141 Years of Service: Setting the Watch in Delaware

This photo shows the Indian River U.S. Life-Saving Station museum which was converted into a Coast Guard station, Jan. 25, 2018
The Life-Saving Service became the Coast Guard when the services merged in 1915 and saw continued use until 1962, when a storm caused damage and prompted the service to build a larger station nearby.

The Coast Guard has grown a lot from its original roots, both technologically and in capability, but in many ways, there’s really a whole bunch that hasn’t changed – just improved.

Sure – we have fast boats that float and self-righting ones as well. We have helicopters and airplanes – but do you know what really hasn’t changed? It’s the one  thing most Coasties have done at one time or another – Standing watch.

Seaman Romeo Hollins, a member of Coast Guard Station Indian River stands watch, listening to marine radio for distress calls, so he may alert crewmembers to quickly respond to a variety of situations at a moment’s notice, Jan. 25, 2018.

Standing watch in the Coast Guard, whether it was on a lightship, guiding the way for mariners in storms, or tending a flame to guide ships into safe harbor, is a part of the job that continues to this day – keeping a vigil over shipmates and mariners in alike, ensuring the call for help is received, and likewise answered.

The U.S. Life Saving Service did this a really long time ago. U.S. Life Saving Station Indian River Inlet was built in 1876, and in 1915, the station became part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Members at Live Saving Station Indian River Inlet might have had different equipment, but largely standing duty was pretty similar.

“They would stand four hour watches for the most part. Members would maintain and train during the day and at night they would stand four hour watches where one person would stand atop the station in a cupola and watch for distress signals,” said Laura Scharle, site manager for the Indian River Inlet Life Saving Station. “During the night, one member would walk north along the beach to meet with the Rehoboth Beach members and they would trade a badge to prove they conducted their walk – the other member would walk south and punch a time card on a watch clock by turning a key.”

Early morning light fills the room at U.S. Life-Saving Service Station Indian River, illuminating the surf boat members would use to rescue mariners in distress, Jan. 25, 2018.

Scharle said that maintenance and readiness were key items in the regime of the station members and that the ability to maintain readiness allowed the station to conduct rescues quickly and efficiently. Members would eat and sleep at the station, creating a tight-knit bond between the highly trained crew.

Only minutes from the station, is the second generation home of the Coast Guard – Station Indian River Inlet, which actually was built after a storm came through and deposited seven feet of sand on the old Life Saving Station in 1962. These days Coast Guard members keep many of the same traditions of duty as their forefathers did well over 140 years ago.

Members of Coast Guard Station Indian River fold the American flag during evening colors, Jan. 25, 2018.

What was once a person with binoculars, or marine glasses as they called them, in a cupola watching for flares, has morphed into capabilities like the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 System, which can triangulate calls for help and GPS technology allows rescuers to see where trouble has struck, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Chase Aycock, a boatswain’s mate and command duty officer at Station Indian River Inlet.

“We also stand four hour watches while we are on duty. We listen for calls for help over radio and our phone, and during the daytime we train in a variety of ways to make sure we’re ready to answer the call for help if it’s made,” said Aycock. “The purpose of standing watch hasn’t really changed much throughout the course of history. You need to be ready to respond at a moments notice.”


U.S. Coast Guard Station Indian River is basked in a sunset while members stand watch, Jan. 25, 2018.
U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 1st Class Seth Johnson

Aycock says the big difference from the old days to the present, are the layers that the Coast Guard operates in. Where in the past one team of people had the sole responsibility to get mariners in danger to shore, the Coast Guard can provide aerial support and augment the Coast Guard’s capability to locate people in distress and affect rescues.

So while the times and technology changes, even after 140 years in Indian River, the watchstander remains an integral part of maintaining readiness and guarding the safety of life at sea.

In this photo illustration, a Coast Guard member re-creates a nighttime shore patrol that would have been conducted by U.S. Life Saving Service on the beaches of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jan. 25, 2018.