Time Travelling in Rodanthe – Discovering
Hatteras Island’s Own Outdoor Drama
By JOY CRIST
The Lost Colony in
Manteo may get a lot of attention when it comes to live educational
entertainment on the Outer Banks, but Hatteras Island has its own
historic outdoor drama that has been a weekly event since first
launching in the 1990s.
Meet the modern surfmen of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site.
By day, they may be an
EMS paramedic, volunteer firefighter, IT specialist, Coast Guard
member, or an electrician or construction worker. But for an hour or so
on Thursday afternoons, they are transformed into the nine-man
life-saving team that performs a typical Breeches Buoy Apparatus Drill
on the sandy oceanfront dunes of Rodanthe.
And their job, although a standard routine for the early life-savers that manned the local shores, is certainly not an easy one.
During the heyday of
the life-saving stations, the crews at all island stations had a set,
weekly routine that was only interrupted when a rescue was required.
The routine included mundane tasks like housekeeping and chores, but it
also included regular and repetitive training on the steps required to
perform a rescue in the ocean waters. Considering that rescues were
typically orchestrated in less than ideal conditions, (like hurricanes,
nor’easters, or during times of warfare), the drills helped to ensure
that tasks like setting up the breeches buoy and firing the
line-throwing Lyle Gun were second nature for the surfmen.
And this routine of
drills included the U.S. Life-Saving Service’s Beach Apparatus Drill,
which is the task that is currently performed to visiting crowds on a
weekly basis at Rodanthe’s Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station site.
During this roughly
seven-minute procedure, each member of an eight-man team, led by the
Drill Keeper (or station commander), has a specific role to
successfully launch a breeches buoy – a rescue apparatus that looks
like a lifesaver with built-in shorts – out into the ocean in
order to pull ashore stranded victims.
Though it takes just minutes to perform from start to finish, the perfectly-executed operation is quite a show.
Decked out in canvas
“summer uniforms,” (which are still drastically less comfortable than a
modern bathing suit), the team pulls a half-ton wagon across the
unforgiving sand to the edge of the oceanfront dune line. From here, a
Lyle Gun is fired to set the pulley system that will eventually haul
the people in peril to shore, while other members of the team set up
the crotch poles and heavy rope lines that will keep the pulley system
stable and operational.
It’s a flurry of
movement, with ropes flying in every direction, surfmen climbing to the
top of a wreck pole hovering over the dunes, and a loud gunfire that
startles any onlookers. And the nine volunteers who perform the
demonstration every week are truly time travelers, with spectators
easily forgetting that they are, in fact, witnessing a reenactment,
instead of a regular routine of life-savers from a century ago.
Though the modern demo
follows the U.S. Life-Saving Service’s drill steps moment-to-moment,
there are a few differences between the original drill and the
contemporary outdoor drama unfolding on the grounds of the
Chicamacomico Life-Saving site.
For one thing, Drill
Keeper Larry Grubbs sets the stage by explaining what each piece of
equipment used in the ensuing drill is, and how it functions. This is a
necessity, as once the surfmen are in action, it’s hard for spectators
to keep up.
For another, the
program starts with a detailed introduction to the history of search
and rescue by volunteer and 24-year U.S. Coast Guard veteran Carl
Smith, who explains how life-saving procedures have evolved over the
“If you’re going to examine history, you have to understand where we are now, and how we got here,” he explains.
And then, there’s the interaction with the crowd.
Naturally, a successful
rescue requires a person who is actually saved, so the team enlists a
young volunteer who gets to ride the breeches buoy all the way from the
top of the dune to the landing spot on the sand below. It’s thrilling
to watch, and one can only imagine the roller-coaster ride that the
volunteer gets to enjoy as he or she cruises through the air. (The
volunteer is also given a certificate designating them as an Honorary
Surfmen after the reenactment.)
“I wasn’t scared at all
– I was just a little nervous,” says recent July volunteer Jackson, who
made a successful landing from the top of the wreck pole to the ground.
And after the show, the
surfmen stay close to shore, so that folks in the crowd can ask
questions, examine the equipment, and assist with tasks like beating
the sand out of the heavy rope lines.
It’s an impressive
drama from start to finish for sure, and for folks who have never seen
a century-old life-saving rescue operation in person, (which is the
majority of the population), it’s a unique and introspective look into
a slice of local history.
But it all begins and ends with the volunteer crew.
The volunteers who
perform the weekly reenactment are locals who love what they do. (You
have to love it, considering that you are consciously volunteering to
haul a half-ton cart before running through hot sand in a canvas suit
on a 90 degree summer day.)
When the Beach
Apparatus Drill reenactment began in the late 1990s, it started with
volunteers who would carve away a part of their summer for the weekly
demonstration, as well as ample practice time before the reenactment
went into full swing.
For a number of years,
the U.S. Coast Guard took over the reins and orchestrated the
demonstration. But because the Coast Guard had actual rescues to
perform at any given moment, the reenactment shifted back into the
hands of local volunteers several years ago - and a number of the
current crew members have been involved since the beginning.
“I did it in 1998, and
I came back when the local people took it over again,” says volunteer
surfmen Rob Wernock. “There are a lot of us longtime volunteers, and
it’s because of our passion for the history.”
And while he admits
that chugging through the sand in a white canvas suit can get “a little
hot” when there’s a southwest wind, like all the current and past
surfmen, it doesn’t stop him from doing his job.
“This is nothing
compared to what the guys used to do back in the day,” he says. “There
were times when the horses weren’t even dumb enough to go out into the
[severe] weather conditions, and they had to move all the equipment
themselves… it goes to show how hard it was, and how brave these
And like all of the
crew members, Wernock volunteers his time through the duration of the
summer because he loves the history, and the opportunity to share it
with others who are new to the story of the Life-Saving Stations.
Larry Grubbs is the
Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Chicamacomico
Historical Association and the Drill Keeper, and he stands out in the
crowd of white-clad surfmen with his official commanding uniform.
Serving as the emcee
for the reenactment, he has seen the interest in the weekly
demonstration grow throughout the years as word spreads about Hatteras
Island’s own live outdoor show.
“It’s getting a little bigger, and word is certainly getting out,” he says.
And for Larry and the
other volunteers, it’s the interaction – and not necessarily the
presentation itself – that is the truly fulfilling component of their
hot summertime work.
“The kids love it and
they always have a great time,” he says. “And there’s nothing we love
more than when folks approach us [after the demonstration] to talk
about it, and ask questions. We really enjoy passing along the history,
and that’s exactly why we do it.”
The weekly reenactment
for 2018 began in mid-June, after the volunteer team spend six or seven
days practicing and practicing, to perfectly execute the intricate
And if you haven’t had a chance to catch the Thursday outdoor drama just yet, there’s still plenty of time.
Like the original
life-savers that came before, the modern volunteer surfmen will be at
it again every week, perfecting the drill as a perfectly orchestrated
routine, to the delight of modern spectators and time travelers
How to catch the show
Buoy Apparatus Drill is held every week on Thursdays at 2 p.m. until
September 6 at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station and Historic Site
more information, visit https://chicamacomico.org/