CHATHAM — To the uninitiated, the Coast Guard boat tied up at the Fish Pier seems like an ordinary 44-foot motor lifeboat, one of a large class of boats that have been used around the country for the past 40 years. But actually, it’s a piece of history, returned to Aunt Lydia’s Cove by a quirk of fate.
The boat, the CG44301, has a connection to the most famous Coast Guard rescue boat associated with Station Chatham, the CG36500, the wooden boat used in the famous rescue of 32 men from the tanker Pendleton 50 years ago this year. Along with his crew members, the coxswain of that rescue boat, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber, earned the prestigious Gold Lifesaving Medal for heroism. Webber went on to become the officer in charge at Station Chatham, and was one of the Coast Guard’s most well respected experts on surf rescue, for obvious reasons.
Largely as a result of the Pendleton rescue, the Coast Guard realized the limitations of the old 36-foot wooden lifeboats, which were designed to hold a very small number of survivors, and relied on small, gasoline-powered engines for propulsion. The Coast Guard needed to design a larger boat, capable of withstanding heavy, breaking surf.
So, in 1961, Webber was ordered to Coast Guard headquarters to help evaluate a prototype 44-foot motor lifeboat. In the winter of that year, Webber helped test the boat in severe weather conditions, a story he relates in his book, "Chatham: The Lifeboatmen."
"This new 44-footer was in sharp contrast to the old 36-footers like the CG36500. She was built of steel and powered by two GM diesel engines. She had two heated compartments for survivors, with settees and seat belts to hold them in safely during a rough passage. Unlike CG36500, which had only a compass for navigational equipment, the new 44-footer had an array of electronic aides. She was equipped with radar, direction finding equipment, depth finding equipment, and several radios with various range and frequencies. The boat had an enclosed pilot station, and a seat for the helm with a safety belt attached. It was also designed to roll over and come upright again."
At first, Webber was unimpressed. The boat had helpful equipment, but was in need of many changes, which he presented to the unenthusiastic boat designers. The next year, Webber was ordered to return to headquarters to test the new prototype. He skippered it south to Cape Hatteras and north to Rockland, Maine, stopping at stations along the way. Webber said he was impressed by the boat’s performance. But there were plenty of old-timers who wondered what was wrong with the tried-and-true 36-footers. That new prototype boat, the 44300, was stationed briefly at Chatham, while production began on the new class of boats.
When most of the old 36-footers had been decommissioned and burned, new 44-footers were in place around the nation. Station Chatham gave up the 44300 and received, in its place, the first production model 44-footer, the 44301. That boat was delivered to Chatham from the Coast Guard shipyard on March 25, 1963.
The 44301 served at Station Chatham until Dec. 30, 1971, taking part in hundreds of missions and many rescues, and helping countless Coast Guardsmen practice heavy weather rescue skills. The boat, described to be in "good" condition, was transferred for a brief tour of duty at Station Cape Cod Canal. It was then shipped back to the Coast Guard shipyard at Curtis Bay, Md., in "fair" condition.
There, the boat was overhauled, incorporating changes learned in places like Chatham. It was then trucked to Cape Disappointment outside of Ilwaco, Wash., for use in the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School. Coxswains from around the nation used the 44301 to learn heavy weather skills by bringing the boat across the famed Columbia River Bar, which, according to legend, is rated by Lloyd’s of London as the third most dangerous stretch of water in the world. Despite being assigned to the area known as the "graveyard of the Pacific," the 44301 actually profited from being assigned to the school, where it received topnotch maintenance and service.
But as it had with the old 36-footers, changing times have prompted the Coast Guard to develop a more modern rescue boat, capable of faster speeds, and greater protection for the crew and a bank of state-of-the-art electronics that handle navigation and communication. And so, the new class of 47-foot motor lifeboats was introduced to phase out the old 44-footers. The streamlined 47-foot boats are now stationed around the nation, and handle most of the Coast Guard’s surf rescue applications.
But because of their deep draft, 47-footers cannot be used everywhere, and would take a severe pounding while trying to cross the Chatham Bar. For that reason, Station Chatham recently received a new prototype Nearshore Life Boat, which is now being tested. (Several weeks ago, the new NLB was hammered by several large waves, and suffered damage to its inflatable collar.)
This left Station Chatham in a predicament: it needed reliable rescue boat coverage during the prototype period for the NLBs, and the aging fleet of 44-footers were all but gone, having been sold by the government. Many of the venerable boats are now in use in places like the Philippines, Madagascar and Honduras. One of the two 44-footers at Chatham was deteriorating and needed replacement, so the Coast Guard put out the search for the best-maintained 44-footer on record. Of all the boats remaining from the 110 that were built, one of them was reported to be in excellent condition, the 44301.
And so, having been trucked across the country again, the 44301 is back in Aunt Lydia’s cove, where it will end its career. One of the oldest commissioned boats in the Coast Guard is tied up alongside the newest one.
Back at the station where it began its service 40 years ago next March, the 44301 is in remarkably good shape.
"It’s almost like new," Station Chatham’s Senior Chief Stephen Lutjen said. "It’s a very well maintained boat." In fact, in a recent fine-tooth-comb inspection by visiting Coast Guard officials, the 44301 had very few reported problems—about as many as would be reported on a brand new boat.
The excellent maintenance at Cape Disappointment undoubtedly has something to do with that good report, as does the meticulous care the boat receives at its new home. But the key to the reliability of the 44-footers was their simplicity, Lutjen said.
"When you look in the engine room, there’s nothing in there but engines," he said. On the new 47-footers, there are also computers and lots of cables. "The 44s are about as basic as they get," Lutjen said.
The challenge, according to Boatswains Mate First Class Jason Holm, is keeping spare parts for the now-vintage 44-footer. There is a small cache of parts at Station Chatham, and a few more at Group Woods Hole, but none anywhere else, he said. While the steel hull and the engines will last indefinitely with proper maintenance, parts of the boat with custom-designed parts will be hard to maintain. If there are troubles with the transmission or the power take-off unit that runs the water pump for firefighting, it might be a major problem. Otherwise, the Coast Guard hopes to get as much as five more years’ service out of the 44301.
Both Holm and Lutjen trained on the boat when they passed through the National Motor Lifeboat School years ago. It is a reminder, Holm said, that Station Chatham has always been one of the Coast Guard’s vanguard units, having been the first of its class to be placed in service. That tradition continues today, with the testing of the Nearshore Life Boat. And though Coast Guardsmen don’t readily show sentimentality, both Holm and Lutjen are clearly pleased that the ‘301 is back plying the waters of Aunt Lydia’s Cove.