The beaches many times were "clad with ice" and, at best, were "pathless deserts in the night." Often times "the soft sand, bewildering snowfalls, overwhelming winds, and bitter cold," threatened to stop the men. Surfmen bundled up in oilskins and carried a patrol clock, if patrols did not overlap, and a pouch of coston signals. The coston signal was much like a flare and was used to warn ships that were approaching too close to the beach, or to let grounded ships know that they had been spotted and help was on the way. Mariners were fortunate that beach patrols were run in all weather. In 1899, for example, surfmen burning coston signals warned off 143 ships in danger of running aground.
In October of the same year, Surfman Rasmus Midgett, of the Gull Shoals, North Carolina, Station, accomplished the amazing feat of rescuing ten people single-handedly from the wrecked Priscilla while on patrol.
The greatest days of the Service covered the ten years from 1871 to 1881. These were the years of its greatest growth and some of its greatest rescues were performed luring this period. As the nineteenth century began to edge closer to the twentieth, however, two major problems began to develop for the Service. First, with the advent of steam powered ships, the age of sail was coming to an end. With improved navigational technology, ships were less at the mercy of the wind and were in less danger of being driven into the beach. Secondly, at the turn of the century, the U.S. Life-Saving Service noted the increase of gasoline powered small boats, especially those used for recreational purposes. For example, the amount of cases involving these boats increased fifty-eight percent from 1905 to 1914. The Service was not equipped for this type of work. To be sure, it had experimented with motor lifeboats as early as 1899. Keeper Henry Clare, of the Marquette, Michigan, Station tested a 34-foot lifeboat equipped with a two cylinder, twelve horsepower Superior engine. By 1905, twelve power boats were in operation. It was, however, too little too late. The Service was essentially set up to move boats, or beach apparatus, by cart to the site of a major shipwreck. The procedures required to do this were fast enough for sailing and steam ships, but not for large numbers of pleasure boats.
Other problems developed. There was no retirement system, nor any compensation for injured crewmen. Salaries became too low to attract new men and, with no retirement, it became difficult to gain promotion. By 1914 there "were instances of keepers in their seventies manning the customary sweep oar while the strokes were manned by men in their sixties."
In 1914, after years of trying to obtain a retirement system, Kimball agreed that a merger of the U.S. Revenue Cutter System and the U.S. Life-Saving Service would be best for both services and the country.