Breeches Buoy

Many of the schooners we have learned of through our research and that appear in this website have had a watery grave. Some of the sailors were saved. Of those that were saved more than a few owe their lives to the Breeches Buoy. Louis Hough, our eminent historian, had an article published in the August 29, 2002 Mendocino Beacon which describes how it worked – see below:

The Breeches Buoy: For the Ride of Your Life

A number of survivors of wrecks on the Mendocino Coast owe their lives to this simple device, quaint perhaps but still in use. It was state of the art more than 100 years ago when introduced to supplement ships’ life boats or surf boats sent from shore with lifesaving Guardsmen. It proved expedient and reliable, though the less daring souls may not have cheerfully popped their legs into the thing and be whisked over a raging surf to a distant, unknown shore.

Shipwrecks most frequently occur on those proverbial “dark and stormy nights,” when the unwary mariner goes off course and discovers the error only when it is too late. The cry, “Breakers Ahead,” may spell doom for the vessel but not necessarily for those aboard, thanks to the breeches buoy.

The illustration shows how the device was rigged to the mast or some stout part of the ship. Suspended from the hawser (a rope) was the life ring (buoy) with its canvas breeches (like stiff oversize boxer shorts).

How the devise was rigged and what was the procedure? Harken back several generations and imagine yourself on the deck of a troubled steamship trapped amidst fierce waves, which roll beneath the shattered hull and the glistening, jagged teeth of the rocks. You’re wet, teeth chattering, and scared – you are not a happy passenger. Deck hands in black oilskins look like specters performing weird incantations. First they fire large pistols into the night. Rockets illuminate the scene in a ghastly light. Moans from the ship’s whistle accompany the reports from the guns – all to summon attention and help from shore. The 911 of an earlier time.

Shoreside lights and signals respond in kind. And the spectral seamen prepare to catch a heaving line shot from shore to ship. A line-throwing gun – like the one in the Kelley House Museum [in Mendocino] – fires and out of the night comes a rope (seamen call it a line). It lands, draping itself across the slippery deck.

By pulling on this heaving line a much larger rope (called a hawser) is dragged aboard. With it comes a large parcel of equipment, the entire breeches buoy apparatus is now ready to be rigged. Assembling it is simpler than programming the VCRs of today, A breeches buoy rescuebut care has to be taken not to twist or tangle the lines. The big hawser, about 3-inches in diameter, is fastened to the mast. A pulley (called a block) is secured a couple of feet below that. It is one end of a continuous “endless” line with which to pull the breeches buoy ashore and back again.

Aren’t you glad those guys in oilskins know what they’re doing? And remember it is always “women and children first.” That’s good, you murmur to yourself, let the kid go first, then you’ll know it’s OK.

A gruff voice calls to you, “Hey it’s your turn ….”