End of an Era
By Clay Evans & Wade Hawkins
Photo Canadian Coast Guard
When the CCG MLB Souris departed its Prince Edward Island base for the last time today it was a sad moment for those who had served on her and who witnessed her leaving. Her departure signified the end of an era. She was the last of the Canadian Coast Guard's venerable 44 Foot Motor Lifeboats (MLB) in active duty, a class of vessel which had provided meritorious service in the cause of saving lives for almost 40 years - back to the origins of the CCG itself.
Hundreds of CCG members served on these vessels at stations as widespread as Burin, Newfoundland and Bull Harbour on Vancouver Island and at many stations in between. The sea keeping characteristics of the 44 Foot MLB or 44 Footer were described by some as a “floating tank” and by others as being somewhat “lively,” a polite way of saying that she would rock and roll like a see-saw given the right (or wrong) conditions. Still, hundreds of lives have been saved in Canada and thousands around the world by 44 Footers. As they are replaced by the much faster (25 as opposed to 10 knot) and more sophisticated 47 Foot MLBs, it is worth taking a moment to look at the development and history of this internationally renowned class of vessel.
During the Spring of 1963 delegates from lifesaving services and coast guards all over the world got together in Edinburgh, Scotland for the 9th International Lifeboat Conference. They talked about training, they talked about the new “Zodiac Mk III” inshore rescue boat that the French Société des Sauveteurs Bretons had just introduced, but, most prominently of all, they talked about the revolutionary innovations inherent in the latest design of self-righting motor lifeboat then being introduced into service by the United States Coast Guard. In essence, this boat was the talk of the conference.
The 44 foot MLB was considered revolutionary at the time for several reasons. For one thing, up until this point almost all self-righting MLBs had full-displacement hulls which severely limited their speed to the 8 or 9 knot range. The new 44 Footers had a semi-displacement hull which allowed them to reach speeds in excess of 16 knots; breakneck by contemporary standards. For almost two centuries shore-based lifeboats had been constructed of wood - the new 44 would have a corten steel hull and aluminium housework. The new boat would also incorporate two high-speed diesels which, when combined with the new hull-configuration, would provide a highly manoeuvrable craft well-suited for heavy weather work close in shore…in other words, surf.
Because of these innovations and some spell-binding surf videos presented at the conference, several nations approached the USCG to adopt the design. These included Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Norway, Portugal and even Tunisia and Iran. All of the USCG’s boats were constructed at their own boatyard at Curtis Bay, Maryland. In 1963 representatives from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) of Great Britain visited the yard and placed an order for Hull # 28 which was subsequently delivered to the UK in May of the following year. The new MLB was widely accepted and in the end the RNLI would construct 21 more of the boats which would become known as the Waveney type MLB.
Soon thereafter, representatives of the recently formed Canadian Coast Guard also visited the Curtis Bay Yard and put in an order for one of the USCG 44 Footers. This first CCG 44 Footer went into service at Clarks Harbour, N.S. in 1966, with Canadian-built versions to follow. The CCG adopted the Waveney type design with external spray guards on the hull and a more extensive use of aluminium. One distinctive feature of the Canadian versions was the enclosed wheelhouse which, albeit much improved for winter operations, resulted in what some might consider a rather compact wheelhouse that barely had room for two seats. As one could imagine this space could become a very challenging work environment when stuffed with three or four crewmembers attempting to conduct, and possibly co-ordinate, a search in rough weather.
The 44 Footers in the Canadian Coast Guard began to be withdrawn from service in 1989 with the introduction of the first of the new RNLI-type Arun class MLBs on the East Coast and later on with the introduction of the new USCG-type 47 Footers at various stations across Canada beginning in 1999. Some of the 44 Footers were transferred to other stations. Several went to the CCG College in Sydney, N.S. for use as training vessels while others became relief lifeboats. Eventually, all will be sold out of service through Crown Assets disposal. Interestingly, the ex-CCGC Bamfield (CG 104) was sold through Crown Assets two years ago to a buyer from Revelstoke, B.C., high up in the Rocky Mountains, and now resides in Mica Lake.
Internationally, the RNLI has sold off or donated all of their Waveney type MLBs including several which remain in SAR service, most notably in Australia, New Zealand, the Falkland Islands and Namibia. One of these vessels was sold to the Canadian Lifeboat Institute and is now part of the CCG Auxiliary based out of Roberts Bank, near Vancouver. The USCG had over 100 of the 44 Footers, only three of which (one with loss of life) were lost in service in the approximately 40 years they were in operation. Many of these rescue craft have been donated to lifesaving organizations around the world, particularly in Central and South America.
From a Canadian perspective, the CCG's fleet of 44 Footers wracked up an impressive total of 450 years of service in their 38 years of operation, having responded to an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 SAR incidents - a mind-numbing statistic by any measure. There is no wonder then that many Canadian mariners, both those who crewed these venerable old rescue craft as well as those who were rescued by them, will always have a soft spot for the 44 Footer - not the fastest boat in the Coast Guard, but one that always got you back safe and sound. the cause of saving lives for almost 40 years - back to the origins of the CCG itself.