Past Tragedy Leads to Safer Future



By Jeffrey Pollinger, U.S. Coast Guard

Photos U.S. Coast Guard
On the night of February 12, 1997, the crew aboard a 31-foot sailboat, the Gale Runner, became trapped during a violent storm in the waters off the rugged and often dangerous Pacific Northwest coast near La Push, Wash. The master attempted to escape the fury of the storm by sailing to a nearby marina, but that attempt was thwarted when 25-foot waves and 30-knot winds demasted the boat and blew out hatches and portholes.

After the vessel became flooded and the engine failed, it began to drift dangerously toward nearby rock formations. The crew called for help.

First to answer the call was a search and rescue crew from Coast Guard Station Quillayute River, Wash. Within minutes, the four-man crew did what Coast Guard small boat crews are known for doing - heading into treacherous  waters while other mariners retreat.

As their 44-foot, steel-hulled motor lifeboat (MLB) crossed the Quillayute River bar and plunged into the storm, a towering wave rolled the boat. The boat righted itself and the crew pressed on. The tumultuous sea struck back and rolled the boat two more times, ripping the superstructure off and leaving three of the four-man crew in the churning waters.

Miraculously, the fourth crewman remained tethered to the boat and made it to land after ocean currents pushed the crippled boat onto nearby James Island.

Lost in the accident were Petty Officer Second Class David Bosely, Petty Officer Third Class Matthew Schlimme and Seaman Clinton Miniken.

The two people aboard the battered sailboat were later rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter crew moments before the boat struck the rocks.

February 12, 2007 marked the tenth anniversary of the tragic accident. Although ten years have passed, few people in the Coast Guard's small boat community have forgotten about the men who made the ultimate sacrifice while trying to save the lives of two total strangers.

This anniversary, like in years past, a wreath and flowers were placed at the station beside a brass and granite memorial of a 44-foot MLB in the surf. Station personnel, local citizens, members of the nearby Quileute Tribe and family gathered around the memorial to remember the men.

Today, some family members of the lost crewmen still live near the semi-isolated station.

The surviving crewman, Ben Wingo, is still in the Coast Guard and serving as an aviation machinery technician at Air Station North Bend, Ore. Crews at the Quillayute Station still respond to distress calls, sometimes in heavy surf, wind, darkness and driving rain, just like the crew of  MLB 44363 did that tragic night.

The deaths of Bosely, Miniken and Schlimme were not in vain. The accident prompted the Coast Guard to take a closer look at small boat operations and make changes in an effort to prevent further loss of life and improve readiness.

In the past, surfmen, as with all other boatswain's mates, were required to complete a tour of duty on a Coast Guard cutter before being eligible for advancement to chief petty officer.

As a result, surfmen transferred to cutters could not practice their trade and eventually lost their certifications. Their replacements at the stations required years of training to qualify creating a shortage of surfmen, as was the case at Station Quillayute River in 1997.

Surfmen are no longer required to serve aboard a cutter in order to be eligible for advancement to chief. As a result of this policy change, the highly-trained boat operators normally stay at units that require their skills. In addition, a higher concentration of surfmen at small boat stations means that there are more opportunities for would-be surfmen to train under their guidance.

Admiral James Loy, former commandant of the Coast Guard, spoke about the issue during a State of the Coast Guard Address. "The heart of the problem is that it takes a lot of on-the-job training for a coxswain to become a qualified surfman. That training can happen only when an operational unit has a properly rested trainer available to work with a properly rested trainee and the proper surf conditions prevail," he said.

Risk assessment has become an important part of the decision making process for Coast Guardsmen who work in dangerous environments. Since 1998, Team Coordination Training for operational personnel is a requirement. The training teaches members how to analyze potentially hazardous situations while working together as a team. A major part of the curriculum focuses on knowing one's limitations before taking action.

"Anytime we go into the surf, we have a briefing and agree on our limitations" said Chief Warrant Officer Rick Spencer, Commanding Officer of the National Motor Lifeboat School. "Our number one priority is safety."

The Coast Guard has also phased out the 1960's era 44-foot motor lifeboat with faster and more maneuverable 47-foot motor lifeboats. These aluminum boats have a top speed of 25 knots - more than twice the speed of the old 44-footers. That extra speed gives the operator more of a chance to evade large waves rather than confront them head-on.

Other benefits include an enclosed bridge and state of the art electronics, that the 44- footer lacked.

"The forty seven is more technologically advanced and more forgiving than the forty-four footer was," said Spencer.

Since the 47-footers have been in service, there have been a number of safety upgrades. Shock-absorbing seats with shoulder harnesses have been installed and modifications made to the engines and electrical systems have improved the vessel's reliability. In an effort to improve communication between the coxswain and crew aboard motor lifeboats, the National Motor Lifeboat School plans to begin testing a wireless communication system similar to the hard-wired communication systems used on helicopters. In a marine environment where the wind is howling, the waves are crashing and crewmen are pelted by driving rain, the system could prove to be an invaluable tool.

New safety equipment has also been issued to small boat personnel. Personal electronic positioning indicating radio beacons, which transmit a person's position in an emergency, are now required to be worn while underway. Safety helmets, harnesses and other gear worn by crews have also improved.

The Surf Operations and Surfman Training Advisory Group, comprised of senior surfmen and personnel at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., was chartered in 2000. The group was formed to ensure that the needs of units that operate in surf and heavy weather conditions are met and that program leadership and management are continually linked to field realities, according to Lt. Matthew Buckingham, who is assigned to the Coast Guard's Office of Boat Forces.

The Prospective Surfman Program was established in 2003 according to Buckingham. The program is intended to attract, identify, and select prospects; and to properly guide, train, and develop more surfmen trainees.

A new training program utilizing a MLB boat simulator is being developed at the National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, Wash. The simulator was purchased in 2006 and upgraded in January. Although the simulator is a safe alternative to training in the surf, Coast Guard crews will always have to train and perform rescues in dangerous seas.

The Coast Guard has taken many steps to make rescue operations in the small boat community as safe as  possible - but it will never be possible to completely eliminate the risks associated with performing rescues and training in rough seas.

Retired Chief Warrant Officer and former surfman Scott Clendenin sums up what accidents like the one at Station Quillayute River demonstrate: "What we do every day is very, very dangerous".*

* Quote taken from The Rescue of the Gale Runner, by Dr. Dennis Noble

My thanks go to Jeffrey Pollinger, for allowing me to use his article here.