It was the middle of the winter at Point Allerton Coast Guard station which is usually a time when the crew kind of hunkers down. There usually isn’t much going on, although there are still people out on the ocean. For most who are out there, they are trying to make a living. Making a living on the ocean, especially in areas that are cold and stormy such as the North Atlantic, Bering Sea, is dangerous, very difficult, extended darkness and cold. People who make their living on the ocean don’t usually need help, but when they do, you know it’s serious.
Being right on the coast, the wind is blowing off the ocean, while it was 17 degrees, the “real feel” is much colder. Sea conditions were at least five foot and probably at least up to 7-8 feet.
The duty boat crew for the 47 foot Motor Life Boat at the station was called into the station office at about 9 pm (2100 hours), a time of day, in the winter, when you’re thinking about just huddling away to get warm and getting ready to crash in your bunk. You’re in a room with three other guys, not luxury accommodations, but warm and sufficiently comfortable. For the boat crew, there wasn’t going to be any sleeping and definitely not being comfortable.
In this briefing we were told that we had a fishing boat, about 25 nautical miles off the coast, that lost its generator and was functioning on batteries. Needless to say, in the current conditions, those batteries weren’t going to last long. The boat was at the mercy of the elements, getting pushed around by currents, waves and wind. In the wave action, the boat would be taking waves from the side, meaning the boat is rocking from side to side, probably rather acutely, The crew is getting rocked back and forth in bitter cold and the darkness being far away from shore and other boats.
The boat is far away from shore, surrounded by water, no reference points at all. Yes, they can tell us their current position with their GPS, but they aren’t going to be at that position for long, being rocked around by wave action and ocean current. We were able to stay in touch with them the entire time, so we could track where they were and we could find them fairly quickly. Often that is the big challenge in locating a vessel in distress. Small boats often don’t have enough battery power and at some point communications are lost. At that point the current weather conditions have to be determined in order to calculate, as closely as possible, the subject vessel’s “set and drift”. That is trying to figure out how the seas and wind are moving the vessel, estimate how long it will take the rescue vessel to get on scene and try to figure out the closet point they will come to.
We are briefed and then we have to put on the bulky three layers of exposure clothing that is worn in hazardous weather conditions. The suit consists of polypropolene underwear, which is covered by a flight suit over which is an exposure suit. The exposure suit is difficult because you have to force your head and limbs through rubber openings that form around your body parts. You then have to bend over to pull on exposure boots and then gear for your head and hands. Frankly, at this point throwing down a dramamine is a good idea, because it’s late, you’re tired, the cold is very wearing and you’re going to get tossed around by waves.
It is now 2200 hours, which at military installations is “taps”, that is time for everyone to either go to bed, or make sure their quiet so people can sleep. I know it’s 2200 hours because on the way out the door taps is playing. Here we are going out into the darkness, a good ways off shore, it’s about 17 degrees and there’s a stiff wind. Taps is not exactly what you want to hear at this point. We get down to the boat house get the Motor Life Boat underway. The 47 foot Motor Life Boat is designed to go into very rugged sea conditions. It’s designed to function in hurricane force winds and at least fifty foot seas. If it gets rolled over it is designed, when properly secured to quickly roll back up. In these conditions the crew would be strapped into high impact seats and, hopefully will be quickly rolled back up and should be able to proceed with their mission. You can imagine it would still be a good ride.
As we were getting underway for a trip twenty-five miles into the Atlantic Ocean into the darkness, cold, wind and seas well into the night, hearing taps on the way out of the station, we start to get more information on the boat. Boat name, description other specifications and information. We are told that the boat we’re looking for is named The Grim Reaper.
Needless to say all the different factors are not exactly comforting, but conversely we have had to deal with more difficult conditions. We made it on scene fairly quickly and uneventfully. Obviously we still had to look around because we’re looking for a relatively small object, unlighted in fairly heavy seas in the pitch black. We did locate the boat and at this point we have to stand off from the boat to see what it looks like, how it is being bounced around and plan how we will approach and get the tow line on.
You may think “what’s the big deal?” The problem is that you have a fishing boat that’s around ten feet longer. it will probably have a large load of fish and the fish are kept fresh by a heavy load of ice and the boat was a very sturdy wood construction. This will all combine to make it very heavy. We can’t risk getting too close to the boat because if it happens to go up on a wave over our boat and comes down on our boat it will almost inevitably crush part of our hull. At that point the water tight integrity of our boat will be lost, we may not sink, but we will not be able to roll and come back up and the performance of the boat will be seriously affected. Worse case scenario is that the hull is crushed right down to the water line. The MLB may not sink, but it’s definitely not going anywhere.
Now the boat has to be backed down so that two crewman can pass a heaving line to the boat that’s attached to a much heavier tow line. We are backing down on the Grim Reaper and two crewman are working in the well deck hooking up all the towing gear. The tow line is set up into a tow pendant so that there are two separate attachments to the boat, this will reduce the load on the main tow line and will also leave one line attached if one separates. In backing down, this kicks water up into the well deck. The deck is now covered with slush, making all the work to complete these fussy line connections a lot more difficult. We all want to get a line on that boat without getting too close and as quickly as possible. We’re getting knocked around by the waves and slipping around on the slush in bulky clothing, cold fingers… You get the picture and then trying to throw a line, anywhere from about ten yards to maybe up to twenty five in a wind that’s probably about thirty to forty knots. We have to throw up wind and hope that it carries over the boat to the crewman waiting to receive it and attach to his boat.
After a few attempts we do get a line on The Grim Reaper and finally take it in tow. The boat is out of Gloucester, which is north of Boston Harbor. Point Allerton Station is on the southern point of Boston Harbor. While we made it out to the boat quickly and uneventfully, now that we have it in tow, our speed is now greatly reduced and we’re headed to a location north of where we came out of. We are now going to be getting affected by the wind and seas a lot more and moving much slower.
At this point a boat from Gloucester has been dispatched and the plan is that we meet, but it’s going to take time for them and we’re well on our way back to Gloucester. After six hours we meet up with the Gloucester boat, transfer the tow without incident and are directed to RTB (Return to Base). We get back at about 5 am (0500 hours), about seven hours underway. Under normal conditions seven hours is a good days work. Seven hours in these conditions take a lot out of you, but after securing the 47 so that it would be ready for another case, we walk back into the station self-assured that we overcame a big challenge and saved some lives.