Some objects at the Eastham Historical Society’s Schoolhouse Museum are oddly familiar — antique versions of things we use now. Others, like the faking box, are illegible to contemporary eyes, their utility belonging purely to the past.
The rectangular box, about two feet by three feet, is a relic of the United States Life-Saving Service and its techniques for rescuing shipwreck victims in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Sitting under a glass display case, the faking box is lined with foot-long wooden dowels along its periphery. “Faking” is a nautical term for the laying down of a rope in careful coils. The purpose of the box was to contain a long line in such a way that it could be shot out to a distressed boat without getting snarled.
The wooden dowels provided a structure around which the line was threaded in a zig-zag diagonal pattern rising upward in an intricate tiered form that looks like a fancy sheet cake. As with all well-designed objects, it’s both beautiful and utilitarian.
On display at the museum, the faking box and its contents appear neat and tidy. But that wasn’t the case before this summer. “It was a mess,” says Marca Daley, the museum’s curator. Bringing it out of storage, someone had dropped the box. “I didn’t know where to start,” she says.
One of the museum guides suggested that she reach out to David Bromley, who runs the Stihl rental shop at Ace Hardware in Eastham. Bromley, a former firefighter, participates in reenactments of the drills once practiced by surfmen at the old lifesaving stations on the Outer Cape. He and his wife, Marcia Bromley, inspected the damage and found a task larger than they expected.
“We thought we would just have to refake the box,” says Marcia, referring to the tedious process of weaving the line through the dowels, but the project proved more involved.
David took the box to his basement woodshop in Eastham where he began a restoration that involved gluing together the cracked base and repairing and securing the dowels, which were askew and unable to hold the line in place.
The Bromleys are enthusiasts of Cape Cod’s seagoing history. Marcia, who grew up in Chatham, often went to the beach near the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station and remembers when it was moved by a barge to Race Point in Provincetown in 1977. She is also versed in the story of the Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG-36500, the vessel used in the rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, which broke in half in a storm off Chatham in 1952. The incident was made famous in The Finest Hours. (Marcia prefers the book. “The movie is about 40 percent accurate,” she says.) A pendant of the boat hangs around her neck, and a ceramic sculpture of the vessel — a present from David — is displayed in her kitchen.
The Bromleys had their first foray into historical restoration when they were called on to repair its windscreen. “We saw that boat in Chatham, and I went down and put my hand on it, and the boat said, ‘Yep, you’re gonna take care of me,’ ” says Marcia.
The Bromleys were familiar with the purpose and design of the faking box because they use one in reenactments of breeches buoy rescues organized by the National Seashore at the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station on Thursdays in July and August. “The box can hold half a mile of line,” says David, who plays surfman Edwin P. Ellis in the reenactments.
To deploy it, surfmen would flip the box over so that the dowels point down on the sand. Then the wooden base to which the dowels are affixed is lifted, and the rope falls into the box in an orderly pile. One end of the rope is then attached to a projectile that a brass Lyle gun would shoot toward a distressed ship. In reenactments, the line is shot at a vertical mast that stands in the sand.
Crew members on wrecks would tie the line to a ship’s mast and set up a pulley system for hauling equipment to the vessel and carrying the ship’s crew to safety. In these so-called breeches buoy rescues, crew members would step into a pair of breeches hung from the rope and be hauled landward as if on a sort of zipline ride.
This system of rescuing sailors was practiced on Cape Cod from 1872, when the U.S. Life-Saving Service was established, until 1963, when the Coast Guard stopped using the method.
By 1902, there were 13 lifesaving stations on Cape Cod, each manned by a keeper and six to eight surfmen, according to a 1988 report prepared for the Cape Cod National Seashore by Peggy A. Albee.
In 1915, the Life-Saving Service was incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard, which continued the work of saving shipwrecked sailors along Cape Cod’s stormy coast. Gradually the old stations were decommissioned, though today three Coast Guard stations on Cape Cod are part of this legacy.
In the days when faking boxes and breeches buoys were used to rescue sailors, the keeper or number one surfman would be the man to shoot the line from the faking box to the ship. Good aim was crucial. But at the end of the rescue, refaking the line was one of the least desirable jobs. “It was usually a punishment for a low man on the totem pole,” says Marcia. Nonetheless, all members of the rescue team needed to know how to do every job.
“These guys trained and trained and trained,” says David. The last recorded use of the old system on Cape Cod was in 1962, when it was used in Provincetown to rescue the crew of the Margaret Rose, a Gloucester dragger.
In 1984, when David was working as a firefighter, he responded to a call for a freighter wreck in Orleans. He headed to the Orleans Historical Society to get their breeches buoy equipment just in case, but a helicopter ended up rescuing the crew.
Should it ever be needed, the faking box at the Eastham Historical Society is in top shape. But Eastham’s faking box serves a different purpose now. It’s a reminder of the heroic men who saved lives on our perilous shores.
“These men represent an age so different from what we have now,” says Marcia. “They put their lives on the line to save people they’d never met.” And it recalls a time, she notes, when “everyone in this community had someone at sea.”