Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

Prairie Sunrise

Prairie Sunrise
Prairie Sunrise

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Old Guard

On January 29th a new action adventure movie will be released. It is based on a true story, the best kind of movie stories. It is an adventure about courage and dedication and one that strikes a personal note. The movie is The Finest Hours staring Christopher Pine. The event happened way back in 1952 on the East coast during a terrible storm where a Coast Guard small boat crew executes what is considered the most daring small boat rescue in Coast Guard History.

From September 1973 until August 1977 I spent four years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Those few years became the defining moment of my young adult life, moments that still affect who I am today. Of all the events of my life, nothing retains the level of influence gained from those experiences. They were difficult, challenging, and at times dangerous, yet I would not trade those days for anything.

Most of my tenure in the Coast Guard was spent at the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station located at Winchester Bay, Oregon. Winchester Bay was a small coastal community about one third of the way up the Oregon coast from the California border. With a vibrant commercial fishing fleet, it was also known as a popular vacation spot with miles of ancient sand dunes and unspoiled rustic beaches. At the time, hundreds of personal small craft owners would migrate to this location between Memorial Day and Labor Day. As a result, we were understandably very busy during this period. Back then, with a crew of about 24 or 25, we averaged around 400 SAR's, or Search and Rescues, per year, most of them occuring between those dates. Most of them were routine, but some were in fact life and death challenges.

One of our 44 footers
The Umpqua River Bar crossing has the dubious reputation of being one of the most dangerous crossings on the west coast. At times, when conditions are good, you can water ski across it. But when things turn bad as they often did, the bar turned into a hellish boiling mass of twenty, sometimes as high as thirty foot breakers collasping in multiple rows across the entrance channel. To combat these conditions we operated two 44 foot motorlife boats (MLB); the CG44303 and the CG44331. We also had one of the last wooden hulled 36 foot MLB still in commission, the CG36498. This is the same kind of rescue boat depicted in the movie. It's designation was CG36500, from the same construction lineage as our 36498.

(The following video depicts the CG44303 in action on the Umpqua River Bar as filmed for the Lassie series episode 'Tempest' back in the mid-1960's. This sequence heavily influenced my decision to join the Coast Guard and by chance I happened to end up at the same location.)

The 44's were remarkable craft and could perform a 360 degree roll in heavy surf and still complete the mission. They were designed to bulldog their way through the surf, maneuver on a dime, and execute dangerous rescues in adverse conditions. They were powerful, nimble, ruggedly capable rescue boats, but they were slow with a top speed of around 15 knots (about 20mph).

There was a phrase passed around back then about someone who had been in the Coast Guard for a long time, long enough to have witnessed a great deal of change. They were from 'The Old Guard'. Today's Coast Guard is a more high tech, highly motivated service. They still operate out of Winchester Bay, only today they run around in the newer 47 foot Motor Lifeboats. These vessels are very fast, highly capable rescue boats in their own right, but they are of the New Guard generation. From what I understand, the number of SAR's at Winchester Bay today averages around 40 or so per year, more a result of the economic times, and better trained private boat operators than anything else.

One of the New 47 Footers
There are times I remember back to those days and realize that our crew was the vanguard of a newer class of Old Guard personnel. We didn't feel it at the time, but as the years have passed, one begins to realize just how Old Guard we really were. We relied more on 'seat of the pants skill' than high tech equipment. Of the hundreds of small craft owners we towed back to the harbor, few probably realize just how fortunate they were for us to have been there. Stranded as they may have been, things could have turned dangerous very quickly without our intervention. There were times we had boats catch on fire, several capsizings with people in the water, boats lost in thick fog not knowing what to do. We also had one serious situation where one of the smaller commercial trawlers, the Holmes, got caught in heavy surf trying to cross the bar and was eventually battered against the ominous black rocks of the South Jetty. A crew on the 44303 pulled them off just seconds before the Holmes was shattered into kindling wood; a daring and dangerous rescue it was in deed.

Harmony under Tow
We also had the severed thumb or broken finger calls, and one I was directly involved in, a heart attack
victim who had collapsed onboard the fshing vessel Poky. Our crew received commendation for that one. And then the time the large trawler Harmony broke down during stormy weather and we had to head out and tow them back to safety. It was a nasty long and wet ride.

Yeah, the Old Guard helped to build a lot of character for a lot of searching young men back then, To see a movie come out that focuses on the achievements of a previous generation of Old Guard crewmates, well, it does one good. I hope many of you will find the time to watch this new movie and hopefully it will give you a greater respect for a branch of the military few think much about. They are unsung hereos often going into harms way in obscurity. It's good to see them receive some recognition.

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