'You Don’t Have to Come Back': Life and Death in the Waters of Point Reyes

9 min
A foggy day at the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station (Carly Severn/KQED)

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“You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back” -- motto attributed to the Life Saving Service, 19th century

The words “California coast” conjure a certain image -- sun-drenched beaches, warm waters -- in the popular imagination. Point Reyes National Seashore, 50 miles north of San Francisco, does not fit that image.

One of the foggiest, windiest places in North America, for hundreds of years this stretch of the Pacific Ocean has posed incredible danger to seafarers. And hidden away inland, just off the road to Point Reyes’ famous lighthouse, there’s a tiny burial ground that conveys the human cost of this rugged, treacherous coastline.

The graves of the four "surfmen" in Point Reyes at the Historic Life-Saving Station Cemetery (Carly Severn/KQED)

The Historic Life-Saving Station Cemetery is concealed within a knoll of cypress and eucalyptus trees, and most visitors drive right past it. Here, simple headstones mark the bodies of four young immigrants from Sweden, Finland and Germany. Known as “surfmen”, they were members of what was then called the Life Saving Service -- what we now know as the United States Coast Guard. All four lost their lives working in Point Reyes in the 1890s.

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From the cemetery, you can just see the exact stretch of coastline on which those surfmen spent their last months at Point Reyes’ very first Life-Saving Station. This area is known as the Great Beach.

“That is the most treacherous stretch of water out here,” says John Dell’Osso, who has worked in Point Reyes for the National Park Service for 35 years.

The 12 mile stretch of coastline known as the Great Beach, where Point Reyes' first-ever Life-Saving Station was built (Carly Severn/KQED)

Point Reyes stretches out 10 miles from the mainland into the Pacific Ocean, resulting in its infamous high coastal winds and thick shrouding fogs. Even the logbooks of Sir Francis Drake’s ship in 1579 complain of "the stinking fogges" here.

This is where the first recorded shipwreck on the West Coast occurred: a Spanish galleon, torn on the rocks in 1595. Until the lighthouse was built in 1870, sailors on these waters making the turn into San Francisco Bay had no warning of the jagged land they were about to strike.

The Park Service says that before the Life-Saving Station was built around 1890, the beaches were littered with shipwrecks -- that residents often had to watch as those passengers and crew drowned  in the waters in front of them. They couldn’t go in because in a place like Point Reyes, the surf is the thing that will kill you.

The original Point Reyes Life-Saving Station (1889-1927) at which the four surfmen would have served, (Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

We don’t know a lot about the young men lying in the cemetery, but we know how dangerous, punishing and isolating their work was in the Life Saving Service. At the Point Reyes Lighthouse, says Dell’Osso, winds “have been clocked at 133 miles per hour. We close the [visitor] stairs at 40 miles per hour because you can barely stand in that condition.” Regardless, he says, “if there was a rescue to be done, these individuals did it.”

There were no motorized boats, or radios, or powerful searchlights like the Coast Guard has today. These men were dragging their small lifeboats across the hard sand, through mounds of driftwood, and rowing out to shipwrecks by hand, in swells that could reach as high as 12 feet.

“If you've ever seen some of the stormy conditions in the Point Reyes Seashore when we have pounding surf coming in,” says Dell’Osso, "it's frightening to think that they did that.”

A surfboat launch at Drakes Bay in Point Reyes, circa 1900 (Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

Often, when the waves prevented the surfmen’s rowboat from reaching a sinking ship, they would have to rescue the passengers one by one using a “breeches buoy”: a pair of thick, wide pants sewn into a life-ring.

It was into this that an exhausted, freezing, wet survivor would slide their legs and be hauled over to safety, high above the raging waves.

An original "breeches buoy" in the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock (Carly Severn/KQED)

When they weren’t making rescues, these men were relentlessly training -- ready to launch themselves into the ocean at a moment’s notice. So dangerous was their work that the four surfmen lying in the cemetery didn’t even die making a rescue, but in training.

Fred Carstens, of Germany, and Andrew Anderson, a Swede, died on a freezing December morning in 1890, as they were pulling their training boat back onto shore. According to the station’s logbooks, a huge breaker rose and overturned the vessel onto them, inflicting  massive internal injuries.

The account of the accident in the Sausalito News relates how Anderson in particular was dragged from the surf “insensible, with the blood pouring from his mouth.” Both men died within hours.

A "breeches buoy' rescue, circa 1912 (Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

Over two years later, the second Swede, George Larson, died in the same spot, in exactly the same way. Yet their Finnish crewmate, John Korpala, wasn’t anywhere near a boat when he died in 1891. After hours patrolling the freezing wet beach, he went to bed with chills and never woke up. The coroner’s verdict was a hemorrhage in his lungs.

“I think they were kind of a different breed of individuals,” says Dell’Osso. “So I'm not sure if they were frightened, or they were, like, gung-ho to go out.”

Regardless, he says, their story is one “about lives of sacrifice and service. And that's that's exactly what they did.”

Life-Saving team at Point Reyes, date unknown (National Maritime Museum, San Francisco/Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

At the turn of the century, the Lifesaving Service was combined with the United States Revenue Cutter Service to form the Coast Guard we know today. In 1927, the station was moved to Chimney Rock, away from the deadly surf of the Great Beach.

This Lifeboat Station still stands today, complete with pier and “marine railway” tracks used to launch the agency’s new motorized lifeboats. Although it demonstrates just a few decades' technological advancement, this newer building is a world away from the hand-dragged rowboats commanded by the earlier surfmen.

Today, only the tiny cemetery a few miles away bears witness to the life and work of those first rescuers. Yet the reason that the four surfmen are buried here, of all places, lies a little further up that hill in the form of more headstones -- all belonging to a local Swedish family.

Driftwood on the Great Beach of Point Reyes. On foggy days like this, visibility is minimal. (Carly Severn/KQED)

Back when the surfmen died, the land belonged to a dairy rancher called Peter Henry Claussen. This is the Claussen family graveyard, on the historic G Ranch, and he made space here “realizing that there was no [other] place to bury these individuals -- and they were for the most part very young men,” according to Dell’Osso. Claussen himself is buried here, too.

Claussen’s gift doesn’t attract too much attention these days, and it’s often mistakenly attributed to his own father, Hinrik, who by then had been dead for several decades.

John Dell'Osso, National Park Service chief interpretation officer, in front of Point Reyes' Historic Life-Saving Cemetery (Carly Severn/KQED)

As for Claussen's motives for donating this land on his own family’s burial plot, a place he’d already buried his father and his wife, it’s generally assumed he felt a sense of duty to fellow immigrants -- the community’s young local heroes with no real family in the United States.

Only a tribute to him in the Marin Journal, written by a friend in 1915 just after his death, may offer a little further insight.

In it we learn that Claussen himself had been a sailor, from the age of 15 -- that it was men like him that the surfmen sacrificed their lives to rescue. He was also no stranger to the terror of life-saving, having assisted in the rescue effort when a British ship called the Warrior Queen ran aground in Point Reyes back in 1874.

A sign off the highway points to the knoll of trees that hides the Historic Life-Saving Station Cemetery (Carly Severn/KQED)

The tribute also makes clear how tight-knit the Scandinavian community at Point Reyes was in those days, asserting that “all the Scandinavians on Point Reyes called him not Captain but 'Papa Claussen.' They came to him for advice, sympathy, and comfort, which he never denied them.”

So perhaps the four immigrant surfmen weren’t just courageous strangers to Claussen. These young men may have been his friends.

But perhaps it’s right that a place as hidden, and still as this, keeps a few secrets yet.

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