours from sunset to sunrise patrolled these beats, keeping a sharp lookout seaward at all times. The usual schedule was: First watch, sunset to 8pm.; second watch, 8 pm. to midnight; third watch, midnight to 4 am.; fourth watch, 4 am. to sunrise. At sunset the first man started out on patrol in the same direction from all stations in a district, so far as practicable. While the patrolman was out, his, watch mate would stand the station watch, which was kept in the tower or on the beach abreast of the station, as conditions may require. If the station is connected with the service telephone line, the station watch makes it his business to be within hearing distance of the bell at regular intervals. In addition to keeping watch seaward, he is on the lookout for signals and telephone calls from the patrolman. Upon the return of the first patrol, he takes the station watch and the other man patrols in the opposite direction. At the proper time the man on station watch calls out the next two men, who must be dressed and ready for duty before the first two turn in.

This routine is varied to meet local conditions. In harbors and seaports fixed lookouts are usually maintained instead of a beach patrol.

Positive evidence of the integrity of the patrol and watch was required. Where stations were sufficiently close to one another to permit the entire distance between them to be patrolled, a halfway point was established. At this point each patrolman must deposit a brass surfman check bearing the name of the station and his number in the crew. This check was taken up on the next visit by the patrolman from the adjacent station, who in turn leaves his check. The first patrolman at night returns all checks of the previous night. Where the patrols do not connect, the patrolman carries a watchman’s clock or time detector in which there is a dial that can be marked only by means of a key which registers on the dial the exact time of marking. This key is secured in a safe embedded in a post at the limit of the patrol, and the patrolman must reach that point in order to obtain the key with which to register his arrival. In some cases telephones are located in halfway houses or at the end of patrols; in such cases the patrolmen report to their stations by telephone.

Each patrolman carries a number of red Coston signals with which to warn a vessel standing too close inshore or to notify a vessel in distress that he has gone to summon assistance. The same system of patrols was kept up in thick and foggy weather.”

The beach patrol was an institution of distinctly American origin. It was devised by the former Life-Saving Service, being inaugurated in that service in the early 1870’s. It was this system of verifying the beach integrity by actually walking the entire distance that allowed U.S. life-savers to spot wrecks faster and be of aid to more sailors. For this reason, as well as the superior training and discipline of U.S. crews, this country had a much superior life-saving record compared to other countries during the period 1870 - 1940.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the May 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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