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Risking Lives to Save Lives

by Charles J. Allard, Museum Director

For several months, Egan Maritime has explored island responses to the many sailing ship-era shipwrecks near Nantucket. Virtually all these disasters happened during one of New England’s infamous nor’easters or other seasonal storms. Even the US Lifesaving Service (USLSS) on Nantucket took the summer off: they only worked from September 1 until the end of April. We, too, can pause now and reflect on why Nantucketers successfully rescued mariners facing the dangers of the sea.

The constant in all the rescue events explored was the willingness—no, more than that—the courageous impulse of volunteers and professionals who went forth in the face of exceptional risk to themselves! This year’s reinterpretation at the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum of the history of lifesaving on our island takes a hard look at the reasons for the success of the USLSS.

Visitors to the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum this season will find new displays and explanations of the selection, training, and heroic work of our island’s surfmen: the catch-all term for those who served in the USLSS. The recruits had to be fit, have maritime experience, and be willing to adhere to a strict regime of disciplined rescue procedures. These requirements, along with daily drills to hone their skills with well-maintained equipment, meant all the difference between life and death for survivors. Each surfman had to know not only his job but also that of his five mates. If a surfman ever faltered, another crew member would quickly step into his spot and carry on.

So, we accept that all the surfmen were well-trained, worked with good equipment, and knew what had to be done, but is that all it takes to be a hero? Of course not, and here is where we come to the defining qualities that make the difference. Character matters, and the new presentations in the Boathouse focus beautifully on why persistence, endurance, competence, and gallantry were shared and employed on every treacherous rescue faced by lifesavers.

Your visit to the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum now includes a rich selection of artifacts and equipment used by Nantucketers that brings to life the challenges embodied in the stories of self-sacrifice and service on behalf of othe rs—actions from yesterday, lessons for today.

Located 3.5 miles from the town center at 158 Polpis Road, the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum is open May until October. Courtesy rides to the museum on The Shipwreck Shuttle depart from the Visitors’ Center on Federal Street Monday-Saturday. For details on admission & special events, visit eganmaritime.org.

Founded in 1989 by island native Albert F. “Bud” Egan, Jr. and his wife Dorothy H. Egan, Egan Maritime Institute’s Mission is to preserve and celebrate Nantucket’s seafaring heritage. Today, Egan Maritime promotes & preserves Nantucket’s maritime traditions. We strive to ensure that our island’s culture and community continue to be shaped by its seafaring legacy through programs in the classroom, at the museum, and on the water.

Articles by Date from 2012