Tag Archives: Search and rescue

The Grim Reaper

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.

Sea – Stories I

I could swear I’ve written this, but I can’t find it and if for no other reason then I want to compile some of my sea stories, I’m writing it again and I hope that I don’t bore or annoy anyone, but it really is a great story, on a few levels.

This happened sometime in the mid-80’s, reason I remember that is because as a result of this God smacked me in the head and made me realize that I needed Christ as my Savior and Lord of my life. So in my mid-twenties I was baptized and came to be reborn, a new creation, a child in Jesus and yea, it was as a result of my Coast Guard service.

It was in October, fall weather is definitely the worst, seems like cruddy weather, wind, high seas, raw cold, just the worst and this day was the worst I ever experienced.

Interesting thing was that we had been out the night before and was a nice evening for October in New England, calm, warm, wasn’t even wearing a jacket and we were out until 1am, that’s 0100 hours for you military types. Next day was Sunday, usually “holiday routine”, only necessary work and of course all response, but no station work. Since we had been out late and it was Sunday, we were all trying to get some extra sleep and then the Search and Rescue (SAR) alarm just rips through the station. That alarm could wake the dead, All I remember is falling from my top bunk bed, grabbing clothes and just running. Now the first tip off was that while we were running out, the other duty people were yelling at us “44”, which meant the 44 foot Motor Life Boat.

The 44 foot MLB is designed primarily for bad weather, it was supposed to go into seas up to fifty feet. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but that was the standard. If people are yelling at us on the way out, it’s urgent and it’s crummy weather. We have to travel aways to get into open water, outside the chains of islands in Boston Harbor. So it was fine, initially, once we cleared the Brewsters, the islands marked by Boston Light the roller coaster ride began. Seas were in excess of fifteen feet, the boat was headed south to Marshfield to the North River. A man who had his boat moored in Marshfield decided it would be safer in Boston, despite the fact that he would have to go through high winds and fifteen foot seas. He went aground in the river, a MLB crew from Scituate station went aground trying to get him. The subject ended up in the water and died, the boat coxswain and engineer from the MLB both ended in the water, all were medevaced.

The trip is about 10-15 miles by water, in normal conditions on a normally fast boat the trip would take 30-45 minutes. It was not normal conditions and the 44 footer was not a fast boat. It took about three hours. On our way we’re going by Minots Light, I kept watching this big, ancient light house wondering why we weren’t passing it. We are getting tossed back and forth, there was no uniformity to the wave action and we were being tossed all over the place. We are keeling so far over to the side that the antennas on the side of the boat are actually whipping across the waves, this boat is very close to being on its side on the water.

 Needless to say seasickness is now rampant, furthermore I didn’t bring any foul weather gear, why would I perfectly nice out the night before. I’m becoming hypo-thermic with waves breaking over the front of the boat and side to side. The Atlantic Ocean isn’t warm, and getting doused over and over, on an open deck, with the wind howling around you, you’re going to get cold fast. At this point I’m leaning over the side, “discharging”, holding on. Add into the equation that the only other boat in the area that could come to get us if something happened with our boat is hung up in the river. Now the MLB is made so that if it does roll over, it will come back up and it’s made so that you should reach the nearest safe mooring. Yea…, OK…, small comfort and any damage to the boat and if we rolled, we might well not come up. No one wants to take a dip in the Atlantic in October and if you do come up, soaking wet, in the wind, you will probably live, but you will suffer.

After three hours, that is not a typo, we made it into the North River, we take the remaining crewman off the other MLB, get both boats secured, then start the trip back. During the trip down, hypo-thermic, purged of stomach contents, still dry heaves, I look over the water and say ‘OK God get me out of this and I will go to church.” Well He did, even though I had little concept of what that meant. Sometime around 5pm we finally return to Point Allerton Station in Hull, Ma. We had been underway almost eight hours, I was now off, got my bags, threw them in the car, drove home, took a very hot shower, fell into bed, and the next day woke up and went to the day job.

As i said it was an adventure on many levels. The obvious in terms of the storm and running a SAR case under those conditions. But the biggest adventure was just starting, God plucked me up, and while I had very little understanding of what being a Christian was, I was about to find out and it has been an adventure that has led me to Concordia Seminary in St Louis, Mo. I earned a Masters of Divinity degree and was called to be the pastor of First St Johns Lutheran Church, in York, Pa. I have no doubt that even after four years of ministry God has a lot more adventure in store for me and that’s good. Being a Christian should be about adventure, being led to find the lost, disicipling those in Jesus and all that goes with ministry, especially ministry in a downtown, inner city area. God has provided and continues to do so and He helps me to serve to the best of my ability.

U.S. Coast Guard Station Point Allerton

This is the current patch, there have been a lot since I’ve been there, of Coast Guard Station Point Allerton. I had the privilege of serving there for about 24 years and it was quite an adventure. P.A. is one of the most historic stations in the Coast Guard. One of the most decorated and long- serving life savers in Coast Guard history was the, essentially, commanding officer, Joshua James, who is said to have died at about 70 years of age during a life boat drill, he collapsed and his dying words are supposed to be “The tide is ebbing”. Not sure about the historical reliability, but it sounds great. For my own benefit I will be writing, at times and probably not too soon, about the history of the station and some of my own adventures there. Not sure it will generate a lot of interest, but it’s more for me. Feel free to jump in.

I ripped the following off the station website:

Station Point Allerton

Captain Joshua James, USLSS (1826-1902)

View Larger Image of Joshua James Captain Joshua James served for nearly sixty years patrolling the shores of Hull. He participated in his first rescue at age 15, receiving his first medal of many at the age of 23. In 1876 he was made keeper of four lifesaving stations in Hull, including Point Allerton. He was 62 at the time and rules requiring his retirement had to be waived by an act of congress.

During his career, Joshua James has been credited with saving over 600 people and has been touted as the world’s most celebrated lifesaver.

On March 17th, 1902 the Monomoy Lifesaving Station tragically lost seven of its crew during a rescue attempt. Joshua James deeply affected by this tragedy, took his crew into the surf to ensure the capabilities of the boat and proficiency of the crew met his high standards. After more than an hour of maneuver’s Captain James said to have been “very satisfied” with the drill, and ordered the boat ashore. After returning to the beach and disembarking  the boat Joshua James glanced at the sea and remarked “The tide is ebbing,” and dropped dead on the beach at the age of 75. He left a widow and several children with no money. This situation so intensely appealed to the public that a contribution of $3,733 was collected and given to his wife.

Joshua James is honored every year at his gravesite on May 23rd (Joshua James Day) by the Hull Lifesaving Museum and Station Point Allerton.

Joshua James’s medals include:

  • 1850, Humane Society Bronze for rescue of crew of French brig L’Essai
  • 1885, Humane Society Silver Medal for “brave and faithful service of more than 40 years in the lifeboats of the Humane Society,” and $50
  • Humane Society Gold Medal for Great Storm of 1888
  • Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal for the Great Storm of 1888