High seas training with the US Coast Guard (photos)

For regular training, the crew from the US Coast Guard’s Station Tillamook Bay hit the high seas and let a stowaway (me: Brian Cameron) photograph and document the day.

By Brian Cameron
The 47-Foot Motor Lifeboat (MLB) seemed right at home in the six-foot swells that rolled past the sizeable watercraft, and when they first invited me to come onboard for a first-hand view of what they do, the thought of such a small number didn’t seem to concern me. Though, I was to be reminded over the next few hours, it had been years since I’d been on the water and my sea legs were a little rusty.
“Today we’ll be simulating a recreation vessel in distress with various issues that may be firefighting, medical and technical in nature.” Said Petty Officer 1st Class Josh Sheppard, the sitting boat driver, or coxswain.
The rest of the crew performed their pre-checks and gave Sheppard their indication of readiness and without any more delay they took to their individual stations and brought the 47-Foot Motor Life Boat to the ready.
Confronted with a training scenario of dire consequence, the mission for the day was meant for drill and certification purposes for the various crewmembers assigned to Station Tillamook Bay on the cool fall morning. The bay, glassy and calm, gave the impression this would be an easygoing exercise, however, having never actually been over the Tillamook-bar myself, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into.
With two separate 47- Foot MLB’s, each equipped with up to six crewmembers, the boat I had been assigned to was to proverbially fall victim to technical failure with a possible smell of burning plastic below decks, officially a yacht dead in the water with rumors of a missing crewmember from below becoming apparent as well.
Using a cell phone, our yacht crew called into US Coast Guard Station Tillamook Bay with an official call of distress.
“The going standard for response time for these types of situations this close in for us is around 30 minutes,” said Petty Officer 1st Class, Levi Read, Public Information Officer for the US Coast Guard operations off the Oregon Coast and Columbia River. “But if we aren’t en route to an incident within 10 to 15 minutes then we’re not meeting our personal goals.”
Read, no stranger to service within the US Coast Guard, was on his fifth tour of operation and oversees all of the public information affairs for the entire Oregon Coast and the Columbia River from Cape Disappointment to the upper reaches of the river in Kennewick Washington. Also armed with a camera for US Coast Guard purposes, he darned his bright orange dry suit and readied himself for the mock training exercise.
It had only been a half hour into the trip when I decided that wearing a flannel and jeans under the heavy survival suit was probably not the best attire, considering the mid-day heat had cooked off the early morning chill. Coupled with the continuous ride over the rolling swells, the trip required a certain focus on the unmoving horizon and holding on as the 47-foot vessel took to the waves as they flowed in from the Pacific.
Once over the bar Sheppard took us south past the northern tip of the Bayocean Spit, a favorite walking location of mine, this was the first I’d seen it from the perspective from the water. With fog lifting off the bay and a clear view from the side of the ocean it was easy to see Three Arch Rock and the other stacks near Oceanside and Cape Meares, looking north it was simple to make out the strange shape of Rockaway Beach’s Twin Rocks, looking much smaller from my current vantage point.
Soon the engine of the MLB changed pitch to neutral and the call went out of our simulated distress. From that point on it was a waiting game as the boat bobbed up and down, over the rollers that seemed to be gaining in intensity, though from the looks on the faces of the crew this was of no concern.
Treated to a chance encounter with a small pod of Harbor Porpoises who wanted to check out our craft and see what the commotion was about, it wasn’t long until I saw the second 47-Foot MLB careen past the south Tillamook jetty heading for our location.
My excitation high, which negated any feeling of nausea I may have just begun to feel, the vessel made it to our location in no time. The particular training mission was to instruct a new coxswain to get him signed off in order to advance in his career with the US Coast Guard, but as he approached our yacht-in-distress it became clear piloting the boat close enough for rescue and firefighter resources to board was no easy task in and of itself.
“We do these types of drills in order to get seaman signed off for additional certifications, which will ultimately allow them to advance in rank and ability,” said Read.
Read admitted at that point, since the coxswain in training couldn’t successfully maneuver the boat safely along in the rolling waves that the training would then shift gears and move into an active-towing situation. The procedure was simple, to tie onto our non-functioning boat with a long tow-rope and proceed to tug our 47-foot MLB to port, safe inside the calm and sunny confines of Tillamook Bay.
It wasn’t long until our boat was under assisted-power in the form of forward movement by means of the other Coast Guard vessel at the other end of the tow-line. Swinging wide, they brought our disabled boat past the jetty’s protective edges and right adjacent to Barview, the swells began to die down to a tolerable degree.
During a final session of training the other 47-Foot MLB brought us alongside where they lashed the two vessels together to perform a side-by-side tow procedure.
“As far as the glory work the Coast Guard helicopters tend to get most of the attention,” Read said. “But when it comes down to it, nine times out of ten it’s the 47’s that do a majority of the day to day rescues along the coasts, and the crews that operate them deserve the attention.”
Read pointed out that even though after the training the coxswain didn’t get certified he was quick to mention he would have another chance soon, and that its through repeated processes that they can maintain vigilance on our Tillamook waterways.