Sunday, September 6, 2015

Into the Surf: The Point Reyes Historic Lifeboat Station

From 1927 until 1968 the Coast Guard maintained a life-saving station at Point Reyes, California, in the shadow of Chimney Rock on Drakes Bay. The station house, with its marine railway, still stands, although it is used only occasionally by nonprofit groups. Recent visitors to the shoreline witnessed some restoration work going on and were allowed a glimpse inside the structure.

The road to the Lifesaving Station is a ten minute walk from the public parking lot at Chimney Rock. Look for signs pointing to the station (to the right as you face the sea) and to the Elephant Seals (to the left).

The tracks leading from the station directly into the surf by means of an incline plane are probably the last existing marine railway on the Pacific Coast. Motorized lifeboats were assured a fast launch into the surf in times when every minute counted.

The cradle that held the motor lifeboat  waits in the ground floor boat bay for the last lifeboat, currently undergoing restoration. Living quarters for crew were on the second floor.

The names and relics of wrecked ships adorn the walls of the ground floor boat bay: the cargo ship Munleon, lumber steamer Hartwood, the oil tanker Richfield were three of the lucky ones among many wrecks during the 1920s and 1930s. All lives were saved. During this period a shipwreck and rescue often drew crowds of spectators to the station grounds.

By the 1950s technological advances in lifesaving began to put the Point Reyes station, with its 36-foot lifeboats and breeches buoy, out of business. In 1968 the station was closed; in 1989 it was declared a National Historic Landmark. A modern Coast Guard rescue, complete with helicopters, now operates out of Bodega Bay. 

Accidental tourists were treated to the release of rehabilitated sea mammals: three juvenile California sea lions (Carmella, Mariachi, and Leeward, above) and one young female elephant seal (Rail Buddy below), restored to health by the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center. These guys heard the call of the sea and knew exactly what to do.

The U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) was founded in 1871. In 1915 the service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the modern Coast Guard.

The Point Reyes Lifeboat Station was originally established on another spot on the peninsula (the much less protected South Beach) in 1888. During this period, surfmen went out in man-powered boats. (Point Reyes National Seashore photo)

The life-saving station at Point Reyes has a connection to another landmark in the district....a tiny cemetery overlooking Drake's Estero on the road between the coast and town. For photos of the gravestones of some surfmen see the author's own blog, Remnants of the Past.

Thanks to park ranger Sarah at the Lifeboat Station for information and to Alan Humphrey for photography.

-- Eleanor Boba