Busting a wave

A U.S. Coast Guard motor lifeboat powered into the breaking surf at Clatsop Spit during qualification work on Feb. 15.

CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT — It’s one of a kind and the challenge of a lifetime for the dozen students who are fortunate to attend at any one time. The National Motor Lifeboat School (NMLBS) is a famous U.S. Coast Guard training center that operates at Station Cape Disappointment near Ilwaco.

The NMLBS provides school resident training as well as MLB readiness and standardization assessments for up to 72 USCG personnel a year from Florida to Boston, from San Diego to Grays Harbor.

Coast Guard lifebat crew times their move

ABOVE: A Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment 47-foot motor lifeboat crew prepared to move into the surf zone near Clatsop Spit on the Columbia River on Feb. 15. Two heavy weather coxswains were training in heavy weather conditions as they worked toward the surfman qualification.

The NMLBS is located at the mouth of the Columbia River, an area infamously known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” and provides the training grounds for Coast Guard personnel learning to care for and operate the 47-foot MLB. The river’s strong current runs headlong into the strength of the Pacific Ocean tides at the Columbia River bar. Bar conditions coupled with the frequent storms create some of the roughest waters in the world.

This area has long been home for Coast Guard rescue facilities and its predecessor, the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The lifeboat school and the station are separate entities but closely cooperate.

Riding the surf

Violent surf tests the mettle of Coast Guard personnel attending the world-famous National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco.

During the 1960s local Coast Guard units pooled their resources in order to conduct coxswain and crew training on the then new 44-foot motor lifeboats. It was acknowledged that these steel-hulled boats were more capable than the wooden 36-foot lifeboats they were replacing. The crews manning them were typically very experienced and the leadership of seasoned veterans and their seamanship skills were passed on directly to each new crew member.

Sharing experiences and rescue techniques

The localized training allowed small groups of Coast Guard crews to share experiences and techniques. A slow trend of decreasing experience base among Coast Guard crews could also be seen through this period. The Coast Guard’s Thirteenth District (Oregon and Washington coastal areas, including Puget Sound) sought out a way of sharing the lessons learned through hard practical experience with these junior members.

Motor lifeboat

A boat crew aboard a 47-foot motor lifeboat from Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment trained in the Columbia River. Clatsop Spit runs along the north side of the Columbia River’s South Jetty and often provides an ideal training area for heavy weather coxswains and surfmen.

They established a training curriculum and routinely gathered their resources to put on classes focused at operating the 44-foot motor lifeboat in the surf environment. The success of these sessions in passing on skills was soon recognized as potentially valuable for all motor lifeboat coxswains nationwide. The training concept was to use experienced surfmen from the U.S. Northwest coast to show other coxswains from around the nation how best to use the motor lifeboat in its designed element. Coxswains from Canada and as far away as England have since received the hands-on training.

Resources and budget were identified to give dedicated lifeboats to the newly born school along with personnel to provide maintenance and instruction.

With the establishment of a formalized curriculum the U.S. Coast Guard’s NMLBS was established in 1980 in Ilwaco at rescue Station Cape Disappointment. The location has proved to be ideal for the lifeboat school due to often severe weather and water conditions. Increased training needs and a focus on standardization have caused the lifeboat school to expand through the years. This included new shore maintenance facilities, offices and classrooms that were dedicated in 1993.

Steadfast at Cape Disappointment

Although the Columbia River bar is infamous for nasty surf — making it ideal for heavy-weather Coast Guard training — it’s usually no problem. The Steadfast, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter homeported in Astoria, cruised westward past Cape Disappointment through the mouth of the Columbia River en route to the Pacific Ocean at sunrise on Jan. 14 during the federal government’s partial shutdown. Cape Disappointment and its iconic lighthouse glowed in winter sunshine. Taken by Scott Redd of Bend, this telephoto image from the Oregon shore makes the cape appear closer than it actually is.

The heavy weather coxswain course is the bread and butter of the NMLBS and has over 120 applicants for the 72 openings each year. At least 18 months of operational experience and at least 18 months of additional active duty are required before a guardsman can even apply. The surfmen course is the most advanced of courses taught.

Learning in heavy weather

The heavy weather coxswain course provides advanced level training for Coast Guard personnel permanently assigned to MLB units who will be required to perform the duties of motor lifeboat coxswain.

This course enables certified experienced MLB coxswains to perform risk assessment, basic engineering casualty control procedures and advanced operating procedures in heavy weather and surf conditions, consistent with Coast Guard policy and standards.

Students must pass a prerequisite knowledge and skills examination based on the 47-foot MLB operator’s handbook, Boat Crew Seamanship manual, Navigation Rules and the Rescue and Survival Systems manual. Classes are three weeks in length and run from late autumn until early spring.

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