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Rough Water: A brief History of Capt. Richard Etheridge and The Pea Island USLSS

I’m not really that great at swimming in rough water. No, I’m not being humble. I mean, I can do it and I have done it many times, but I’m no expert. I don’t go down to the water’s edge and see the waves and chop and think: “Yippie, this is gonna be great!” No I get my butt in there, do my thing, grin and bare it. But it’s all good training for my swim. Right? What’s the old saying: “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.”

So it is with that admission that I launch my new post to remind myself of, yet again, those that have gone before me and done things in the water under far more difficult circumstances than I ever have or could.


Ever hear of THE US Life Saving Service (USLSS)? Me either, at least not until a friend of mine gave me a book about it years back.

The United States Life-Saving Service was a US government agency that grew out of private and local humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers. It began in 1848 and ultimately merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the US Coast Guard in 1915.

All the USLSS stations that were manned were all men and all White. Black men who, though rarely, were a part of the six man team were usually assigned menial jobs like cooks, and cleaning the station.

But in 1880, Captain Richard Etheridge, a former slave, was appointed keeper of The Pea Island Life Saving Station in North Carolina. The
Revenue Cutter Service officer who recommended his appointment, First
Lieutenant Charles F. Shoemaker, noted that Etheridge was “one of the best surfmen (sic) on this part of the coast of North Carolina.” Soon after Etheridge’s appointment, the station burned down. Determined to execute his duties with expert commitment, Etheridge supervised the construction of a new station on the original site. He also developed rigorous lifesaving drills that enabled his crew to tackle all lifesaving tasks. His station earned the reputation of “one of the tautest on the Carolina Coast,” with its keeper well-known as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the Service.

Etheridge’s hard training of his men paid off one fateful day:

On October 11, 1896, Etheridge’s rigorous training drills proved to be invaluable. The three-masted schooner, the E.S. Newman, was caught in a terrifying storm. En route from Stonningham, Connecticut to Norfolk, Virginia, the vessel was blown 100 miles south off course and came ashore on the beach, two miles south of the Pea Island station. The storm was so severe that Etheridge had suspended normal beach patrols that day. But the alert eyes of surfman (sic) Theodore Meekins saw the first distress flare and he immediately notified Etheridge. Etheridge gathered his crew and launched the surfboat. Battling the strong tide and sweeping currents, the dedicated lifesavers struggled to make their way to a point opposite the schooner, only to find there was no dry land. The daring, quick-witted Etheridge tied two of his strongest surfmen (sic) together and connected them to shore by a long line. They fought their way through the roaring breakers and finally reached the schooner. The seemingly inexhaustible Pea Island crew members journeyed through the perilous waters ten times and rescued the entire crew of the E.S. Newman. For this rescue the crew, including Etheridge, were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal by the Coast Guard in 1996. (US Coast Guard, 2019)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have read and re-read the above paragraph and still can’t get over it. Two men, wearing heavy foul-weather gear, swam out to a ship in gale force winds and heavy surf, to attempt a rescue and successfully did so??! I can’t even imagine this.

A friend of mine who is a retired Coast Guard officer once told me, that there are some conditions that make it impossible for them to get to a stranded boat or ship, and they have tech that didn’t exist in the 19th Century, yet here is Etheridge and his crew, with no regard for their own safety doing the impossible.

This morning when I arrived at the club the wind and rain had kicked up. I knew it was going to be a bad day for weather but I told myself to get up, go down there, and get wet. As I swam out, the waves and chop were knocking me about. I could have turned in but pressed on.

Why? You know why. If a man like Captain Etheridge can overcome all the obstacles that he did in order to command a USLSS station and do the successful rescue that he accomplished, in seemingly impossible conditions, I can tackle water that is, in the words of a recently departed friend “textured.”

I’m not saying I’m a fan of the stuff…but I’ll be out there tomorrow as usual. So thank you Captain. Richard Etheridge for showing me how it’s done. Your my hero, now and forevermore.

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4 thoughts on “Rough Water: A brief History of Capt. Richard Etheridge and The Pea Island USLSS

  1. Bravo to you and Captain Etheridge!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing! Thanks for sharing!


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