Isaac Mayo — Surfman, Gold Life-Saving Medal recipient and FRC namesake

By Timothy R. Dring, Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve Retired, U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association


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As it has for its other famous heroes, the U.S. Coast Guard has commissioned a new Fast Response Cutter named for Isaac F. “Ike” Mayo, who received the Congressional Gold Life-Saving Medal for heroism during the rescue of survivors from a shipwreck. This essay provides what is known about Isaac Mayo. This includes his life, volunteer service in the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (a.k.a., Massachusetts Humane Society or MHS), his famous rescue, and later generations of his family who served in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) as well as the Coast Guard for years after his rescues. 

Isaac Franklin Mayo was born on Sept. 28, 1826, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, to parents Joshua and Betsey Mayo. The Mayo family, among a number of families that first settled in Provincetown, located at the northern end of Cape Cod. On July 23, 1848, at the age of 21, Isaac married Esther T. Small, and, over their 64 years of marriage, they had four children, the oldest unfortunately dying early in adolescence.  

Isaac Mayo had the reputation of being a very competent and professional mariner, as well as a very kind and compassionate citizen of Provincetown. Provincetown was and still is one of the important seaports that supports the coastal fishing industry in New England. At an early age, Isaac had established himself as a professional mariner, fisherman, and local businessman. Over the years that he sailed out of Provincetown, he was the master (captain) of four different sailing vessels, most of which were engaged in the coastal fishing industry or coastal cargo carrying trade. He also owned, or was part owner, of three vessels. 

A Volunteer Surfman in the Massachusetts Humane Society 

Like many other local mariners on Cape Cod, Isaac Mayo volunteered his professional services as a sailor and boatman to the Massachusetts Humane Society. He quickly proved himself to be a very competent surfman handling boats to rescue shipwreck victims in Cape Cod’s storm surf. One early example was his direct involvement as leader and coxswain of the MHS volunteer crew (consisting of Mayo, then 30 years old; Isaiah Young who later joined the U.S. Life-Saving Service; Amos Chapman; Otis Lovering; and Richard Chapman) that rescued the five surviving crewmembers of the schooner Clarendon on Jan. 5 1856. The Clarendon had run aground during a storm about 400-yards off the beach along the back shore of Provincetown. Utilizing the local MHS surfboat, it took four attempts to launch through the storm surf, after which they pulled alongside the shipwreck to take off the survivors. For this, all five of the rescuers were awarded the MHS silver medal for bravery.  

Rescuing survivors of the Sarah J. Fort

At about 1 a.m., on April 4 1879, the three-masted schooner Sarah J. Fort with a crew of six men ran aground during a severe winter snowstorm. The schooner lodged on a sandbar about 500-yards off the beach a little over a mile away from U.S. Life-Saving Station Peaked Hill Bars on Cape Cod. Carrying a heavy cargo of coal, the schooner quickly came apart in the storm surf. Although pieces of the ship were noticed along the beach, the shipwreck was not seen by the beach patrol due to the darkness and heavy blowing snow. Finally, at around 3 a.m., one of the surfmen patrolling the beach saw the schooner and quickly returned to the station to alert the crew. 

Station Peaked Hill Bars had only recently received a new Lyle gun and projectiles. In theory, this gun could have fired a projectile with a messenger line 500-yards out to the shipwreck for the purposes of rigging a breeches buoy apparatus. Keeper David Atkins, however, decided instead to use the station’s older Parrott gun which he thought might reach the ship. While setting up the Parrott gun, the crew of Peaked Hill Bars was joined by crewmembers of the nearby Race Point and Highland lifesaving stations.  

In the meantime, the Sarah J. Fort began breaking up, with the hull almost totally underwater. The ship’s three masts broke off one by one leaving only the foremast where the crew had initially taken refuge from the surf. Despite firing a messenger line from the beach to the wreck with the Parrott gun, none succeeded. By noon on the 4th, the foremast broke off, taking two crewmembers overboard to their deaths and forcing the remaining four crewmembers to seek shelter on the ship’s bow, which was barely above water. 

At this point, Keeper Atkins ordered the station crew to bring their 26-foot-long Jersey-type pulling surfboat on its wagon from the station to the beach near the wreck site. Using a mixed crew of surfmen from the different stations, Atkins attempted to launch from the beach to row out to the wreck. On the first attempt, the surfboat was completely swamped and had to return to the beach to be bailed out. On the second attempt, the surfboat was again swamped, but was also thrown by the surf back onto the beach causing such hull damage that the Jersey surfboat was no longer useable. 

In the meantime, Provincetown’s citizenry, including Isaac Mayo had gathered on the beach near the wreck site, bringing with them the Massachusetts Humane Society’s lifeboat. This was the same lifeboat used in the 1856 Clarendon rescue and was housed near Provincetown at the Race Point Lighthouse. Unlike the Jersey model, this boat was more like a whaleboat in design, having a more robust but slightly heavier hull structure than the Jersey model. Given that the crews of the U.S. Life-Saving Service stations were now exhausted and suffering from exposure, Isaac Mayo took the initiative. He served as coxswain and selected several volunteers (some of whom had served as MHS volunteer surfmen) to man the lifeboat, including Murdoch Kemp, Allen McLeod, Kenneth McPhee, Murdock Chisholm, and Benjamin Atkins.