August 22, 1968 started out as a beautiful morning on and off the mouth of the Columbia River.
All of the boats from the Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment departed in the early hours for patrol duty in the area. In those days the fishing for Salmon off the coast was the main reason that people brought their boats down for. Salmon were very plentiful and there was a three fish limit. We had at one time counted more then 3,000 recreational boats on the river and in the ocean in one day.
The station normally sent a boat out just before dawn to check the bar conditions and then the rest of the boats would depart soon after to patrol designated areas on the river and in the ocean North and South of the mouth. I was operating the Motor Life Boat 44309 which is a self righting 44 foot long boat made of steel and aluminium and had a crew of three. The boat was designed and built by the Coast Guard to replace older model wooden 36 ftrs. and has proven its worth on many occasions. My designated patrol area was just across the bar and by the underwater South Jetty. Howard Smith was the operator of the CG-44336 and he was patrolling in the general area of the bar.
The seas were calm and there was no wind. In those days we did not have the advantage of satellite weather reports and occasionally everyone was caught off guard. We did not expect any severe weather conditions, especially during August but it does happen as would be proven this day. Once we left the station in the morning the normal agenda was to stay out until close to sunset or until most of the boats were safely back in. We also took pack lunches with us and there were hot cups on each boat to warm up soup and other canned goods we kept on board.
Most of the morning was spent by all Coast Guard boats answering distress calls from boats needing assistance, normally minor breakdowns that required towing into a safe port. It was not uncommon for the station and boats to answer as many as 30 calls a day, from towing boats, boats sinking and people in trouble in the water.
At around noon the wind started to pick up some but this was normal during the summer with the wind coming from the West at around 10-15 miles an hour. The station called all the boats and told us that they had received a weather report from commercial ships far off shore stating that they had winds peaking at 50 miles an hour. They also put out a local notice to Mariners to all boats in the area that had radios to this effect. We were told to round up all the boats we could and tell them to head in. We had all kinds of pleasure craft out there from 40-50 foot ones all the way down to the little 16-20 foot open ones. We did not worry as much about the larger ones but the smaller ones could have great difficulty if a sudden storm came up and we concentrated on getting these to proceed in.
You have to understand that most of these smaller boats are operated by very inexperienced people with little knowledge of the ocean or bar conditions that can change rapidly. For a lot of them this is their first time out in the ocean and have mainly been lake fisherman.
By noon we had most all of the smaller boats herded into safe waters and the wind had increased to 25-30 miles an hour. Most all of the larger charter boats had gone in before the tide was to change. The off shore swells were increasing and with the outgoing tide the conditions on the bar could change rapidly. At this time the swells on the bar and off shore had increased from almost calm to 15-20 feet. The conditions were changing more rapidly then I had ever seen before. I received a call on the radio that the 26 foot Pleasure Craft Vir-Gin was disabled with 2 people on board due West of Long Beach Washington approximately 4 miles off shore. This position was about 5 miles North of the Columbia River Bar. We departed the Bar in-route to assist them and on the way had put on our own survival suits that we kept on the boats if needed. It took us about an hour to locate the Vir-Gin and passed a tow line to her and the operator made it fast on a bow cleat. I informed the station that we were on scene and had the craft in tow heading for the bar and the port of Ilwaco, WA. At this time the lookout tower informed me that the bar was impassable due to large breakers. I also overheard a Charter Boat calling the station stating they were standing by a disabled 17 foot boat with three people on board. Their position was straight ahead of me a couple of miles and I told the station I would go to them and standby until another Coast Guard boat could arrive.
The Charter boat departed and shortly after Howard arrived with the CG-44336 and took the boat in tow. This boat was an all open boat and was not at all the type that should be out here even in calm conditions. I would like to add that if the Charter Boat had not accidentally come upon this little boat they possibly would never had been found.
I followed Howard as we went slowly toward the river trying to decide what would be the best thing to do. A Coast Guard Helicopter was in the area and was asked to remove the three people from the small boat.
They arrived on scene and made several attempts without success. Rather then maybe put the occupants in more peril we had another plan. The seas were now 25-30 foot with the wind blowing at 40 miles an hour. The vessel was in extreme danger of swamping and if it did we would have a hard time rescuing them from the water. It was decided that I would manoeuvre the 44309 along side and remove the people. Howard headed his boat with tow slowly into the seas and with the Vir-Gin in tow I slowly approached the small boat.
My crew was ready and strapped into the well deck ready to remove the people. The Vir-Gin was trailing behind me perfectly and was acting as a drogue helping me manoeuvre my boat. I made it alongside without a problem and I have never before seen 3 people taken off a boat so fast. I was concentrating on operating the boat and the next thing I heard from my crew was we have them lets get out of here. I backed off on the throttles some and let the 44309 veer off and relaxed a bit. As I was following Howard, not 5 minutes later while watching the small boat I saw a large wave break right over the top of the small boat. The next thing I saw was the tow line from Howard's boat going straight down into the water. He called me on the radio and said well, what now? We talked some about the situation. There was a danger if Howard were to keep the tow underwater that he could possibly get the tow line caught in his propellers and then we would really have a problem especially with the conditions we were in. I talked to the owners of the boat and they said they didn't care about the boat and that they were very happy to be alive. All hands on Howard's boat got behind the protective screen and Howard proceeded to give his boat full power.
The nylon tow line came loose from the boat and his crew retrieved it on board. We never saw a trace of that boat again.
We proceeded off shore so that we could have a safer passage South to the vicinity of the Light Ship Columbia. Howard settled in behind my tow as an escort in case anything happened. We arrived in the vicinity of the Ship about an hour later.
We had decided that we would try to get the people off the Vir-Gin and pass our tow line to the Light Ship and leave the boat there overnight for towing in when the weather and seas were better. The Coast Guard Helicopter was again asked to try to remove the two people. They arrived on scene shortly and as I manoeuvred the Vir-Gin into the best possible position for them they made several attempts but could not get close enough to safely do the job. Keep in mind that the winds were now 40 plus miles an hour and the seas 20-30 feet high with occasional white water at the tops. We could not tow the Vir-Gin in and we could not leave it out here with the people on board.
We decided that Howard with the 44336 would make the attempt. The Helicopter would stand by as a back up in case anyone went into the water. I moved into position with both boats and watched a master boat handler at work. Howard worked his way up to and alongside the Vir-Gin, never even touched the boat and his crew had both people on board before I knew it. In all my time while in the Coast Guard and stationed at Life Boat Stations, Howard is one of the few boat handlers that I would hope would come to my aid if I needed it. He was an outstanding boat handler to the point it seemed he became a part of the boat.
Now as all I had to do is get rid of the Vir-Gin to the Light Ship and we could all head into home. I called the Light Ship on the radio and informed them of our intentions. Many times in the past we had done this.
They agreed and my crew removed the rest of our tow line from the stowage reel, and tied a heaving lines on the end. The Light Ships crew were ready and I slowly manoeuvred up to the stern. My crew were on the bow ready to throw the line when I got close enough.
As it was, one second we were up looking down on them and the next they were up looking down on us. My crew made a perfect throw and ran back to take that tow line to the Vir-Gin off the tow bit so I could get away.
They did this with no problem and threw everything over the side and I backed away. When I got clear I was looking at the Light Ship and saw them drop the heaving line over the side setting the Vir-Gin adrift. What a let down! It was not an easy task on the Light Ship as they were rolling also. I now had to concentrate on getting the Vir-Gin back in tow. I manoeuvred the 44309 back by the bow of the boat and my crew went up on the bow of the 309 with a boat hook and snagged the tow line. What a job they did pulling all 600 plus feet of that line back on board in hazardous conditions. They made the line fast to the tow bit and we proceeded to start the whole procedure over. This time there was success and the Light Ship made the line fast on board. What a relief!
Now as all we had to do was go home. We were not worried about crossing the bar in the 44 footer but we were getting a little worried about the people we had on board. They were very tired and sick. They did not really like the idea of being put inside the life boat, strapped to a seat with the doors closed. I can not say that I would either, in fact that is the last place I would want to be. But for their safety we told them this is where they needed to be and they agreed. The bar was still breaking occasionally all the way across but we both made it back in without great difficulty. Everyone was very glad to step back onto land that day.
The next morning the bar and ocean was very calm without any wind. We sent a boat out to the Light Ship and they retrieved the Vir-Gin and towed her to her moorage in Ilwaco.