On sunny days, the restored Indian River Life Saving Station might seem as unpleasant a destination as it was in the 1800s, when six surfmen and a keeper kept a lonely vigil, waiting for the next shipwreck.
Who wants to go to a museum, after all, when Elvis is strolling the boardwalk just down the road in Ocean City, when the beach in nearby Rehoboth practically begs you to spread a towel, and when the sun--oh, that beautiful sunshine--beats down on the white sand?
But during a gloomy week like this, with Tropical Storm Dennis hugging the Carolina coast and kicking up enough wind and surf here to close the beaches to swimmers, the Indian River Life Saving Station and museum look pretty darn attractive to those looking for something, anything, diverting.
"When we are at the Life Saving Station, we've run out of things to do," Jim Butler said today.
The Vienna resident and his son, John, 2, were touring the station while his wife, Janie, and their 5-month-old sat in the car waiting for the baby to wake up from a nap.
The family endured sour weather all week during vacation. And the weather forecast for the Labor Day weekend is not very promising. The National Weather Service is forecasting cloudy skies, with highs in the mid-80s and lows in the upper 60s.
"We're on that last straw," Butler said. "We've done putt-putt golf. We went to a farm. We did the arts and crafts shop in Rehoboth. We did story time at the Bethany library. It's getting pretty old."
Actually, the museum, which has been open for about a year, has its charms. Two period-dressed "surfmen" in white shirts and pants take visitors around a two-story structure that is one of the oldest standing U.S. lifesaving stations in the country. The Life Saving Service predated the Coast Guard, which was formed in 1915.
"To be this close to the ocean and be able to brag you've been here 120 years is amazing," said Bruce Donovan, an interpreter for the Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation, which operates the museum and historic site.
From 1876 to 1915, seven men lived eight months of the year at the Bethany Beach station. It was cold in the winter, and the keeper--the head lifesaver--was the only one who had heat in his quarters.
Most of the time, the men sat around the mess trying to stay warm, drilling each other on the meaning of international signal flags and reading from a small book collection.
Wayne and Rosemary Humphries, of Ephrata, Pa., found themselves at the museum today, taking pictures of each other in front of the bright orange and burgundy building. They had exactly one day of sunshine at the beginning of their week-long vacation in Ocean City and had already gone to the outlet malls and the movies.
"We've done just about everything else," Rosemary Humphries said. "We tried walking on the beach, but we got pelted by sand."
Conditions improved today along the Maryland and Delaware coasts. Swimming was still prohibited, but most of the beaches were open at low tide. A heavy surf advisory remained in effect.
The beach at the Indian River Inlet at Delaware Seashore State Park was one of the few open to surfers and boogie-boarders wearing fins.
Matt Walsh, 22, of Arlington, hopped into his car at 7 this morning so he could ride the waves for a day. He planned to return to Washington tonight so he could pack. He is moving to New York on Sunday to start a job on Wall Street. But today he was in his wet suit, and, his eyes red from the saltwater, he contemplated his last ride.
"It's pretty choppy," he said. "There's no order to the waves."
Bryan John, beach patrol supervisor for Delaware state parks, said that as long as Dennis is where it is, the surf is not likely to improve. As much as he hates to admit it, John said, he can't imagine that the beaches will be open to swimming this weekend.
"We've had a lot of big waves," he said. "People would just get into trouble out there."
But Sharon and Thomas Stetler, of Conestoga, Pa., are not giving up hope that their vacation can be salvaged.
The couple rode out Dennis in their camper at Delaware Seashore State Park. Two families camping beside them bailed out this morning. The Stetlers plan to stay through the weekend, and if the weather improves, they want to go fishing and clamming.
"We're just sick of sitting around," Sharon Stetler said.
If she squinted against the wind, she could probably make out the Indian River Life Saving Station up the road.