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Outdoors

A lifesaver in deadly seas

Two of Coast Guard's new Motor Life Boats soon will be on call in Gulf Coast waters.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2003


ILWACO, Wash. -- When English explorer John Meares sailed along the Pacific Northwest in the late 1780s looking for a major waterway that would lead inland, he passed right by the Columbia River.

Huge surf breaking across the massive sandbar at the river's mouth made the entrance look like just another beach. His dreams of glory dashed, Meares called the place Cape Disappointment. But the cape would prove to be aptly named for other reasons.

In the years since, the short stretch of coastline near the Washington-Oregon border has likely claimed as many or more ships and lives as any other area on earth. By best estimates, nearly 2,000 vessels and 700 lives have been lost to this "Graveyard of the Pacific."

"I don't think you will find a place that gets much rougher than this," said Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Logan, an instructor with the Coast Guard's Motor Life Boat School. "That is why we train here."

The surf off "Cape D," as it is called by the Coast Guard men and women who work here, can reach 20 feet and higher.

The Columbia's strong natural currents, coupled with an outgoing (ebb) tide, collide with waves rolling in off the Pacific Ocean to make the water particularly confused and dangerous. Winter storms, with hurricane-force winds, add to the mayhem.

"If you can handle this, you can handle anything," Logan said. "The conditions here are as extreme as you will ever want to see."

Coast Guard crews from across the country come to Cape Disappointment every winter to learn how to handle the highly touted 47-foot Motor Life Boat in rough surf. The rescue craft can cut through 30-foot ocean swells, roll over 360 degrees, right itself in eight seconds, then keep going.

"It is one of our most impressive search and rescue tools," said Petty Officer 1st Class Paul Rhynard, public affairs officer for the West Region of Florida. "It allows us to get places faster, do a better job, in a variety of conditions."

The Coast Guard has 115 MLBs in service across the country. The Seventh District (Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) has 11 boats on line and should have three more by June.

Coast Guard Group St. Petersburg, which patrols from the Fenholloway River (Taylor County) in the north to Pavillion Key in the 10,000 Islands to the south, is scheduled to receive two boats. Crews currently are training on the first vessel at Station Sand Key in Clearwater. The second should arrive in Fort Myers by the end of the month.

Search and rescue

The Coast Guard, now officially part of the Department of Homeland Security, numbers about 33,000 men and women, fewer than the New York City Police Department. Yet it has the daunting task of doing everything from drug interdiction to iceberg patrol.

The cornerstone of the Coast Guard's mission is and has always been search and rescue -- saving lives. In 1831, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury instructed the revenue cutter Gallatin, whose mission was to stop and collect from smugglers, to cruise the East Coast in search of people in distress. It was the first time a government agency was tasked to look for mariners who might be in trouble.

At the time, the coastline was a dangerous place for ships. There were few aids to navigation and nautical charts were sketchy at best. Ships packed with immigrants, bound for New York City, were often blown off course by Nor'easters and left to founder in the raging surf a few hundred yards off the Jersey shore.

Something had to be done. In 1848, a federal lifesaving service began to take shape when small sheds outfitted with rescue equipment popped up along the coasts of New Jersey and Long Island.

Each garage-sized structure contained an iron boat and a cannon-like device that could fire a rescue line to the foundering ship, then transport a small, covered "life" car back to land with survivors.

This early rescue system met with initial success. In 1850, the immigrant ship Ayrshire ran aground during a snowstorm at Squan Beach, N.J., and 201 of the 202 people aboard were saved.

In 1871, the federal government created an organization solely dedicated to search and rescue: The U.S. Lifesaving Service.

At the same time, steel-hulled, steam-powered vessels and modern lighthouses changed the shipping industry and it quickly became apparent man-powered rowboats were no longer adequate for most search and rescue missions.

In 1915, when the Lifesaving Service officially became the Coast Guard, a 36-foot, double-ended lifeboat with a 40 horsepower engine mounted amidships was the rescue craft of choice.

This design was fine-tuned, and by the late 1930s when reliable marine engines became readily available, the 36-footer became the workhorse of the Coast Guard's Life Boat Stations on both coasts.

This wooden lifeboat had a top speed of nine knots and a range of 200 miles. It served its purpose until 1963 when a 44-foot, steel-hulled, diesel-powered MLB came on line.

With a top speed of 14 knots, this displacement-hulled craft was faster than the 36-footer but still not fast enough. More than 100 of the 44-footers saw service, but by the early 1990s it was evident the Coast Guard still needed a quick, unsinkable, self-righting, heavy-weather vessel.

In 1991, an aluminum-hulled, 47-foot MLB prototype was tested at Cape Disappointment. It had a planing hull and a maximum speed of 27 knots, yet it could withstand waves up to 20 feet high. The Coast Guard had found the perfect rescue craft to take it into the 21st century.

Surfmen are the best

Experienced boat drivers from Coast Guard units around the country come to the Motor Life Boat School at Cape Disappointment for vigorous "heavy weather" training. Students, usually four per vessel, take turns at the helm towing other boats and running man-overboard and surf rescue drills.

The water is cold -- the low 50s -- so students and instructors wear survival suits, life jackets, pyrotechnic vests and helmets whenever the boat is underway. Students pray for rough surf so the MLB can demonstrate its rollover capabilities.

"Rolling over in one of those things is pretty scary," said Rhynard, who went through the training earlier in his career. "Eight seconds seems like a long time when you are under water."

The crew has a choice of riding on deck, strapped into seats, or below in a water-tight wheelhouse. Below deck, the MLB can carry five survivors.

Coxswains, or drivers, who demonstrate superior seamanship through mastery of the MLB can achieve "surfmen" certification.

"It is quite an honor," Rhynard said. "They are the best of the best."

Instructors from the Motor Life Boat School at Cape Disappointment travel to bases around the country to help familiarize local crews with the new MLB.

"So much for sunny Florida," Petty Officer Logan said after spending a week with the crews at Sand Key. "It got pretty snotty out there in the Gulf of Mexico."

Gulf waters are notorious for going from flat calm to storm status without much notice. A week before Logan arrived in Clearwater from Cape Disappointment, the MLB got its first taste of action when it was dispatched through 6- to 8-foot seas and 30-knot winds to rescue five people and a dog 18 miles west-northwest of Anclote Key.

"The 47 more than doubles our speed," said Master Chief Chuck Winter of Station Sand Key. "I can't imagine any conditions where we won't be able to use this boat."

Coast Guard Capt. Daniel Neptun, commander of Group St. Petersburg, said he expects the new MLB to travel as far as 100 miles offshore, a job usually reserved for bigger cutters.

"In the past, we had our limitations," Neptun said. "But now our capabilities have greatly expanded. We can go in a variety of rough water conditions and come home. And that is what it is all about, coming home."

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