By Lt. Alan Tate, Staff Officer Operations (Training)
This article first appeared in the RNLI Lifeboat Magazine Volume L, Number 501, Autumn 1987 and is reproduced by kind permission of the RNLI. Photos U.S. Coast Guard
At the mouth of the Columbia River on the state border between Oregon and Washington lies Cape Disappointment. Here where the great Pacific rollers meet the out rushing river as it disgorges its contents into the ocean, is an area known as "The Graveyard of the Pacific". It is also the daily work place and training ground for the United States Coastguard Motor Lifeboat School. Instructors and students make use of the almost constant heavy surf to practice the techniques necessary for handling 44ft lifeboats, which are virtually the same as our Waveney class, in heavy weather. Situations which require the helmsman to take positive, precise and correct action abound and are constantly monitored by the instructor standing at his side.
The Heavy Weather Coxswains' Course brings young USCG lifeboat coxswains from all corners of the USA to further their knowledge and improve their techniques. The training is both physically and mentally demanding with all mistakes and bad practices being highlighted and corrected by the staff throughout the month-long course. It was into this environment that I accompanied two RNLI 44ft Waveney coxswains during May. Coxswain Ron Cannon of Ramsgate and 2nd Coxswain Mike Coates of Whitby and myself were to join the USCG coxswains attending course number 1087 of the Heavy Weather Coxswains' Course.
An invitation had been extended by Commander Dein, US Coastguard, during a liaison visit to RNLI Headquarters, for us to be the guests of the United States Coastguard. It was, however, only by the kind donation by Virgin Airlines of free flights to the USA that the invitation to attend the course could be accepted.
The Motor Lifeboat School is under the command of Chief Warrant Officer Gary Walker. His staff of 10 expert instructors teach 11 one-month duration classes during each year, both afloat and in the classroom. The staff assume that the students are already competent lifeboat coxswains and that their knowledge of navigation, boat handling, etc. is sound, in order that they may concentrate, in the main, on the heavy weather practical aspects.
The classroom period covers wave formation and surf behavior, electronics equipment, briefings for each afloat session, constant examination and preparation for night navigation exercises and the like. Failure of any examination, or if the student is unsafe and does not respond to "coaching" when operating in the heavy surf, means that he is returned instantly to his unit. All of the students present wanted to complete the course and most put in extra time to brush up on any aspects they were concerned about, while the instructor acted as an individual counselor helping as required.
The training at sea covered all aspects of heavy weather operations and the ability to go into heavy surf to practice and to come out again whenever necessary to debrief was most convenient, especially as it is only 10 minutes from the school.
The RNLI contingent performed well despite being much older than their American counterparts. The course was physically demanding, as those who have experienced constantly breaking seas will know. To practice again and again, in l8ft surf, exercises like man overboard using a dummy, utilizing wave avoidance techniques, but taking those large breaking seas which cannot be avoided in the correct attitude, makes everything second nature.
A new experience for most was the surf swim! This required teams of three to jump overboard into the surf and swim ashore experiencing all the problems that being in surf presents and also how to control the situation as far as that is possible, by understanding what is happening to the surf and the tidal rip.
Every day was a very full one. The transport to the school left at 0650 and returned at 1700 with some evenings also involving night navigation exercises. The pillow was always most welcome at the end of the day.
I was particularly interested in observing the training techniques and the detailed subject matter in order to ascertain which should be applied to our own training courses.
The course was a most worthwhile experience from which we all benefited and for that we must again thank our hosts, the United States Coastguard, and especially the Commanding Officer and his Instructors at the National Motor Lifeboat School.
My thanks go to the RNLI, for allowing me to use this material.