The U.S. Coast Guard



By William D. Wilkinson

U.S. Coast Guard photos

This article first appeared in the Quarterdeck, the newsletter for the Columbia River Maritime Museum

Volume 24, Number 1, Winter 1998

An important
in the history of worldwide
search and rescue
The 44-foot motor lifeboat is a unique craft in the overall development of American coastal lifeboats. A strong challenger of the Pacific Northwest’s trying conditions, the "44" has been used successfully around the nation and has had a worldwide influence on search and rescue craft. In the development of the 44-footer we see a prime example of a vessel being designed for very specific conditions, translating design concepts of seaworthiness, ease of handling, speed, weight, draft, strength and capacity into a much-loved boat that Coast Guard crews speak of in almost reverent tones. Just how did this remarkable craft come to be?
Lifesaving craft have evolved over a period of more than 200 years into boats of highly specialized design well suited for their ultimate purpose. Coastal lifeboats perform search and rescue work under heavy sea and surf conditions. They go out when other craft are returning to port, and run in harm’s way in hazardous conditions that create distress and disaster for other vessels. Lifeboats must not only survive, but also return safely with the rescued survivors and crew. These are boats whose success depends on the crew, which must have complete confidence in the design and construction of their boats—the basis of their safety and work.
No matter how it is propelled—by oar, sail or motor—a coastal lifeboat needs certain essential design characteristics to make it a sea boat for all weather. A high degree of stability, great strength of construction, rapid self-righting and self-bailing, reserve buoyancy, a hull bottom reinforced against damage, moderate weight and, not so incidentally, speed are the factors that make or break a lifeboat. These seakeeping characteristics reached a peak in the 44-foot motor lifeboat, and are now being improved upon again with the advent of the 47-foot class.
A look at the long and colorful history of the 44-foot lifeboat begins shortly after the Lewis & Clark expedition reached the Pacific Coast. In the young United States, coastal rescue work was becoming organized. The Massachusetts Humane Society, a private lifesaving organization, placed its first lifeboat on station at Cohasset in 1807, thus beginning generations of specially designed boats for coastal rescue work. By 1872, the organization had 72 lifeboat stations along the Massachusetts coast, and the roots of the National Lifesaving Service had been established. The Newall Act of 1848 established lifesaving stations along the New Jersey shore to aid shipping heading in and out of New York and Philadelphia. As stations multiplied, so did the scope of lifesaving craft.
The early boats furnished to both the Massachusetts Humane Society and the federal lifesaving stations were more correctly called surfboats rather than lifeboats. The surfboats were generally open, shallow-draft boats measuring 20 to 27 feet in length, developed for launching directly from the beach into the surf. Their design was greatly influenced by the local inshore fishing craft with which the lifeboat station crews were most familiar. Early surfboats were neither self-bailing nor self-righting, although these later became important features.
From Surfboat to Lifeboat
While the surfboat was an indigenous American adaptation, the larger lifeboats were cross-cultural descendents of a single important ancestor. The lifeboat type used by the U.S. Lifesaving Service, and later the U.S. Coast Guard, through the 1950s was a direct evolution of the standard self-righting, self-bailing coastal lifeboat of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) of Great Britain. In contrast to the surfboats, the lifeboat type was generally larger (over 27 feet in length), more heavily constructed, of deeper draft, and both self-righting and self-bailing. Normally these craft were kept at sheltered moorings or launched from slipway, rather than from the open beach.
In 1873, the newly reorganized U.S. Lifesaving Service purchased a 30-foot self-righting, self-bailing, pulling and sailing lifeboat from the RNLI, which had spent many years developing a successful lifeboat. Adopting the RNLI’s design with some modifications, the result was a new American lifeboat, 26 feet 8 inches in length. By the late 1880s, the standard American pulling and sailing lifeboat had grown to 34 feet, and in 1899 one of these larger boats was modified to accommodate a gasoline motor. Over the next eight years, significant improvements were made in both motors and lifeboat design. By 1907, these features were combined in the first class of American lifeboats designed from the keel up as motor lifeboats.
When the U.S. Lifesaving Service was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to create the U.S. Coast Guard, the new service quickly turned to making significant improvements in the traditional English-design lifeboat. The first new model resulting from this project was Type H, which was built from 1918 until 1928. Lifeboat Type T was built between 1928 and 1931, followed by the Type TR built between 1932 and 1937. The last double-ended wooden hull motor lifeboat design that could still trace its origins back to the original English lifeboat of 1873 was the Type TRS, built from 1937 to 1956. (The 36-foot motor lifeboat displayed in the Museum’s Great Hall is a Type TRS.)
The gasoline motor and later the diesel engine brought the 19th-century boat design into the twentieth century. However, the hull form, with its round bottom and double ends, limited its speed. The first standard 36-foot motor lifeboat of 1907 did 9 miles per hour with a 40 horsepower gasoline motor. Years later, the 36-foot 8-inch Type TRS—the last of the line—only did 9.88 miles per hour with a 90-horsepower diesel motor.
From Wood to Steel
Hull material was another limiting factor. For almost 90 years, almost all coastal lifeboats in the United States and Europe were built of wood. By the late 1930s it was increasingly difficult to obtain high-grade lumber with straight grain and even texture that could meet the rigid standards required for lifeboat construction. And, as it has been for centuries, the wooden boats were costly to maintain and repair. With costs increasing, Coast Guard officials began to consider alternatives in both design and construction.
In the very early years of the U.S. Lifesaving Service metal hulls were tried, but for a number of reasons ultimately proved unsuccessful. The Francis lifeboats of 1849-1856 were built of corrugated galvanized iron; in service, they proved to be too heavy and difficult to handle. Maintenance was a serious problem, with considerable and rapid structural deterioration. Later, between 1873 and 1876, further attempts were made to develop an iron hull, but this, too, proved inadequate. Metal as a boatbuilding material for American coastal lifeboats would not be seriously considered again until 1938.
In that year, design development began for a self-righting, self-bailing, steel hull motor lifeboat 40 feet in overall length. This breakthrough boat (numbered CG-40300) was built in 1940 at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland. Instead of the traditional double-ender hull, the CB-40300 had a slightly squared stern, but her hull remained a traditional round-bottom displacement hull. Fitted with a 120 HP Sterling Petrel gasoline engine, she made 10.36 statue miles per hour on her trial runs— only about a mile per hour faster than the Type TRS of 1937. The CG-40300 was, in effect, a traditional but slightly larger and faster boat than the 36-footers, and built of steel instead of wood. It was a modest step forward, although not popular with most lifeboat crews who still preferred the wooden hulls.
After brief service at several lifeboat stations along the East Coast, the CG-40300 was transferred to the Great Lakes where she served at the Plum Island Lifeboat Station, Wisconsin. She was eagerly greeted there, because her steel hull enabled her to work well in light ice conditions. The boat was retired in 1979 after 39 illustrious years of service.
With the advent of World War II, future lifeboat development was put on hold. Production of the Type TRS motor lifeboats continued on a limited basis at the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland, during and after the war. At this cradle, wooden hull motor lifeboats from the Type H through the Type TRS were built, with the last Type TRS being completed in August 1956. It marked the end of 83 years of wooden hull lifeboat development and construction for the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.
A New Chapter
A major new chapter in American coast lifeboat development opened in when the first 52-foot self-righting motor lifeboat was completed— the first steel motor lifeboat since the 40-foot CG-40300 of 1940. Their design emphasized strength, seaworthiness, and durability in order to operate on the dangerous bars of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Powered by twin 150 HP diesels, they have a top speed of 11 knots and a cruising range of 495 nautical miles. The four motor lifeboats built between 1956 and 1962, Victory (CG-52312). Invincible (CG-52313), Triumph II (CG-52314), and Intrepid (CG-52315), have been an outstanding success and are still in service. However, these boats, the largest motor lifeboats ever built by the Coast Guard, were never intended as a service-wide replacement for the 36-foot wooden hull motor lifeboat.
By the late 1950s, the 36-footers were averaging 25 to 30 years of active service, and the oldest boats had serious deterioration problems. While maintenance costs rose, the Coast Guard’s needs were also changing. Their work involved a growing number of search and rescue cases, as people took to the water in ever-greater numbers both in pleasure boats and small commercial fishing vessels. Faster rescue craft with greater cruising range and towing capability were clearly needed.
Those craft would come about in the early 1960s, as a completely new motor lifeboat class. Until 1960, given the slow and evolutionary progress in coastal lifeboat design, the most significant improvement had been the replacement of oar and sail by the gasoline motor and, later, the diesel engine. But the stage was set for a radical departure.
Designing a Most Remarkable Lifeboat
By the late 1950s, the art and science of small craft design had progressed significantly, with advancements in reliable towing tank studies, metallurgy (improving the qualities of steel and aluminum as boatbuilding materials), and diesel engine design (producing more powerful engines that were also smaller in size and lighter in weight). The Coast Guard, in setting. out to state the requirements for a new lifeboat class, undertook a most comprehensive design, construction and evaluation process. They consulted experienced lifeboat personnel from throughout the country on the weaknesses as well as strengths of the 36-foot motor lifeboat. They also sought recommendations as to what features should be included in a new lifeboat design. The resulting set of requirements was published in July 1960.
The new motor lifeboat should be self-righting and self-bailing, and able to operate successfully in coastal waters under unusually severe weather and sea conditions. It should be able to negotiate large breaking seas and run into large seas without excessive pounding. It should have increased power and speed, with a full-speed range of 150 miles, and twin screw propulsion to provide greater reliability and improved handling. Improved rescue and towing capability, protected accommodation for survivors and crew, and more efficient, safer working areas were also called for. Structurally, the hull should be of welded Corten steel for greater strength and less corrosion, and it should be designed to withstand icebreaking and accidental groundings, as well as the hard use of working in severe weather, heavy seas and surf.
For the first time, the steering station was located amidships. It would include an integrated steering and engine control console, special clamped compass and remote-controlled electronic equipment including a 100-mile range radio transceiver, direction finder, depth sounder and radar.
After the preliminary design was developed, a 1/12-scale model was built for towing tank testing. The results of these tests, further studies and the construction of wood mock-ups to determine the best arrangements for the mast platform, crew stations and the steering console, provided the additional data required to complete the final plans for the new 44-foot motor lifeboat.
Construction of the prototype boat, CG-44300, began in April 1961 at the Coast Guard Yard. In February 1962, the CG-44300 was launched. She survived her sea trials with flying colors, earning accolades from the Service as "...the most remarkable piece of equipment to bolster the operational capabilities of the Coast Guard since the development of the 52-foot MLB." Coast Guard Headquarters announced the completion of the CG-44300 on March 9, 1962, stating that it was the prototype for an 18-boat construction program, later expanded to 25 boats designated CG-44301 through CG-44324. In total, 110 of the 44-foot motor lifeboats were completed over a ten-year period. During that time, inflation took its inevitable toll: whereas the cost per boat in the first program was $115,000, the last boat (CG-44409) was completed in 1972 at the cost of $225,000
—an increase of almost 100%.
The Life Story of a Lifeboat
On April 14, 1962, the CG-44300 left the Coast Guard Yard for the Chatham Lifeboat Station, Massachusetts, visiting a number of lifeboat stations along the East Coast from Hatteras Inlet to Maine before reporting for duty. The delivery and station crews all evaluated the boat’s operations. By October, the boat had left Chatham for the 13th Coast Guard District, arriving in Seattle, Washington on the October 19th. She then went to Station Yaquina Bay, Oregon for rough-water evaluation in the heavy breaking surf conditions of the Pacific Northwest. The 44300 turned in outstanding performances under conditions ranging from large ground swells offshore to strong ebb chop, moderate breaking seas, and large dangerous seas on the bars and reefs. Operation in following seas was also excellent. During the evaluation period she covered 3,000 miles at an average speed of 11.1 knots while consuming fuel at the rate of 20.4 gallons per hour.
CG-44300 served at Station Yaquina Bay from October 1962 to 1981. In July 1981, she was transferred to the National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, Washington, serving there for another 15 years. The boat always saw very hard duty, going end-over-end and rolling completely several times. But she also won the admiration and. indeed, the affection of her crews, training coxswains from stations throughout the United States in adverse weather and sea conditions.
End of an Era
While responding to a search and rescue mission out of Cape Disappointment on July 29, 1996, the CG-44300 experienced a serious engine breakdown and was withdrawn from service. Although the boat itself was still in excellent condition, the cost of repairing or replacing the damaged engine could not be justified. By then the 44-foot motor lifeboats were beginning to be replaced by the new 47-foot MLBs. After surveying, the boat, the Coast Guard turned her over to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, where she has joined an outstanding collection of U.S. Coast Guard rescue craft.
A Worldwide Legacy
Almost from the moment she was designed, the 44-foot motor lifeboat was recognized as a major and historic step forward in lifeboat design. In Scotland in 1963, delegates to the Ninth InternationaI Lifeboat Conference saw motion pictures of the CG-44300 being tested on the bar at the entrance to Yaquina Bay, and were presented with two papers on the new 44-foot motor lifeboat. Great interest among the delegates eventually resulted in the spread of the design to several other countries. The British RNLI was deeply impressed, and purchased the CG-44328 in May 1964, later having more than twenty built in England as the Waveney Class lifeboats. (Truly, history had made a complete circle. In 1873, an English lifeboat strongly influenced American lifeboat design, an influence that lasted until 1937. Now, in 1964, an American lifeboat determined the design and construction of a major class of British lifeboats!)
Other countries adopted the new design: the Italian Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard, and the Norwegian Life Saving Service, which made a few modifications (such as an enclosed bridge) for better operation in the extreme cold of Norwegian waters.
An American Legacy: The 47-footer
By the mid-1980s, the oldest of the Coast Guard’s 44-foot motor lifeboats were approaching 22 years of hard service. In 1981, there were still 105 boats in active service operating from 77 stations along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Great Lakes. But it was time to plan for an eventual replacement. The new lifeboat design had as its goal a boat retaining the durability and survivability of the 44-footer combined with 30 years of technological progress.
The acquisition project spanned almost 10 years of development, construction and evaluation first of limited production boats, followed by full production of approximately 100 replacement motor lifeboats. The prototype 47-foot motor lifeboat, the CG-47200, arrived at Station Cape Disappointment to begin tests and evaluation in September 1990. The replacement of the venerable 44-foot motor lifeboat had begun, and undoubtedly there will be an exciting story to tell of the "47s" in just a few years’ time.
For the Future
CG-44300 is now preserved at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, where it speaks to a significant chapter in the development of the American coastal lifeboat. The boat, with her equipment and accessories intact, bearing the scars and stories of her long career, will enable the Museum to interpret the technology of American and international coastal lifeboat design, and the very human stories of search and rescue on the Pacific Northwest coast. With her sister rescue craft—a 36-foot motor lifeboat, 25-foot motor surfboat, and other earlier craft—44300 stands for the continuing history of the great professionalism, courage and valor of U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat crews.
The author is deeply indebted to numerous U.S. Coast Guard personnel for providing background data for this article, especially to Capt. Robert W. Witter USCG (Ret.) and Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr. U.S. Coast Guard Historian.
William D. Wilkinson is director emeritus of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, The History of American Coastal Rescue Craft from 1807 to the Present, and is used with permission.


My thanks go to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, for allowing me to use this material.