My Mission


 By Jennifer Miller

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

We sent our intrepid administrative secretary Jennifer Miller on assignment to capture the essence of a USCG motor lifeboat. She returned with a fascinating story.  



It’s usually hard for me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. But not on this day—I was heading out to observe 44-foot motor lifeboats (MLB) training on the Columbia River Bar. I was going out there: on the bar, going through the surf, getting a taste of what it would be like to work on an MLB. My vantage point would be from CG-47213, a 47-footer. 

I had done my homework. While I was researching the 44-footer, I learned about the capabilities of motor lifeboats and how they could pound through 20-foot surf. I read the stories of #44300 facing 35-foot waves during rough-water training in 1962. I saw the pictures of boats being tossed, turned, rolled, and pitched in the surf. I talked to the men who piloted the boats, and heard their stories of big surf. But that was not enough to prepare me for the day’s adventure.
First, I had to suit up. With water temperature around 50 degrees, and a strong east wind, hypothermia is a definite hazard. I was given a mustang suit, polar fleece undergarment, boots, and helmet. The mustang suit is neoprene, the same fabric used in wet suits, with a bright orange nylon shell. The suit provides both flotation and thermal protection. The polar fleece undergarment is worn under the mustang suit, but over regular clothing. It is a water-resistant material designed to hold in body heat even when wet. The red helmet and large black boots round out my attire. What the outfit lacks in aesthetics, it makes up. for in function.
Once suited up, I was introduced to the crew and boarded motor lifeboat 47213. This boat is truly an impressive piece of technology. She can be piloted either from inside the wheelhouse or from one of two stations on the outside deck. The coxswains prefer the visibility of the outside deck during rough conditions or during a rescue, but the wheelhouse provides shelter during long transits. I was assigned the position between the two steering stations on the outside deck. What a great view! From 14 feet above the water, I could see and hear everything.
Before we left the dock I was given a pyrovest: a net vest with pockets containing items (such as flares and a knife) which I would need if I ended up in the water. I was also given a belt with two heavy nylon straps about three feet long with clips on each end. While in the surf, the crew is required to clip the straps to rings located about every two feet along the rails of the boat. If the crew needs to move around, they clip one strap and unclip the other, then move and clip again so that they always have at least one strap attached. The straps not only keep the crew from being thrown overboard, but also keep them from being thrown into the equipment. The crew told the story of one coxswain who was thrown so violently that he was knocked out cold.
We were ready to go. One of the coxswains loaned me his gloves, and for that I was very grateful. I strapped myself in and evaluated my surroundings. I quickly realized that I had better not get seasick; it would be almost impossible for me to get to the side of the boat. I was instructed to keep my knees bent, eyes open, and to hold on!
The Columbia River bar runs east and west between the North Jetty and Clatsop Spit. Today’s mission was to practice "laterals," running south parallel to the breaking waves, and then turn around and go north again. The boat should snake through the waves, not going too far east or west. There were two trainers, two trainees, one engineer, and myself aboard. Two 44-foot MLBs also engaged in training accompanied us. After a quick equipment check, we were off to the bar. I observed the 44-foot MLBs for a few minutes. They entered the bar parallel to the surf and when a large wave came, they squared up, turning directly into the wave. For a split second the boats would disappear into white water before plowing through to the other side of the wave. Although the trainer stated that the surf was small, 10 to 12 feet, I was in awe of both the power of the boats and the power of the water.
Then it was our turn. The trainer ran the boat back and forth across the bar, explaining his methods. After each run the boat returned to the buoy, in deeper, safer water, to evaluate the run. It was the students’ turn to try and maneuver through the surf. The 47213 MLB provided a better roller coaster ride than anything I have experienced. I intently watched the waves trying to anticipate which way the boat would roll or pitch. Most of the time, the boat would ride over the wave and set down gently on the other side. When it got a little rougher, my legs and arms would stiffen or flex to try and compensate for the boat’s movement. When I heard "Hold on," the fun began. At first I did not take the suggestion seriously, but I only made that mistake once. The boat was tossed by a wave with such force that twice my feet left the deck. I watched as the boat lifted over the top of the wave and held on for dear life as the boat slid down the backside. The trainer reminded me to stay loose and keep my knees bent. I can only imagine how stiff I looked with my teeth clenched and a death grip on the handle. As the waves broke and the wind gusted, the crew got sprayed with water. Every once in a while, I got a taste of salt water or felt the dribble of 50-degree water down my back.
The second drill was to run the boat out toward sea, then turn around and come back. The trick is turning around without getting broadsided by a wave, and returning without having a wave break over the stern. The 47213 MLB is fast enough, with a maximum speed of 25 knots (29 miles/hour). to run at the same speed as the waves. Once the coxswain finds a break in the waves, he can ride that break all the way in. The 44-foot MLB's maximum speed is only 14 knots (16 miles/hour). It is common for the waves to be moving faster than the 44-foot MLB, forcing the her to turn around and square up to the surf until they find another break.
We were out on the water for more than two hours. My hair was wet, my arms and legs were sore, and I had developed an entirely new respect for the ocean. It was truly a powerful experience. The raw power of the surf, the power to take a 47-foot, 40,000 pound boat and toss it around like a toy, and the skills and temperament of the crew were all equally impressive. The coxswain not only had to maneuver the boat through constantly changing wind and surf conditions, it also had to respond to information that was being given by other crew members, such as location. The crew was always calm and collected.
Returning to the dock, someone asked how big the waves were. The coxswain held out his hand, and using his thumb and index finger, measured out about an inch. To him, the surf was insignificant. To me, it was huge, big enough to engulf a small boat. Then again, for him it was just another day at the office. For me, it was an adventure I will not soon forget!

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


The National Motor Lifeboat School Web Site