In the 19th century, during and after Nantucket’s heyday as the whaling capital of the world, the dangerous waters surrounding the island were responsible for over 700 shipwrecks. The island is surrounded by shallow shoals, coupled with strong currents. Add in the dense fog that settles around Cape Cod and the islands in the fall and winter months, and even the most experienced captain ran a high risk of wrecking or running aground.
The Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, operated by the nonprofit Egan Maritime Institute, tells the history of those shipwrecks and the brave rescue workers who risked their lives to save shipwrecked mariners. The museum building was built in 1968, making it the oldest museum focused on the history of maritime safety and lifesaving. The museum’s exterior is built in the style of classic U.S. Lifesaving Stations, operated by the United States Life-Saving Service.
The history of American maritime safety began in 1786 when a group of Bostonians founded the Massachusetts Humane Society to aid with the frequent injuries and deaths resulting from shipwrecks and overboard drownings. The service was volunteer-run and based on the British Royal Humane Society. It offered tools and best practices for rescuing individuals as well as rewards for people who successfully saved people in the state’s waters. In 1848, Congress established the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which became the Coast Guard in 1915, based upon the model the Massachusetts Humane Society established.
Throughout the 1800s, lifesaving stations were manned seasonally by full-time crews. In most instances of shipwrecks, small boats are needed to maneuver through heavy surf, so crewmen had to perform open beach launches in small surfboats. In instances when a surfboat could not be launched safely, crewman could also use a breeches buoy. A breeches buoy is a lifebuoy with canvas breeches attached, suspended from a rope and used to transfer a person to safety from a ship, similar to a zip-line.
The Nantucket museum houses over 5,000 historical objects, including surfboats, ship’s quarterboards, Fresnel lens from two of the island’s lighthouses, and other maritime safety equipment. The building is adjacent to Folger’s Marsh. A small children’s play area, picnic area, and walking trails offer an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful setting.