Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson
Coast Guard Surfmen
Surf – Waves or swell breaking on the shore or a reef. Generally, to be avoided in a small recreational boat.
Surfman is the United States Coast Guard’s highest qualification for small boat operators. Coast Guard Surfmen are rated to operate the 47-foot Motor Lifeboat in extreme conditions; sustained winds up to 50 knots, seas to 30 feet, breaking seas up to 20 feet and impacts of up to 3G’s. Operating rescue boats in surf and heavy breaking seas remains one of the most challenging and dangerous tasks Coast Guard boat crews perform. The Surfman qualification process is extensive and extremely demanding and takes four years with three intensive training sessions at the USCG Motor Lifeboat school (MLB) in Ilwaco, Washington.
The surf program consists of three trips to the school, the first of which is for basic MLB training. The coxswain goes back to his station for up to a year of continued training and final assessment. Next, he will return to the MLB school for heavy weather training and then back to the station for one to two years of continued training. Once fully qualified as a heavy weather coxswain he will return a third time to the MLB school for surf training. Not done yet, he will again return to the station for continued training and final evaluation as a surfman. Moving to the next level is all based on performance and experience.
Running a boat inbound across a bar at night under parachute flares while glancing back at black walls of water and hearing the crack of giant surf chasing you is daunting. There is no secret, surfman is a challenging but rewarding position. If you get seasick, are scared of the dark, have an allergic reaction to risk or fear or hate being wet or cold, then being one of the best boat drivers in the world is probably not for you.
The 47-foot MLB is the Coast Guard’s primary search and rescue platform operating in surf and heavy weather conditions. It has self-righting capability and will be fully operational after a capsize. The USCG’s need for these unique capabilities in search-and-rescue, maritime law enforcement and contingency response is a high priority due to their effectiveness on the water. The Coast Guard has 117 of these 47 MLB’s stationed across the United States in both surf and heavy weather stations. There are 19 USCG surf stations in the U.S. and 15 of these are on the West Coast.
When the seas get rough and mariners get in trouble, the USCG will respond with a 47 MLB from one of the heavy weather or surf stations. In Washington, Quillayute River, Grays Harbor and Cape Disappointment are surf stations and Neah Bay is a heavy weather station. In Oregon, Tillamook Bay, Depoe Bay, Yaquina Bay, Siuslaw River, Umpqua River, Coos Bay and Chetco River are surf stations. In California, Humboldt Bay, Noyo River, Bodega Bay, Golden Gate and Morro Bay are all surf stations and Monterey Bay is a heavy weather station. There are 20 heavy weather stations on the East Coast and one on Lake Michigan.
Motor Lifeboat Station Bodega Bay is located on Doran Beach State Park between the campgrounds, boat launching facilities and the beach. Their area of operation is roughly 1,500 square miles of ocean from Point Arena to Point Reyes and out 50 miles. The station staff include 28 enlisted men and women, whom are mostly between 18 and 30 years old, and operate two 47 MLBs. There are 10 watch standers on duty 24/7 and they work a two days on/two days off schedule. The 87-foot USCG cutter Sockeye is co-located at Station Bodega Bay and has a separate crew.
Maintenance of the boats, the facilities and the grounds is all performed by the station crew in between the average of 40 search and rescue cases and 250 law enforcement boardings every year.
I recently had the opportunity to go for a ride on one of the two 47 MLBs at Motor Lifeboat Station Bodega Bay at the invitation of the station commanding officer, Chief Warrant Officer, Ben Corbisiero and the station executive officer, Chief Petty Officer, Tony Kopshever. We selected a late spring day with moderate winds, reasonable seas and cool outside temperature when a new coxswain in charge, Boatswain Mate 3rd class, Noah Straight, was due to be certified on the 47 MLB. He had completed all of the training and was in the final testing stage to become the coxswain in charge. Today’s evaluation would be followed up with night operations where he would demonstrate the ability to locate a vessel in distress, safely secure a tow line to it, tow the vessel to a safe harbor and bring her safely to a dock.
After a quick briefing the crew readied our boat, 47257, and we departed Bodega Bay heading past Bodega Head approximately five miles offshore to become “disabled” and unable to return to safe harbor under our own power. On board our vessel were Commanding Officer Corbisiero in the left seat and Executive Officer Kopshever in the right seat, both highly experienced surfmen and the rest of the boat crew that had swelled to six instead of the usual four.
Once we were on station the XO radioed station Bodega Bay for assistance. BM3 Straight responded to our distress call in MLB 47305 and in short order was heading our direction.
This was a full rescue and assist drill and designed to evaluate his use of the checklist, boat operating skills and experience in assisting a disabled vessel safely to port. In addition to the two senior surfmen on our boat, BM3 Straight had a surfman evaluator and coxswain evaluator on his boat in addition to the normal crew compliment of a machinery tech and two crew. This drill is designed to test the new coxswain’s ability to manage a SAR mission on their own and is uncoached and unassisted by any of the evaluators.
After coming alongside the crew passed over a bridle and tow rope and gave clear instructions on how to attach them to our disabled boat. They then strung 600 feet of 3.25-inch tow rope and towed us back to Bodega Bay at 10 knots. During the tow back I got to play stupid boater turning the rudder sending the boat off to the left and then to the right. The radio call was almost immediate to please put the rudder amidships and please leave it there.
At the bar crossing we were brought in to a short tow, and then on approach to Spud Point Marina fuel dock we were brought alongside and secured to the dock. A mission well done by BM3 Straight who would now get to do it all over again, this time at night.
If I was going to do a boat review of this vessel it would be tough as there are so many things not to like. The cabin is spartan, even by utility boat standards. No head, no galley and no comfortable place to lay down. Not a soft seat in the place to sit in the below decks and the flybridge seating, although very comfortable, has no weather protection at all. The five-gallon portable water tank is pretty minimal, and if all this was not bad enough, there is no espresso machine and not even a place to plug one in. The boat is noisy and floats like a cork due to the several buoyancy chambers. On the upside she is rated to carry 34 passengers and crew, can go almost anywhere at any time at the hands of a skilled operator and can even operate in light surface ice. The crew at Station Bodega Bay, I am sure the same at all the other stations, keep their boats in top mechanical condition and they are as clean as when they were launched from the factory 25 years ago. Just like at the firehouse, these guys take pride in keeping their lifesaving equipment white glove clean, in top condition and ready for anything at a moment’s notice.
Built in the late 1990’s, the 47 MLB is actually 48-feet, 11-inches overall, has a beam of 15 feet, with 18-feet, 6-inches of air clearance to the top of the RADAR and draws 4-feet, 6-inches. She displaces 40,000 pounds with no crew or cargo, carries 394 gallons of diesel, has a range of 200 nautical miles at 20 kts and is designed for a maximum service area of 50 nm offshore. Her twin 435 HP Detroit 6V92A’s give her a WOT speed of 25 kts.
Towing capacity with the 900 feet of 3.25-inch towrope is 150 tons, and with 200 feet of the smaller two-inch towrope is 50 tons.
The current in-service MLBs were built from 1997 to 2003 and are now approaching the end of their original 25-year service life. So in Aug. 2019 the Coast Guard awarded Birdon America a $190 million contract to perform a Service Life Extension Program, SLEP, for the fleet. The work renews propulsion, electrical, steering, towing, navigation and hull structural systems. In late 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard accepted the first upgraded 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, 47C, at the Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, WA, completing the first major milestone in the MLB SLEP. The firm-fixed price, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract is for the design, development, testing and upgrade/build of USCG MLBs over a period of five years with an option for an additional five years. The West Coast SLEP activities are being performed at All American Marine in Bellingham, Washington, and work for vessels on the other side of the country is taking place at an East Coast shipyard. SLEP boats number 2 and 3 were delivered at the end of 2022 and boats 4 through 10 were delivered in early 2023. As All American enters phase 2 they will be delivering eight boats per year. The USCG expects that 107 of the total 117 47’s will be upgraded as part of the SLEP and will extend the service life for another 20 years.
What does a recently retired 20-year USCG surfman do in his retirement years? He goes to work in the recreational boat industry as a yacht manager, boat delivery captain or boat handling trainer. BMC Tony Kopshever, USCG Ret. is taking his 20 years of experience of operating boats in weather that would frighten any sane person and training new USCG Coxswains, and has joined my business, Bay Area Yachting Solutions. Tony has been rescuing yachts along the Pacific Coast for the past ten years and is now ready to transition to a much lower adrenaline rush civilian life of delivering them. Leslie and I could not be more excited than to have Tony on the team and we thank him for his many years serving his country.
In my more than two decades of delivering yachts from Mexico to Alaska I have unfortunately had the need for assistance from the Coast Guard a few times. Once as a result of an engine room fire and once due to loss of steering. I wrote about these delivery complications in the 2-part series titled The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly published in the Dec. 2014 and Feb. 2015 issues of the Bay & Delta Yachtsman.
In Dec. 2014 I told the story of a problematic delivery with a new 58-foot motor yacht that among her many issues suffered a steering casualty near Humboldt Bay. Low on fuel and considering crossing the bar with strong winds, 8- to 10-foot occasionally breaking waves in the bar channel and the only way to steer was with engine throttles, we did request assistance from Coast Guard Station Humboldt Bay. Having a 47 MLB with a highly trained crew guide us across the rough bar was comforting and provided a level of safety that ensured we would make it to a safe harbor.
In the Feb. 2015 issue I relayed the story of an engine room fire aboard a new 52-foot trawler 12 miles off the coast of Tillamook, Oregon. Not only did Station Tillamook immediately launch a 47 MLB that would be at our location in less than 45 minutes, Air Station Astoria launched a MH60 Jayhawk that arrived in 12 minutes from our first VHF radio call. After the MLB arrived from Tillamook and had our situation under control the Jayhawk returned to base and the 47 escorted us to the safety of Tillamook Bay.
As much as you prepare, sometimes the worst happens. I am one mariner that is glad we have the world’s best boat drivers that are willing to risk their lives to assist a mariner in trouble. Although as recreational mariners we may not always be prepared, the professionals of the United States Coast Guard are Semper Paratus.
It is now time for me to get two glasses of port, one for me, and one for short time Ret. Chief Tony and a couple of Montecristo White Label Churchill’s and put these two incidences back in the back of my brain where they belong.
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