The literature on the subject of surf-boating is so scanty and contains so little practical information outside of a few general rules, that the following notes are presented with the hope that they may be of use to the service, rather as suggesting the need of a comprehensive description of the surf and method of passing it in all parts of the world, than as a manual for any one locality. An examination of all the works on seamanship and boating discloses only a few axioms, so stripped of detail as to be of use only to those well acquainted with all the difficulties likely to be encountered. If one succeeds in following these terse directions he may get ashore dry, but the surf rarely allows time either for reflection or for the application of any but almost instinctive methods. A very large amount of information is in the possession of officers whose opportunities for observation have been good, but it is seldom that surf-boat duty has continued long enough to give the average officer more than a keen appreciation of its uncertainties. These notes are founded on an experience extending over three years on the U.S.S. Ranger: during this time hundreds of landings were made by the officers on the west coast of Lower California and Costa Rica, for the purpose of erecting signals and carrying on the triangulation. In addition, the coast was followed, and its outline and topography fixed for over three hundred miles; information as to the effect of peculiarities of the shore was thus obtained.
Generally speaking, the surf differs almost as much as the other features of the coast. It is modified by currents, outlying rocks, shoals, river bars, the curves of the coast, and the kinds of beach, whether steep to, sloping, rocky, or sandy. Again, it changes every hour of the tide and with every variation in the force and direction of the wind and ocean swell. The way of passing it in each case must differ somewhat if the best results are to be obtained, and so in different localities the surf men have their own peculiar methods, governed by the character of the surf, the objects sought in passing it, and their equipments.
It is difficult to compare surfs at long intervals of time and at widely distant points, hence the question whether a landing can be safely made or not will frequently be left undecided until the shore is reached. Even then chance may have played so important a part in the operation that the rule may be laid down never to attempt a landing without taking every precaution for safety in case of being capsized.
From the ship, a mile or two offshore, the surf may seem uniform, and opinions may differ as to the best landing place. Patches of sand beach will alternate with bluffs, below which lie rocks and debris, sometimes only shown in the churned-up surf when dangerously near. The debris is often swept by the combined action of the surf and current into the form of an irregular breakwater towards the lee side of the bluff. This shoal being of varying height and lacking continuity, may be of little help when covered by the flood; but at low water its influence is at once apparent. The sand beach begins below this point, back of the face of the bluff, perhaps marking an ancient river mouth, with even now a weak stream seeping through the sand and shingle piled up by storms and surf. This is washed away every time the river rises, leaving a shallow recess in the beach. The best landing may be looked for at such a point. It may even be possible to zigzag in between the bluff shoals and river bar.
For the same reasons narrow canons in long stretches of bluff sometimes mark quiet spots, but are dangerous on account of the boulders washed down by the streams.
On a long stretch of sand beach it is difficult to make a choice, but it is certain that wherever a shoal appears or the surf stretches far out, there will be found a comparatively light surf on the lee side.
Pockets in a rocky coast sometimes show tempting beaches at their bottom, but should not be entered until carefully inspected. They frequently contain sunken rocks; the surf is treacherous, and the most skilful crew trapped in such a place may find it impossible to avoid disaster.
A single rock, hardly far enough off shore to be shown on the chart as separated from the beach, will frequently have a quiet place in its lee, although the approach to it may be dangerous at times.
A confused surf off the mouth of a lagoon or river, or the slanting breakers which sometimes run along the beach, had better be avoided unless low, as the boat may be filled by cross surf while pointed to receive the main breakers.
The more or less regular recurrence of the heaviest breakers, the point at which they become dangerous by commencing to break, and that at which they become comparatively harmless by falling into confusion, should be considered. A heavy breaker arriving at regular intervals, rising and curling only to fall to pieces, may be dodged, but if it is carried a long distance, the probable effect on the boat in passing it must be taken into account.
The number of lines of breakers or width of surf does not always determine the danger of landing, as the outer lines will be much the heaviest and may frequently be avoided.
Notice should always be taken before entering the surf of the probable drift of the boat; it may be set by the current down among rocks or into heavy surf.
The beach may present obstacles apart from the surf. It is often difficult to climb a steep shingle beach at high water even without being obliged to drag the boat clear of the breakers. At the same place a good landing may be made at low water on the uncovered sand slope below the shingle. A ledge of rock cropping out through the sand beach, or scattered boulders, sometimes endangers the boat's bottom. In such cases there are but two ways of landing. The preferable one is to make the passengers jump and wade ashore the instant the boat touches, hauling out at once through the surf. The second plan is to order everybody out of the boat as soon as a foothold can be secured, to steady and protect it. The first big swell should be utilized to land the boat as high upon the rocks as possible. Often the boat reaches a rocky beach nearly full of water; should it touch a rock while in this condition the consequences would be disastrous. Circumstances must decide whether it is better to paddle and drift along in the inshore surf while the boat is being bailed out, or to hold it in one spot until ready for landing or going out again.
A surf crew, exposed to unusual hardship and danger, constantly wet and frequently losing their meals, deserves great consideration aboard ship. The men must not only be trained to act powerfully together like a racing crew, but each one must quickly recognize the necessity for individual action and perform his part without special orders from the coxswain. No racing crew has more need of utter subservience to their coxswain—obedient at the instant, yet possessing the intelligence necessary for independent action.
Disaster is most certain if the attempt is made to pass heavy surf with inexperienced men; in fact, a single raw hand may jeopardize the whole crew. Sometimes the new man may be dazed and sit quietly without working, which is perhaps best for all hands; others select the critical moment to adjust their trailing lines or foul the oars. Excitable ones may sing out and even try to direct the handling of the boat, so greatly do they feel the need of action. The boat officer should recollect that frequently the coxswain has had much more experience than himself, besides, from his elevated position and feel of the steering oar, he knows better both the position and tendency of the boat. To deprive him of the right to direct momentarily would be to impair his efficiency. Unless the boat officer takes the steering oar himself, he should be content with the selection of the place and time of landing. He will have time often to decide and direct whether to take or run from a breaker, but almost all else will be too quick for anything but the instinctive action of coxswain and crew.
A crew may be gradually trained in light surf. Should they meet with a few harmless capsizes, so much the better, as they will find it not so very terrible after all if they succeed in escaping bruises from the flying oars. Above all, the crew should have confidence in their coxswain and boat officer. Whatever is attempted should be done unflinchingly; vacillation or alarm in either of them will reflect itself instantly in the faces of the crew. The latter, low down and with their backs to the surf, can form no correct idea of their danger. Before entering the surf at a strange locality, it is well to lie off it for awhile, noting its peculiarities and accustoming the crew to them. Dangerous breakers may pass, but the quieter intervals are very encouraging.
The matter of life-boats has been much agitated of late by those interested in the various designs, and though the requirements of a good surf boat differ materially from those of a deep-sea life-boat, yet they are alike in some main particulars. A boat combining in a high degree the qualities of both can be built, the objectionable differences being removed or lessened whenever it is used for one or the other purpose. Along shore two life-boats are used, a heavy one, non-sinkable, self-righting and bailing, requiring ways for launching or a harbor from which to start, and alight, non-sinkable, self-righting boat. The former, however satisfactory in making a passage at sea, where its best points are shown, of course could not be handled by its unaided crew on the beach. Its weight, slowness under oars, and large crew are also great objections to its use for ordinary ship work or life-saving at sea, where the handiness of a light boat and small crew has been none too quick to save life on many an occasion. Every one has noticed how much more difficult it is to pick up an object on the water in a moderate sea with a heavy boat and large crew than with a light boat and small crew. The light surf boat, depending more upon the dexterity of its crew to avoid danger, still possesses no mean power of its own through sheer and buoyancy to keep the water out.
A life-boat's crew, though composed of picked men, have but little power compared with the forces against which they are sometimes obliged to contend. Though their boat may be self-righting, self-bailing, etc., so long as it is not self-propelling and self-directing, its weight must be kept down and handiness in steering made a prominent characteristic. Without these latter qualities the former are made absolutely necessary, for though the boat will doubtless perform its righting and bailing functions with clock-like precision, it is unable to avoid danger. Its destination is reached only after the expenditure of an enormous amount of labor and much precious time.
The qualities of a surf boat should include:—
1. Great sheer, with upper strakes flaring at bow and stern, to keep out as much of the crest of a passing breaker as possible, to support the boat when lifted by a wave, and to prevent the ends dipping under when sliding down a wave. For the same purposes, and to assist both bow and stern in buoyancy and consequent quick movement in answer to rising waves, weights should be kept out of the extreme ends of the boats.
2. The submerged part of the boat should offer the least possible resistance to turning. A wave, in broaching a boat to, acts on all parts of it similar to fixed rudders, keel, forefoot, run, and side. To resist this the coxswain relies upon the leverage of his steering oar. If the bottom of the boat is rounded and smoothed off in every direction, regardless of arbitrary rules of beauty or dismal prophecies, a type is obtained on which the water has the least hold for turning and the coxswain the greatest for directing. It will be almost a miracle if a heavy keel boat, once slightly turned and being carried back on the face of a breaker, can be righted unless the crew is well trained and succeed in holding it until the breaker slips under. The critical period with a keel boat in such a case is extremely short, for it catches at once on the under dead-water and trips as it is carried back until the gunwale dips under and the boat capsizes. Avery light, smooth-bottomed boat, however, is sometimes swept along before the breaker without capsizing. An incident comes to mind in which this fact is clearly illustrated. A man was sent ashore from the Ranger one day in the dory; mistaking his orders, he pulled directly for a party on the beach instead of the usual landing place. It was high tide and the surf was very heavy, so heavy that on reaching the outer line of breakers he gave up his purpose, and was about returning to the ship, when a very large breaker, combing over farther out than usual, gave the boat such a spin that the man tumbled off his thwart. Before he recovered himself the boat almost stood on end on the side of another swell, and an instant later was inside the line of breakers. The man struggled vainly to rise; he no sooner sat up and groped for his oars than the boat, dancing about like a cork, threw him down again. It darted in one direction at some wave's impetus, then being caught again was spun around and sent off in another whirling and zigzagging. In this manner the boat came rapidly in, coquetting with the breakers, yet never caught and held. Near the shore the surf was lighter, and several breakers passed, each causing it to ship a few pints of water. The man landed almost dry. This dory was about fifteen feet long, with high bow and stern, considerable flare, and gave no more resistance to lateral motion in the water than the well-inclined smooth sides offered. It was impossible to pin it down with side pressure, as it evaded it by motion in direction of its length.
The upper bow should be quite sharp, though not lean, to part the breaker after the boat has risen as far as possible, rather than oppose a flat resisting surface, tending to throw it back.
3. High freeboard, high, roomy thwarts, and favorable positions for oarsmen and coxswain in which to exert their strength. No one who has seen the crew of a navy whaleboat struggling in a moderate sea but has condemned for all such work low, cramped thwarts, crowded in the bow of the boat, and eighteen-foot oars inserted in rowlocks that clash and lose power on the back strokes. Swivel rowlocks should always be used when there is so great a chance of fouling the oars. The thwarts and rowlocks may be arranged so as to be shifted according to the duty; the lines of the boat should be such, however, that its speed and turning power is at its best when arranged for the surf. Then its propelling power should be nearly equally spaced about its centre of buoyancy, the thwarts three feet apart, the oars light and stiff. Passengers must stow themselves between the thwarts in the bottom of the boat. They should not be permitted to incommode the oarsmen, crowd the stern or foresheets, or sit upon the gunwale. The coxswain should have a platform sufficiently large to permit him to brace himself and use his strength freely on the steering oar. This should be broad, stiff, and not too long.
In most navy boats one-third, if not more, of the boat is taken up by the stern sheets, in which the cargo is carried. Of course, this load must always bear a certain relation to the weight of the crew, or the boat will not have her proper lines, being down at the head or at the stern, or in some one or more ways unfit for rough weather. To remove these objectionable features a radical departure must be made in the case of the surf boat. The cargo must be subordinated to the means of transportation, and so distributed as to increase the stability. The sides should be high enough not to take in water at every little roll or splash, and permit the crew to use their oars even when on the side of a wave. On troubled water, be it at sea or in the surf, a long oar is a nuisance. It cannot be handled quickly, it wears the men out, and in all its low length it is certain to strike on the back stroke, neutralizing its effect. If in addition it is springy, by the time the power is well applied in one direction the boat is turned or tilted and most of the stroke lost. The coxswain, too, is frequently loaded down with an oar, which, though excellent as a rudder, when the boat is pulled rapidly, must, when in the surf or moving slowly against a sea, be used as a lever for prying the stern around. It is evident, therefore, that we are reducing the coxswain's effective strength tor steering by every foot we put upon the blade beyond a certain point. At that point, the water being supposed immovable, he exerts the greatest effort on the stern rowlock, when standing on his platform. The size of the blade and length of the oar should therefore vary with every change in the height of the stern.
4. Lightness. As a rule, navy-built boats are not sufficiently light for surf work or for any protracted pull in a seaway. The lighter and more buoyant the boat, the more facile its obedience to every impulse of the waves and oars, and herein lies much of its safety. Instead of crashing through or taking aboard waves as a heavier boat would, it rises nimbly over or slips around them, taking in little or no water. In landing or launching, the crew can handle it easily, dragging it quickly up stony beaches out of the reach of the surf Above all, in a light boat the ratio of the weight moved to the power of the crew is less than in the case of the heavy one; and nowhere is this more evidently advantageous than in the ease with which the coxswain can direct it or the crew steady it on the dangerous side of a breaker.
5. Strength should not be obtained at the expense of lightness or any other desirable quality. It should be that of selected material and studied construction rather than of mere bulk. A surf boat is required to stand the shock of landing when full of water on bilge, stern, or forefoot, or on its gunwale when upside down, without opening its seams. It should stand the jar of a fall into the trough of the sea when sent at a good speed through a wave-crest, and support the rowlocks and thwarts with the men exerting their utmost strength. A towing post should be placed in the bow for veering surf line, and which may therefore be suddenly required to take the weight of the boat and its crew.
6. Buoyancy. Besides possessing natural buoyancy due to lightness, it should be fitted with air tanks, in bow and stern and along the sides under the thwarts, sufficiently large to support the boat full of water, crew, and cargo. An extreme type of surf boat would be similar to the Esquimau's kayak, in which there would be no room for water after the crew had taken their seats, all vacant spaces being filled up with tanks. A proper adjustment of the air tanks will render the boat self-righting; though that is of less importance in the surf, unless it is very wide and low. A crew once demoralized by being capsized, will hardly be able to regain control over their boat before it has drifted into the beach.
7. Size and crew. The larger the boat, if equally well handled, the less the effect of the breakers either for filling or capsizing it. On the other hand, a large boat is more difficult to handle. It requires more trained men; and the likelihood is not great that a crew will be preserved intact, despite sickness or other duty. Few ships would be able to man a double-banked boat with surf men. A single banked, six-oared whaleboat may be taken as the economical type in which the best proportion of skilled power to resistance is likely to be obtained.
Even in combining the qualities required in a surf boat, it will be found that many concessions must be made. If in addition it is required to possess all the varied qualities of a ship's boat, or, in fact, any one of them seriously conflicting with its special purpose, the result cannot be satisfactory. The combination has failed; the surf boat, if it is given a fair trial, must be something more than that in name. The mean between pleasure and cargo-carrying craft, built, it would seem, merely to exercise as many men as possible, with little or no thought of the possibility of rough weather, should not be taken as the standard ship's boat. If a surf or life-boat is required to conform to them in almost any particular, it will do so only by the sacrifice of important characteristics. On the other hand, their functions can be performed by the latter; in many respects more efficiently. Great sheer and freeboard are undoubtedly serious objections in pulling or sailing to windward, but they may be mitigated by using removable washboards and ballasting the boat, while a side board may to a degree take the place of an external keel.
A description of the passage of heavy surf, using a one-hundred-and-fifty-fathom whale-line and ninety-pound kedge, will best show some of the difficulties encountered, especially those likely to arise from the use of a long line. All unnecessary articles are taken out of the boat. The water breaker is tightly plugged and lashed down, as are all stretchers and two buckets for bailing. The men shift into light clothes without shoes. If the weather is sufficiently cold to require it, dry clothing may be carried in the air tanks, which should, however, be carefully inspected and all unnecessary articles removed. A hatchet, copper tacks, sheet lead, and a roll of felting should also be carried for use in case the boat is stove. If the beach is distant, it is well to go under sail, so as to keep the men fresh, buoying the sails and spars over the anchor outside the surf.
After carefully inspecting the surf and beach, the landing place is finally selected. Perhaps it is an open, flat, sand beach, on which the breakers are rolling in heavily every few seconds. The question now arises, How far out will the surf line permit the anchor to be dropped? If let go just outside the breakers, it may be necessary to pick it up in them when coming out, through its having dragged, the tide having fallen, or the swell increased. The anchor should be dropped far out, in order to give it plenty of room in which to drag. Moreover, as the coast current will sweep the boat down until the line tends over the bow, the longer it is for the same width of surf, the less angle will it make with the proper direction of the boat normal to the breakers. Having dropped the anchor, being careful to have it stocked, take in the bow oar, buoy sails, and pull in close to the outer breaker, turning around and heading out.
It is an open question whether any advantage is to be gained by making the after-oarsmen turn round on their thwarts. It is confusing, takes them from under the influence of the coxswain's eye, and, by making them face the surf, distracts their attention from the orders given behind their backs. In an expert crew, each man knowing his duty and performing it without special instructions, the advantages are all the other way; still, but few expert crews will be met with in the service.
On the verge of the breakers the bow oar hauls taut the surf line and sees it clear for running. The crew rests with oars apeak, the coxswain paddling gently to keep the boat headed out, waiting for the quiet spell that generally follows heavy breakers. Finally the heavy swells come rolling in, perhaps three of them, the second combing over just in rear of the boat. Veer as much as possible consistent with safety. To seaward all seems smooth outside the third breaker now speeding in. Its top grows sharper, and as it lifts and hastens, all along its lurching front is heard the seething of the spray. It strikes; the boat lifts to it, and almost at that instant its crest curves downward in a rounded sheet of falling water with a thundering crash. "Slack!" "Stern all!" and the boat flies in, the surf line humming out, and the men straining at the oars to preserve their position on the back of the wave. Ten seconds of this ride, and the friction of line and boat has retarded it sufficiently to let the breaker get away, but the long stretch of surf line on the foam-covered water behind is an encouraging evidence of the dangerous space passed. Now comes the crew's greatest need of experience and strength. Every effort is put forth to urge the boat in as far as possible before it is struck by the next breaker. Fragmentary and spontaneous breakers rise up in the troubled water, dividing or consolidating with others. In encounters with these the boat perhaps takes in a great deal of water. The surf line, nine-tenths of the time useless, retards continually. The boat has drifted down until the anchor is on the bow, and the great bight in the line, paid out to hasten progress, shows that it can no longer be depended on. Now and then in the froth a great breaker gathers, and the question arises whether by pulling out it can be reached before cresting over, or by backing in hard the boat can be kept ahead until it falls. In either case the decision must be made quickly. Perhaps it cannot be avoided; the instant before it reaches the boat the order is given, "Hold water!" "Peak!" The bow oarsman having, if possible, hauled in the slack of the surf line, takes two turns and lies back. The men crouch, throwing their oar-blades high in the air; the coxswain steers to the last, but the instant the breaker is on him also crouches, lifting his oar as far out of the water as possible.
The breaker falls, and in a moment the seething foam and water is rushing by, seemingly high above the gunwale. The boat has cut off the top of the breaker and is half full of water. The bow oar has been thrown on his face by the weight of falling water and upward lift of the boat. It may be that the shock is so great that some of the crew are flung into the stern sheets. If the line is taut and the anchor holds, the breaker passes on, leaving the boat demoralized, but still able to hold its own in the lighter surf. A bight in the line is fatal; the boat moves bodily to the rear in the tumbling water, slowly turning and canting. But the instant the breaker falls, the oars can be used, and unless the water-logged boat is too sluggish, it is again brought head to sea. Stern all again, the passengers bail. Breaker after breaker passes until swirling eddies and light cross surf are met close to the beach. Each breaker has left its quota of water, and it may now be up to the thwarts, with the current setting the boat down the beach at a rapid rate. In this condition it is easily capsized if not landed end on and at once steadied by the crew. On touching bottom all hands peak oars, sliding the looms under the opposite rails to hold them clear of the water, and jump overboard, running the lightened boat up on the beach. Stray oars may injure some one or be snapped under the bilge: it takes too long to get them in the boat, but they can be instantly secured out of the way by peaking.
It is very important that the oars should be lifted clear of the water when the boat is struck by a breaker. It is impossible, even with a taut surf line, to prevent the boat springing back a little under the shock, when, if the oars are in the dead-water, they are almost certain to fling the crew on their faces and the coxswain overboard. At that time oars are of no use; if the boat is not head on it is too late. It is impossible to row up such a perpendicular wall of water; but the instant the boat is lifted, whether it is being carried along or not, every available oar should be employed to direct it.
In going out, the time of start, though important, is less so than when coming in, as it may be possible to pull half way out without fear of meeting dangerous surf. If a surf line is used, take the boat up the beach until it appears that when carried down by the current and hauled out at the same time it will reach the dangerous space with the line fair to the anchor. Station two active, powerful men to haul in the line, as more progress will be made in this way than if they took oars. The four after-oarsmen steady the boat, standing in the water opposite their thwarts, oars apeak. Put the passengers aboard, haul taut the line, and commence walking out the boat, the coxswain at the stern. As soon as the boat leaves the bottom the men climb in and take their oars, pointing them to prevent drift until ready to start. The intention is so to time the arrival of the boat at the outer line that no heavy breakers will be met at that point. Varying width of surf and speed of boat makes this difficult of attainment.
At the start the men pulling and hauling force the boat rapidly through the water. Irregular waves splash into the boat; later they become too large to be pulled through without taking much water aboard. It is then best to check headway, tauten the line, and peak oars as the breaker passes. So the boat works out, obviously passing many more breakers than when coming in. Gradually the filling boat becomes sluggish, difficult to pull and steer. In this condition it is almost certain to be capsized if slightly turned. The admirable buoyancy and quickness is gone; it scarcely rises to the swell, but dumbly takes every swash aboard. Or, suppose while still in the midst of the surf the current has swept the boat below the anchor. The line now tends over the bow and can no longer be used; indeed, it is a source of danger, its bight tending to turn the boat even when allowed to drag freely.
It is now better to go back, bail out, and try again, than to struggle on and risk an almost certain capsize in the heavier breakers. The idea is prevalent that to pass a breaker it is necessary to charge it. That is the safest policy only before or at the instant the swell breaks, or in case a breaker is so light that it is certain the boat will ride it. A properly pointed boat will suffer less disorganization if permitted to await a heavy breaker which it cannot hope to ride, than if it is rammed into it. In either case the crest will fall into the boat, which will be swept back some distance.
With men who can swim, and a good buoyant boat, a capsize is not necessarily a dangerous accident unless it occurs far out, in very heavy surf, or when the surf line is used. The latter is always a danger in going out. Suppose the boat has reached the outer line of breakers into which the anchor has dragged: owing to the current it is impossible to strike it fairly, and the line will have to be under run, seriously exposing the boat for some moments. Caught in this predicament, it may be necessary to cut the line in order to get out. Or, suppose just at the last moment the boat capsizes, with one hundred and fifty fathoms of surf line loosely coiled in the bow and a couple of turns around the towing post. Bights fall through one another, and after the rolling boat has been swept in twenty to fifty fathoms, an immense knot forms somewhere under the surface, holding it in heavy surf. The men right the boat again and again, endeavoring to free the line, but their strength becoming exhausted, one after another is torn away and swept on toward the beach—lucky indeed if they succeed in reaching it. In such a case the line should be cut at once; the possibility of clearing it may be discussed afterward. A buoyant boat will come in to the beach with the crew hanging on almost as fast as the breakers.
There are occasions when a surf line may be absolutely necessary, as when veering in a heavy boat; but it always creates special difficulties and dangers. It pulls the bow down when rising to a heavy swell, and if the sheer is great, tends to capsize it around its longer axis. Though excellent for a few seconds when going ashore, after that it is a nuisance, cumbering the boat and increasing its weight. A knife or hatchet should always be at hand, ready to cut it in case it jams, the boat capsizes, or it is necessary to abandon the anchor.
Many of these objections apply to the drogue, which, though useful to steady sail and rowboats moving rapidly in a wide but moderate surf, is not of much account when the surf is narrow and heavy. This is because its resistance, increasing only with motion, does not accumulate until the boat has been carried back and perhaps capsized. The ability to trip renders it unnecessary to carry a very long line, but then it is necessary to drag it after the boat when inverted.
Surf is dangerous, according to the boat and crew, when it is able to sweep the former back on its face in spite of the efforts of the latter. With a smooth-bottomed boat and skilful maneuvering it may be possible to escape capsizing, but at such a time nothing can take the place of a surf line and well-bedded anchor.