Tidewater Traveler - December 2010


A Beach Head
George W. Sellers


Jim rubs sleep from his eyes and adjusts the lantern to better focus on the logbook where he will record the beginning of his watch. His fingers grip the stylus and form the entry - 2 a.m., Thursday, December 3, 1890. Jim secures his boots and seaman’s coat, hoping they will protect him from the harsh northeast wind and rain that the Atlantic Ocean is sending his way tonight. He checks the fuel level in his lantern, and just before leaving the warmth of the station, he picks up the token that he will exchange with his counterpart six miles down the beach.
Word has come to the Seatack Life-Saving Station No. 2 that there may be a couple of cargo ships nearing the coast this night, easing their way toward the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and its wealth of harbor ports. The Bay’s entrance is wide, but darkness and bad weather can challenge the best plans of a ship’s captain.
Icy cold air pierces Jim’s being as soon as he steps onto the sand. A night like this makes him wonder why he continues to love this job; but he does, and he knows the occasional payoff is worth the sacrifice. It’s about a 200 yard trek across loose beach sand to reach the surf, where the sand will become firmer and walking will become easier. Tonight the noise of the surf is deafening. When he reaches the firmer walking surface close to the ocean, he turns right and heads south. His goal - walk six miles south; meet his counterpart who will have walked six miles north from Station No 3; exchange tokens; then walk six miles back to his home station for a hot breakfast and some rest. Jim and his coworkers have covered their stretch of beach thousands of times seeking to offer aid and assistance to any who have become victims of a furious sea.
About two miles into his watch, the light from Jim’s lantern illuminates a splintered plank washing back and forth in the surf; could be nothing. A few hundred yards farther, and more scattered debris comes into sight. Jim has seen signs like this before; he becomes concerned. He picks up an item for a closer look and realizes that he is holding a piece of wood that has not been long in the water. His ears receive no clues over the sound of the surf and wind; the darkness prevents him from seeing beyond the dim glow of his lantern.
Holding the lantern low to the ground, Jim notices some marks in the sand that could have been made by someone crawling out of the surf. He follows the marks up the beach, where the crawl marks become footprints. He continues to follow the prints toward the dune line. If the sand were not so cold and damp, the footprints would probably have vanished long ago. He reaches the front edge of the dune and sees nothing. He has lost the trail of prints and he sees no sign of a person having been here. Frustrated, he turns to make his way back to the surf; when he does, the glow from his lantern reveals a heart-stopping scene. Less than a yard from his boots is a head – a human head - lying on the sand! Jim’s training has not prepared him for the horror he is feeling. But before he can react to the initial discovery, he notices the eyelids flutter and hears a weak groan. Jim realizes he has come across a shipwreck survivor who has made it ashore and buried himself in the sand at the edge of the dune, hoping to find protection from the harsh December elements.
I am sure that stories like this are often embellished with time and repetition (I have done so myself in this example), but when I heard this tale related by our host at the Old Coast Guard Station in Virginia Beach, I gained a new appreciation for the role of lifeguards as the profession existed in the late 1800s and into the twentieth century. Seatack Life-Saving Station No. 2 later became the Virginia Beach Life-Saving Station and in 1915 was renamed the Virginia Beach Coast Guard Station No. 162.
Today you can stroll the three-mile-long, wide, clean, beautiful boardwalk of Virginia Beach, and when you reach 24th Street you will see the Old Coast Guard Station. It will be worth your time to go in and see the exhibits and artifacts of early life-saving techniques. The Beach Head story is just an example of how the museum guides can bring history to life. Before visiting the Station and museum, I had no idea that so many shipwrecks occurred very close to the Virginia-Maryland-Delaware coast.
My experience at the Old Coast Guard Station came during a recent familiarization visit as a guest of the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. Having lived most of my life within a four-hour driving distance of Virginia Beach, I have really never given it much consideration as a destination. For years Virginia Beach has been a place to drive past on the way to some other destination. It usually gets not much more than a quick glance to the south from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to see the beachfront skyline. But my recent immersion into the region has changed my outlook. I now look forward to recommending Virginia Beach as a nearby getaway destination that can capture the interest of all ages.
Many outsiders probably still believe, as I did, that Virginia Beach is a commercial beach strip and not much more. I was amazed to learn that Virginia Beach covers a huge geographic area and that much of it is actually quite rural. Because Virginia Beach had no real commercial/governmental focal point (other than the beach and boardwalk), a few years ago a new, multi-block City Centre was built featuring specialty shopping, themed dining and luxury condominium living, with The Sandler Center for the Performing Arts as an anchor. Tucked away in the corn fields of the southern reaches of Virginia Beach is the Military Aviation Museum, home to one of the largest private collections of World War 2- and Korean War-era fighters, bombers, trainers and seaplanes - more about this awesome museum in a future article.
It is still the beachfront boardwalk that draws throngs to enjoy the ocean. Interestingly, Virginia Beach’s boardwalk is not commercialized. It is a pristine, fresh-feeling promenade that features the beach, the sky and the ocean. Eateries, amusements, beach shops and other commercial entities are found a short block west of the boardwalk. Every evening in December the boardwalk is open to cars and buses for a slow drive through three miles of holiday lighting displays.
During this trip, Virginia Beach’s sister city, Norfolk, also pleasantly surprised me with all it has to offer as a drive-to destination from mid-Delmarva. So much to write – so little time and space – more next month!
May all of your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel website and travel planning service www.SellersTravel.com.