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Scribner's Magazine, 1892

    This article has been reprinted in its entirety from the February 1892 edition of Scribner's Magazine. The only changes made have been the addition of paragraph breaks to make reading easier, and several links to more information about specific ships.

    This article was published in combination with "Some Typical Rescues by the Revenue-Cutters" by Samuel A. Wood, which can be seen here.

    A hi-resolution scan of the original pair of articles can be seen here (pdf, 6.4MB.




The Revenue-Cutter Service:
Its Work in the Relief of Vessels in Distress

Lieutenant Percy W. Thompson, U.S.R.M.

The U.S. Revenue Cutter Levi Woodbury, 1891

    PROBABLY many of your readers have seen in the newspapers, in the latter part of November of each year, the announcement that certain revenue-cutters had been ordered by the President to cruise along our dangerous and rock-bound coast in search of and to aid distressed vessels. But how the cutters render aid, how far off shore they go, how often they go into port, and even what size and class of vessel a revenue-cutter is, are questions very few persons living in inland towns could answer.

    By an act of Congress of December 22, 1837, the President is authorized to cause any suitable number of public Vessels adapted to the purpose to cruise upon the coast in the severe portion of the season, "and to afford such aid to distressed navigators as their circumstances may require." After the passage of the act a frigate, a sloop-of-war, and three brigs of the navy were ordered on that service with right of the cutters. The naval vessels proved to be too large for the coast service and were withdrawn. From this time the protection of commerce in this regard devolved upon the revenue-cutters, which have been employed under the act during every winter up to the present time, with such satisfactory results as to earn for the service generally a deserved popularity, especially with all persons connected with the maritime interests of the country.

    The latter part of November, each year, the commanding officers of certain revenue-cutters receive from the Secretary of the Treasury what are termed "winter-cruising orders." These orders are issued by the President of the United States, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Chief of the Revenue Marine Division. They direct the commander of the cutter to make preparations to cruise for the relief of distressed vessels; to take on board such provisions, fuel, and water as can be conveniently stowed, and in case the marine underwriters desire to place clothing, provisions, or other supplies on board for shipwrecked crews, to take charge of them agreeably to their instructions. Thus prepared the cutter is ordered to cruise over her designated district from December 1st to March 31st, "keeping generally as close to the land as the safety of the vessel will permit, exercising due diligence and discretion in the search for distressed vessels." The cutter generally cruises near the land in order to lessen the chances of passing unseen a vessel ashore in need of help.

    The cutter is ordered "not to go into port oftener than compelled by stress of weather, want of supplies, or other necessity." She is ordered, in all cases requiring aid or relief, to afford such assistance as may be needed. The cost of supplies furnished to distressed vessels, the cost of fuel expended in rendering any assistance, and the estimated damage done to hawsers in towing, are paid by the owners of the assisted vessels to the Collector of Customs at the cutters head-quarters. A full and circumstantial report of each case of assistance rendered is filled out on blanks furnished for the purpose, and transmitted to the Secretary of the Treasury from the first port of arrival. The navigating officer of each cutter is required to prepare a chart of the vessel's cruising district, on which chart he lays down tracks representing all the runs made during the winter's cruising. This chart is forwarded to the Treasury Department and filed.

    Of the thirty-five vessels of the Revenue Marine now in commission, only eight are designated by the President as winter-cruising vessels. These are the Levi Woodbury, with head-quarters at Eastport, Me., and cruising from the St. Croix River to Cape Elizabeth, Me.; the Alexander J. Dallas, with head-quarters at Portland, Me., and cruising from South-West Harbor, Me., to Cape Ann, Mass.; the Albert Gallatin, with head-quarters at Boston, Mass., and cruising from Portsmouth, N. H., to Wood's Hole, Mass.; the Samuel Dexter, with head-quarters at Newport, R. I., and cruising from Wood's Hole to Whitestone, L. I.; the U. S. Grant, with head-quarters at New York, and cruising from New London, Conn., to Delaware Breakwater, keeping outside of Long Island; the Alexander Hamilton, with head-quarters at Norfolk, Va., and cruising from Delaware Breakwater to Cape Hatteras; the William H. Crawford, with head-quarters at Baltimore, and cruising in Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries; the Schuyler Colfax, with headquarters at Wilmington, N. C., and cruising from Body Island, N. C., to Georgetown, S. C. It will be seen that in some cases the cruising district of one cutter overlaps that of another, so that portions of the coast are patrolled by two cutters.

    All the winter-cruising cutters, except the Colfax and Crawford, are steam-propellers. The two latter are side-wheel steamers. In respect to size the Dallas is the smallest, being only 179 net tons measurement; the Dexter comes next with 188 tons, the Gallatin is 212, the Hamilton 223, the Grant 262, the Crawford 265, the Woodbury 330, and the Colfax 369 tons. All of these vessels are slow, not one of them being able to steam more than ten or twelve knots at full speed, and most of them not over nine or ten knots.

    All of the above-mentioned fleet carry more or less sail, sufficient in the case of all, except the Crawford and Colfax, to handle them safely in all kinds of weather, in the event of their machinery becoming disabled. The sister ship to the smallest of the fleet made the voyage from New York to San Francisco, a distance of nearly 16,000 miles, in perfect safety, most of the way, of course, under sail. The Grant is bark-rigged, the Woodbury, Gallatin, and Hamilton are topsail schooners, and the Dexter, Dallas, Colfax, and Crawford are fore-and-aft schooners, carrying fore- and main-sails, jib, and fore- and main-staysails. The Grant, Gallatin, Hamilton, and Colfax are iron vessels, the rest wooden.

    Each cutter carries four boats and enough life-preservers for one boat's crew. None of the cutters mentioned in this article is provided with a steam-launch.

    Each cutter carries a supply of rifles or muskets, revolvers and cutlasses, besides a small battery of from one to four guns, generally composed of 20-pound or 24-pound Dahlgren howitzers. Several of the vessels are now supplied with 3-inch breech-loading rifled guns in place of the Dahlgren howitzers.

    Eight officers and a crew of from thirty to thirty-five men is the usual complement for each vessel. The crews are composed largely of foreigners - usually Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians. Men of these nationalities are found to be excellent sailors, obedient, amenable to discipline, trustworthy, and peculiarly capable of withstanding the cold and hardships to which they are necessarily subjected. The crews are divided into various rates, according to the duties that are to be performed, each vessel carrying 1 boatswain, 1 carpenter, 1 master-at-arms, 2 quartermasters, 2 coxswains, from 10 to 14 seamen, 1 cabin steward, 1 wardroom steward, 1 ship's cook, 2 first-class boys, 2 second-class boys, 4 firemen, and 2 coal-passers.

    During November the cutters prepare for the arduous work of winter cruising. The battery is run in, trained fore and aft, and securely lashed, or stowed away in the hold. One of the light boats is put ashore, to make room for a surf-boat, with air-tight compartments, specially adapted to work in high seas and for landing in the surf. The yards and light spars are sent down and stowed ashore until spring. Sometimes stump topmasts and jib-booms are rigged in place of the long ones, thus reducing the tendency to roll and pitch, and enabling the vessel to steam to windward with less resistance. Enough sail, however, is always retained to handle the vessel without steam. A fresh supply of towing-hawsers, heaving-lines, ropes, oars, boat-gear, etc., is procured. Masts, sails, rigging, boats, steering-gear, ground-tackle, pumps, and, in fact, all parts of the vessel are carefully examined and repaired, or renewed if necessary. The chief engineer and his assistants thoroughly inspect all portions of the machinery and make them, as far as human foresight can, capable of sustaining the severe strain to which they are soon to be put. Supplies of coal, water, provisions, and ship chandlery are taken on board. A heavy iron ice-breaker is never forgotten if the winter is likely to be severe. The ice-breaker is made of +2-inch iron, and is V-shaped. It extends about eighteen inches below the water-line, and the same distance above it, and fits over the cutwater, to which it is secured by five heavy chains.

    Three years ago one of the New England cutters was obliged to work in such heavy ice, while assisting vessels, that her ice-breaker was twice rendered entirely useless; the second time it was twisted and worn so badly that a new one had to be procured. In addition to the damage to her ice-breaker, the same vessel had nearly all the copper near the water-line stripped off, her gripe torn off, the forward planks near the water-line worn entirely through, and her propeller so badly bent and twisted that a new one was necessary.

    On December 1st the cutter sails on her long cruise. Her captain is in the pilot-house. The officer of the deck, having laid aside his handsome uniform until spring, buttons his great-coat closely about him, dons his fur cap and gloves, takes the weather side of the bridge with marine glass in hand, and begins his vigilant lookout. A quartermaster on the lee side of the bridge, also with a good marine glass, assists in the search. From now until April 1st, whenever the cutter is cruising, at least two, and frequently four, pairs of glasses are almost constantly sweeping the horizon on the lookout for vessels in distress. Many a poor mariner with his sails blown away, ground-tackle gone, leaking badly, heavily iced up, food-lockers empty, or perhaps out of his reckoning, sights the revenue-cutter in the distance bearing down upon him, and experiences feelings which a landsman cannot properly appreciate.

    In addition to feeding the hungry, saving the imperilled, and guiding the lost, it is also the cutter's duty to suppress mutinies, prevent smuggling, enforce the neutrality laws and the quarantine regulations, protect merchant vessels from piratical attacks, protect wrecked property, and guard the timber reserves of the United States against depradations. The constant and frequent inspection of the vast fleet of merchant vessels that trades along our coast forms a very important duty of the service, and one which, if not performed, would be followed by a very general neglect of the customs and navigation laws. Even with the rigid and constant inspections, from one to two thousand violations are detected each year, and reported to the proper authorities. It is not alone in the examination of the ship's documents, and the ascertaining that she has no smuggled articles on board, that she is engaged in the trade for which she is licensed, that her marine documents are in force, that her regularly authorized captain is in command, etc., that the importance of the boarding duty is most strikingly shown.

    Of the twenty-five thousand or thirty thousand vessels that are every year boarded and thoroughly examined by officers of the revenue-cutter service, many are found to have side-lights, anchor-bights, or fog signals of an efficiency far below what is deemed safe by the Government. These faults are corrected, and thus one of the greatest dangers of the sea, collision, is mitigated to a great degree. The benefits of the increased safety thus effected are shared, not only by the sea-faring man, but also by that immense portion of the travelling public that selects our coastwise steamers as a means of conveyance from place to place. The constant patrolling of the coast enables the cutters promptly to discover and report to the proper authorities the absence or imperfection of buoys, spindles, light-ships, and other aids to navigation.

    Although all the cutters perform useful and meritorious work, the two stationed on the Maine coast have greater opportunities for rendering assistance than all the rest combined. Of the five hundred and twenty-six distressed vessels assisted by the entire service during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1888, over four hundred were assisted by the Maine cutters. The large number of shoals, reefs, rocks, and islands lying off this coast, combine with the very strong tides, high winds, fog, vapor, and ice, to render navigation along it as dangerous as on any other in the world.

    The fleet of merchant vessels that passes along the coast of Maine is immense, and in addition there is one of the largest fishing fleets in the world. These latter vessels are obliged to get their fish to market as soon as possible after they are caught, and hence they arrive on the coast from the fishing banks in all kinds of weather. In summer they have dense fogs to contend with; in winter, vapor, thick snow-storms, ice, high winds, and rough seas. Frequently they become so iced up that they are unmanageable. Many of the reefs, rocks, and islands are out of the track of the coastwise steamers, are never visited by tugs, and cannot be seen from the few life-saving stations on the mainland. But for the cutters, many of the poor fellows wrecked on these isolated reefs would perish miserably from cold, exposure, and hunger.

    Vessel masters on this coast usually select the inside passages and channels among the islands, in order to avoid the high seas and winds which they would have to encounter off the coast. Vessels are frequently caught in these passages and frozen in; they are also frequently frozen up in the harbors. The cutters keep these passages and harbors open as long as possible. They cut out vessels that are frozen in, and warn vessels that are discovered approaching closed passages and harbors.

    Assistance is rendered, as far as possible, in accordance with the needs of the distressed vessel. Vessels ashore are hauled afloat, and towed to a safe harbor; those frozen in are cut out and towed to open water; those in need of water, provisions, or medicine are supplied; those out of their reckoning get necessary sailing directions; the disabled ones are towed to a safe harbor where repairs can be made, and those that are short-handed by reason of illness or death are supplied with enough officers and men to work them into port. In rendering assistance cutters are positively prohibited from interfering with private enterprise.

    Life on a revenue-cutter during winter cruising is one of hardship and danger. It is a life of constant exposure to all kinds of weather, and is so trying that only men of strong and robust constitutions can safely undergo it. Even in these not infrequently are sown the seeds of disease.

    One of the greatest dangers the revenue officer is called upon to encounter is boat duty. This he has to perform in all sorts of weather. Fog, snow-storm, cold, high wind, or rough sea, is seldom considered a sufficient reason for neglecting to board a vessel bound in from a foreign port. Such a vessel has usually to be boarded while under way - a very difficult and dangerous undertaking, requiring the exercise of experienced udgment, prompt decision, great coolness, and considerable pluck. While on board the vessel, examining her papers, certifying to her manifest, etc., she has probably carried the boarding officer at least two or three miles from his vessel, and he may have to make the best of his way back to her in the teeth of a strong head-wind, high sea, driving snow-storm, and with, perhaps, the added difficulty, if not danger, of approaching night. When rowing in the teeth of a high wind it is no unusual thing for the boat's crew to become so exhausted that no headway can be made. In such a case the boat rows directly to leeward of the cutter, from which a life-buoy attached to a long line is thrown. It is quickly swept to leeward, picked up by the boat, the line made fast to the bow, and the boat hauled alongside. Sometimes he finds it impossible to return to the cutter, and he is obliged to seek shelter on some friendly vessel.

    Managing a boat in the surf is perhaps as difficult and dangerous a duty as revenue officers are called upon to perform. Much of the supplies for the houses of refuge on the east coast of Florida are taken to them by revenue-cutters. All these supplies have to be landed through the surf on as exposed and dangerous a beach as any in the world. That no lives have yet been sacrificed, and no property lost in this work, speaks volumes for the skill of revenue officers as surf-men.

    Running a line to a vessel ashore or in distress requires skill and courage of a no mean order. True it is that but few revenue officers have lost their lives in the discharge of this duty, but it is equally true that an officer must indeed be young in the service who has not several times stood face to face with death.




Northern Ships and Shipping