Merrimac River Life Boat Station

The “Chief’s” Son Remembers

By Dave Gamage


Sand, sand and more sand! I had never before seen so much sand in my life before my first visit to the Merrimac River Station. Maine has nothing to compare with this. This first visit was immediately after a storm. In Maine we plow snow. On Plum Island they plow sand. And I soon had my chance to shovel that sand.

My father transferred to Merrimac River in 1956 after tours as Officer In Charge of Point Allerton and Scituate. During his two-year tour at Merrimac River I spent school vacations with him at the station. I was indoctrinated into station life and boat skills early on from when my grandfather served as a lightkeeper in Maine and later a lobster fisherman after he retired, and from being around at some of my father’s other duty tours.

At all the stations I participated in many station duties—mess cook (KP), cleaning and polishing, scraping and painting, polishing brass (that which was yet to have been painted over). I was crazy about going out in the boats. I got infected with this in the peapod at the light station with my grandfather. For reasons of my father’s insistence I did my turn at the helm of the 36-ft. motor lifeboat beginning at an early age when I had to stand on a box to see through the windshield. I also was familiar with the controls of the 40-ft utility boat and did my turn at the helm on occasions.

I often went on some of the jobs in either the 36 or the 40 and occasionally in the 38-ft picket boat, but not much in the latter. My father had little use for it, twice having a 38 nearly sink out from under him. Also, I sometimes helped out when my father was training the crew in handling and docking the 40.  On one occasion we were having docking practice at Merrimac. This is a challenge at half tide due to the river flowing through the pilings of that dock extending out into the river. After the two trainees had gone through the exercise and with limited success, my father told me to take the helm and dock the 40.  I told him no. It was then we all got a lesson in maritime tradition and the part about the captain of the craft is the law without question.  With reluctance I took the helm and using throttles and spring lines, docked the damned boat. I really hated doing this because I did not want to make the other guys look bad. I wanted to be one of the crew, not the know-it-all brat kid of the station “Old Man”.  But he had his reasons I suppose.

The next day I turned down a boat trip. Instead I pitched in with some of the crew painting the back of the barracks. I was wearing some leftover clothes—pants too long and rolled up, an old shirt likewise several sizes too large, and on my head someone’s old battered “swabbie” hat that had seen many other paint details in years past. While we were sitting on the steps taking a break from spreading paint, one of the old Plum Island residents drove into the yard in his old wreck of a truck.  He walked over to where we were sitting. He stood directly in front of me, sized me up and down, and then shook his head. To my work partners he said, “Damn. This fool outfit is taking them on before they’re hardly done "shitin' yellow" in their diapers.” One of the guys told him I was the Chief’s kid and they were assigned to babysitting detail.

Plum Island was a fascinating place with miles of sand dunes on the ocean side from the mouth of the Merrimac River to Ipswich Harbor. It was a mini Cape Cod. On the inshore side was a vast salt marsh extending the length of the island with the Plum Island River meandering from the Merrimac to Plum Island Sound.  All but the northern end of the island was a wildlife refuge. Once I rode the then muddy road the length of the island with a park ranger in late spring before the area was open for tourists. 

My second trip down Plum Island was in the station Dodge Power Wagon with a boat on a trailer in tow.  About half way down the island a fairly large sloop had grounded offshore on a bar. The 40 and the 36 had gone down to assist but could not safely approach the sloop to secure a towline. There were two people on the sloop. Two others had jumped ship and were ashore. My father was on the 40 and had radioed the station requesting the shore launching. When we finally reached the site we launched our small boat and made our way to the sloop to attach a towline to the 40. I must say our launch in that surf was not a pretty sight. The Plum Island life-saving surfman of years before would not have been pleased with our performance but at least we got the job done and somehow managed to get back to the shore. The two stranded people on that sloop, after witnessing our earlier launch opted to stay with their craft and politely turned down our offer of transport.

    During the summer many people ventured out in small boats to fish off the bars at the mouth of the Merrimac.  The station boat would go out just before high tide and go from craft to craft to inform the occupants that the tide was about to turn and it might be well to consider returning back up the river before maximum ebb tide flow occurred. I went along on a few of the routine “tide patrol” trips.  On one such trip the fog set in thick by the time we had nearly completed making the rounds. We shut down the engines to listen and we heard the sound of an outboard somewhere offshore. We tracked the sound for several minutes by alternately running and shutting down to listen.  Finally we saw two people in a small boat that we had earlier advised to return to port and they were heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction.  By then they were a couple of miles offshore.  We took them on board and took their boat in tow, but by the time we reached the river entrance the tide was at nearly peak flow. There was no way to tow that boat in so we radioed the station and had some of the crew proceed to the south jetty in front of the station. We dropped our passengers back in their boat and sent them ashore in the lee of the south jetty where the station crew pulled the small boat up above the high tide mark.

I got a salt-water bath on one trip in the river. There were heavy seas rolling in from an offshore storm that were occasionally breaking in the approach to the river entrance. One large wave commenced to curl behind us. My father was at the wheel and made a full power turn to head into it. The top of the wave broke over the 40. I dove into the forward compartment. The stern of the 40 lifted and all the water that had come aboard followed me, flowing over the bulkhead. My father and the other guy at the helm got a little wet. But I was thoroughly soaked from head to foot.

One duty assignment I had at Merrimac River was to help with the training of the crew.  I spent time with individuals teaching knots, splicing, reading charts, compass training, plotting courses and even helping a couple of guys master the art of rowing, with two oars, not just with one oar as they had learned at Cape May.  On one such rowing session we took the dory from the dock with the purpose of rowing to the 40 moored in the river. Not too difficult because we had the river flow behind us. Got to the 40 but the poor guy rowing didn’t get his oars in quickly. One oar hit the 40 and he lost it overboard and we found ourselves drifting down the river. It was then we discovered that the spare oar was broken. We had to paddle like crazy to get to the shore before we reached the high flow at the jetties. Then we dragged that darned boat all the way back up the beach to the boathouse. And there waiting for us was the “Chief” who asked us to explain what the hell we thought we were doing. I could tell, though, he was busting a gut to keep from laughing. Some of the locals standing on shore were not so restrained. It was a damned humiliating learning experience. Next day it was back to the oars for more training.

At Merrimac I had the opportunity to participate in beach cart drills. I had many times read all the instructions in the Manual for Lifeboat Stations but when it came to the actual drill, there were some modifications not included in the official instructions. The major deviation was the use of the Dodge Power Wagon as a combination sand anchor and its winch as a substitute for the block and tackle to tighten the hawser. This latter technique had to be done carefully so as not to break the hawser, or worse yet, pull over the wreck pole with some guy on the platform. Conducting the drill was fun. Cleaning the Lyle gun, faking the shot line and storing the equipment after was not, but it was as important as the drill itself, if this equipment should ever be needed for the real thing.



The Beach Cart Drill

I got to know many of the guys quite well. I would often spend time with them when they were on watch. Most enjoyed having someone there to talk to. It was a very dull job in that tower, with only occasional radio traffic to break up the monotony. Not to forget, during the warm months of summer some of the young women lounging on the beach nearby caused the binoculars to be excessively used. And with this distraction present, someone needed to be there with the guy on watch to remind him to punch the clock!

It was not in the cards that I actually serve in the Coast Guard. Yet, in a fashion I guess I served many years, if only part time. And I was at least able to contribute a little something. Hopefully I earned my room and board.  I gained greatly. I have many treasured memories of Merrimac River Station and the several other lifeboat stations where my father served as “The Chief”.

A couple years ago my wife and I made a brief trip to Plum Island. It was a great visit but it left me with an empty feeling, for having discovered the lifeboat station at the end of Plum Island was razed along with the other structures. All that remains at the station site today are the concrete foundations that anchored the legs and steps for the watchtower. The boathouse still stands, but the ramp and pier are a wreck.  Though what I knew of the Merrimac River station years ago is now gone, I still have my many treasured memories.

Another Tale of the Merrimac River Station


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