PACIFIC OCEAN - "I'm the luckiest guy alive," I'm thinking as I prepare to go out with National Motor Lifeboat School students, instructors and crew on a "hands-on" trip to the Pacific as part of the heavy weather coxswain class. Later in the day I'm thinking, "I'm just lucky to be alive," but let's save that for later.
I begin by getting into a $1,700 survival suit, complete with helmet, goggles, gloves and skull cap. USG Livingston tells me that getting my head through the neoprene is the most difficult part. She says, "It's like going through the birth canal." When I fight the claustrophobia and emerge intact through the stifling rubber opening, I announce, "It's a boy!" The dozen students, eight instructors, and lifeboat commanders Rick Spencer and Scott Lowry and chief instructor Paul Gibson erupt in laughter. Maybe it's my mustache that strikes them as funny?
Immediately I realize the survival suit is hot and maybe I'm also perspiring because I'm a bit nervous, as the winds begin to kick up the afternoon of Oct. 19 to over 30 knots. Chief Gibson makes the call to postpone the PIW (person in water) drill until Monday at 0800 hours.
At 7:30 a.m., I mean 0730 on Oct. 22 I'm at Cape Disappointment and struggling to again wriggle into the survival suit. Our mission today is to practice tows aboard a $1.1 million, 47-foot motor lifeboat. I am on one of four motor lifeboats (MLB) to leave the Ilwaco Channel, go across the Columbia River bar, and take positions about five miles offshore in 10-foot Pacific Ocean swells. The four MLB's pair up and first the two instructors demonstrate by towing each other's vessels. Then it's the students' turn.
Sam Graham executes the maneuver of towing a 40,000 pound craft with 400-feet of nylon one and three-quarter inch hawser line. Then he works to shorten the tow to 100 feet in order to simulate bringing in disabled vessels through some of the narrow harbor channels on the coast such as Depoe Bay, Garibaldi and the Ilwaco Channel.
Each practice run by the lifeboat school students takes from 40 to 50 minutes. I take photos of the operation and then kick back on the bridge. I interview the three students who are taking the heavy weather cox-swain classs while we are the "towees" and in general have a good time kibitzing with the crew of three coast guardsmen below who have the strenuous job of hauling in the tow lines each practice run.
About 1300 hours the final tow is complete and the gear is stored. The engines rev and we head back to station Cape D. The breakers on Peacock Spit at the tip of the North Jetty, the gravest of the area known internationally as the Graveyard of the Pacific, are hideous, even on this moderately calm day following the first severe storm of the 2007 season. I notice we are going to mid-channel at the mouth of the Columbia and I hear chatter from where Sam is running the boat, but I pay no attention to what is being said. "Just another sunny autumn day at the beach," I'm thinking. We are navigating through 15-foot waves, some of which are breaking on the riled up bar.
Suddenly I am pinned against the port rail; the boat has in a heartbeat pitched to less than a 45-degree angle. I'm fighting to stay on board, and after tucking the Observer's camera even deeper into my survival suit, I reach up to catch Taylor Smith, another student, who is hanging nearly vertically from the starboard rail above me. We stay suspended and totally out of control for an eternity - maybe eight to 10 seconds.
Graham rights the boat, Karinne Spethman, the third I'm reporting on, reassures me, "It feels like we'll tip, but we won't. The 47 can take this." It is then that Smith explains, "We're doing 'hard chines' where you ride on the side of the boat and then recover. It's good practice for when we're in heavy weather." The three students have a total of six years experience as coxswains on the 47 MLB and the instructors have over a dozen more years at the helm.
The next time Graham does a "hard chine" and the next several repetitions of the drill I discover that I am remarkably relaxed. I'm actually enjoying the ride, even reaching out to portside to feel the spray as we tip precariously close to the water, even though my arm is 17 feet above the surface of the Pacific when upright.
Then from the west a 25-foot sneaker wave suddenly appears out of nowhere that makes even the five veteran coxswains come to attention and exclaim, "Oh, wow." I hear the crew's voices below talking in nervous, staccato bursts, their faces glued to the west, their hands clenching aluminum hand-holds. One crewmember clips his safety harness to a handhold. We are in the trough as the two-story wall of emerald green water hisses only about 30 feet to starboard. Sam steers the 47 away from the monster and then instantly whips the bow back into it. He guns the 780 horsepower twin diesel engines and we push over the massive sheet of water with a gut-wrenching shudder just as the mountain of seething sea breaks into harmless foam beneath us. I realize I have been so caught up in the moment that I missed taking pictures.
Everyone is smiling and giving Sam "high fives," after we tumble down the back of the sneaker wave and into the next trough. It is experiences like this that make the National Motor Lifeboat School and the Columbia River bar unique and well worth the expense the government goes to in order to train these students to save lives in such calamitous conditions.
And that's why I feel so blessed to be able to write their stories, to be in their element, to feel the exhilaration of their successes and especially in not being a PIW.
Kevin Heimbigner writes for the Observer from Klipsan Beach after his first career as a teacher.