CAPE D - The call came in at 2:24 a.m., Dec. 30, 2002. Coxswain Keith Libby was the officer of the day at the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Station Siuslaw River. "I was asleep after a full-duty day when I was awakened and found out a 100-foot tug (Primo owned by Briscoe Towing) was sinking 19 miles offshore from Florence. The wind was blowing at 50 knots with gusts up to 80 and the waves were 30 feet high, but we immediately decided to get underway."

Libby, a former Marine, and another surfman took turns at the helm of a 47-foot motor lifeboat, while two engineers were below suffering from seasickness. "It took us over an hour running at 20 knots to reach the scene. Visibility was near zero because of the darkness and the pelting rain. It was my first time in seas anywhere near that big. None of us was feeling too well, but we had to go about the king's business," Libby says with a wry grin.

Upon arriving, they discovered that four of the sunken tug's crew members had been safely plucked from the raging seas. There was still one crewman from the Primo unaccounted for. Libby and crew began a search pattern as best they could under the nearly impossible conditions. He says, "We found a lot of debris, even a TV from the tug, but we didn't locate the other crewman."

Soon, the USCG radioed Libby to return as soon as possible. "We were getting low on fuel and the only bar we were going to be able to cross was at Yaquina Bay. We knew there would be no other motor lifeboats or helos sent out because of the weather."

"It was either make it to Yaquina Bay before the tide began to ebb and became impassable or run out of fuel," Libby states. "We went below to run the boat and made a beeline for port. It seemed like forever because we had to run into the waves and we couldn't see a thing. We missed the channel opening, but could see the city lights. The waves were so big the lights would disappear when we were in the troughs. It was no holds barred; us against the wind and ocean, a trying night, but we made it in."

In the early morning hours Libby's wife, Amy, was informed of her husband's mission and its status. "Amy had been reading "The Rescue of the Gale Runner: Death, Heroism, and the Coast Guard" that night. She never did finish the book," Libby relates.

Libby, who has himself now earned the elite rank of Surfman, tells of towing disabled vessels through the narrow inlet at Depoe Bay, of saving an Air Force captain who was kayaking with his father, of discovering the bodies of two plane crash victims, and of not saving a 13 year old boy who drowned off the coast of Oregon after he had rescued the boys father.

He says, "The worst thing I have had to deal with in the Coast Guard is not being able to bring someone's loved one back alive." Libby adds, "There is a saying that you don't give your livestock names and when I have dealt with a tough mission I do not want to read about it or see anything about it on TV. I never talk about those missions with Amy. I don't even like to walk on the beach when I'm off-duty. We bought a house (in Reedsport, Ore.) where you can't see the ocean, where you can't even hear it."

It is Libby's way of coping with the difficult situations that have come up during his 14 years in the USCG. Libby's rise in the USCG was "tough," but very rapid. Ironically he was born in Raymond and graduated from high school in Portland in 1993, but it was Raymond, Maine and Westbrook High in Portland, Maine. He played rugby and baseball in school and soon after enlisted in the Marines. "I was 26-years-old, but feeling like I was 80. My body couldn't keep up." He saw duty in London, England and also was stationed near a USCG small craft company while on the East Coast.

"Instead of re-upping I took a job with the Maine Department of Corrections. I saw a video about being a rescue swimmer and decided to enlist with the Coast Guard," Libby explains. He was training to be a rescue swimmer in North Bend, Ore., when he decided to become a Coxswain instead. "I had to go through basic training, be a Seaman and start from the bottom up. But after eight months I was a Boatswain Mate 3 and by 2002 I was a coxswain and married to Amy." Libby attended the National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment for the heavy weather and supervisory classes.

A year later Libby was on a training mission when his comanding officer asked him to take his motor lifeboat in bound in the surf, execute a PIW (person in water) pickup, maneuver in the surf with one of the twin diesel engines off, and successfully manage wave avoidance. "Unbeknownst to me I was taking my Surfmen's test," Libby relates. There are only 161 active Surfmen in the USCG, but there are about twice that many openings that go unfilled each year because the requirements are so stringent.

Libby is on the "Port-Starboard" schedule where he alternates working every other weekend and is on duty four days each week. As a Surfman First Class he typically is on call or on duty 84 hours per week. His day usually begins at 6:45 a.m. to get ready for 7 a.m. muster and then he assigns hull maintenance and boat checks on Cape D's 11 vessels. He works with other officers to plan drills depending upon tides, the Columbia River bar, and weather and surf conditions.

Libby considers the training needs of the people he is in charge of and also what is needed for his crews to be prepared. He also rotates officer of the day duties with three others at Cape D. He plans missions for homeland security and facilitates research projects and usually completes those tasks by 4 p.m. In addition, he also helps carry out enforcement and search and rescue missions as they arise.

"Mostly I'm a go-with-the-flow kind of person, but I can be spontaneous," Libby says of his personality. He is equally at ease sharing a laugh with his crew as he is in leading them by example on the most harrowing of missions. It takes but a minute to see that Libby has earned the total respect of his crew. "I plan to serve at least another six years in the Coast Guard and then weigh my options." Libby is also a deputy police officer in Depoe Bay when he's not a USCG Surfman.

Twice a week he commutes two and a half hours from Reedsport, where Amy is a successful realtor, to Station Cape Disappointment. "At home I like to spend time with my wife and hang around the house. I like to hunt, especially with a bow. My biggest hunting thrill was bagging a black bear. And for the record I wanted the Patriots to win the Super Bowl."

He humbly concludes, "Whether I'm on duty or working as a police officer, it all comes down to being prepared to save a life." Considering there are over twice as many starting linemen, backs, and wide receivers in the NFL than there are Surfmen, he is indeed a rare kind of guy and a hero to boot.

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