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The Pilot

The Pilot
The Pilot

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Old Days and Places...Wave Warriors - 1973

Prologue...                

Keith Bridgman Image
I stood alone, wedged between that appointment when day becomes night, and gazed toward the hills that surround this lost corner of Oregon at Winchester Bay.  Caught as I was where obscure memories find a fresh avenue of awareness, old recollections were aroused by sights, sounds, and the aroma of low tide. I returned to my old duty station back in 2007 and stood on a pier, alone, and searched the depths of my heart and rediscovered a part of my past which at that time was thirty-four years removed.


Sometimes events and opportunity pass our way and we fail to grasp the moment until years later.  The months and years I spent at U.S. Coast Guard Station Umpqua River, so long ago, were no exception.  In recent years I am finally beginning to understand how the emotions, personal connections, and the chance happenings I experienced then, touch me now. 

In so many ways I’m not the same kid I was then. Even so, I realize more than ever that I would not be who I am now if not for those days.  As middle age evolved into those first vestiges of old age a desire inside to return to that place, to touch base again with a part of my past began to burn into my life.  It took a decade for those desires to find a path that lead back to Winchester Bay. It was as though I was called back to find an answer to some unknown question.  Over the next few days I sought a resolution to reconcile those emotions.  The riposte I uncovered lifted me onto another plateau of understanding, with a warming sense of confidence, and an elevated measure of respect for the current young men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat service.  A respect they so mightily deserve.

During my tenure at Umpqua River from November 1973 until January 1976, life changing events, character refining moments, and memory building people, became my world.  We were a good crew back then, somewhat on the edge at times, always ready to lay it on the line.  We loved and hated our job at the same time.  We were young and searching and often foolish, but just as often, we were amazingly resourceful.  We had to be, as funding for the Coast Guard in those days amounted to a few crumbs of left over resources not allocated to the big four services.  
               
 It was a sense of adventure we sought, but more often than not our lives consisted of routine, mundane work dictated by long hours of  port and starboard, or maybe at best, two out of three duty rotation.  Even so, more often than we dared to discuss…circumstances carried us into that realm of high adventure and the searching inexperienced-lives that we were, became young men forced to deal with difficult and sometimes tragic life and death situations.  Although we never considered ourselves ‘elite’, under challenging circumstances we performed our job well, and whether we wanted to admit to it or not, we did so with a sense of purpose and duty.

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They call them Wave Warriors these young people who challenge the treacherous waters that collide with the edge of a continent. For good reason as the coastline of Oregon and Washington is home to some of the most dangerous waters on the planet. The lifeboat units of the 13th Coast Guard District have garnered a rightly earned unique place in history as a result of their efforts. Often overlooked, rarely spoken of outside the confines of their respective locations, these brave young men and women, place themselves at risk virtually every day, standing ready to save those placed in jeopardy by the whimsical nature of the Pacific Northwest

This is the First-Person account of my initial experience chasing the waves across the Umpqua River Bar. (Check out the video at the end)

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November 1973....

“Standby one!”

United States Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG44303 rolled to starboard as it coasted to a stop less than two hundred yards from the mouth of the Umpqua River Bar as Myron Dale replied to a radio call from the lookout tower.

The forty-four foot surfboat gleamed brilliant white in the foggy dim of the morning light.  Deep echoes rumbled from within the twin diesel engines as they settled into idle. Coasting to a stop the 303 turned broadside to the swells and rolled along its central axis, bobbing and whipping left then right then bow to stern. It was a typical November winter day on the bar in 1973, overcast dreariness where a diffused layer of fog hovered suspended above the main channel to boil against the abruptly angle ridge that formed the eastern wall of the river channel. Multiple rows of twelve to fifteen foot breakers collapsed across the narrow three-hundred yard gap separating the ends of the north and south jetties. The surge rolled heavily well inside the channel away from the main surf action.
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The Umpqua River Bar held the reputation as one of the most dangerous bar crossings on the west coast, or anywhere for that matter. Rightly deserved it was. It turned into a liquid hell at times when black storms rolled in to meet the outgoing tide surging with the stained runoff of the Umpqua River to blend into a boiling dirty brown cauldron. From its source high on the flanks of the ancient Mount Mazama deep in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, the Umpqua River cut a jagged course across the western reaches of the state. It’s personality a beautiful, lively river for most of its length, a resource of unspoiled natural wonder, its flanks widened, its color turned brown, and its pace slowed as it approached the coast to eventually arch behind a thick layer of primordial sand dunes and spill into the Pacific Ocean. 
It is here the Umpqua changes into its alter ego and becomes manic depressive in nature, almost Jekyll and Hyde. There are days the mouth remains deceptively calm and serene only to turn violent and depressing at the slightest provocation. It is during those manic times rows of breakers exploded from the depths a turbid boil upon the edge of the continent. This anger could only come from an entity that was alive it would seem, an evil unto itself without enmity, without concern for those who must cross through it, ready to spring from its lair a watery trap for those careless enough to forget. Its history is such that numerous sailing craft large and small have suffered because of its volatile nature, and with them the lives of sailors caught within its hellish waters.
First Class Boatswain Mate BM1 Myron Dale surveyed the face of his rooky crewman, me, perched nervously to his right in the coxswains flat of the CG44303. Myron stood tall in the coxswain’s seat helped by a frame that stretched almost two inches over six feet. His athletic form was showing signs of softening around the mid section. Even so, his youthful appearance and longer than regulation brown, wavy hair, gave him a younger look than his years would show.
Station Umpqua River was one of the older Coast Guard stations on the west coast originally established well back in the days of the old Life Saving Service. In the year 1915 it became part of the newly formed military service officially known as the United States Coast Guard. The first new older facilities originally constructed in the late 1930’s up on the hill overlooking the bar now stood boarded and abandoned after 1962 when the newer station was built on the entrance channel into Winchester Bay Harbor. Today those older buildings house a museum.
Keith Bridgman Image
Small units like Station Umpqua River were not just places to put personnel, they were part of the communities in which they were built. Crew’s of these units became like foster sons to the people they interacted around and it was important to maintain as much as possible that sense of family and connection. Family is simply treated different. Experienced personnel like Myron became invaluable assets to maintaining productive relationships. Winchester Bay exemplified the quaint life that was small town life along the Oregon Coast. Scattered here and there amongst the Victorian style homes and coastal shops were well attended, stout, old churches weathered by wind and rain.
Today’s drills were my first time out on a 44, first time on breaker drills, first duty station out of boot camp, first time to get seasick. Slightly behind Myron and to his left stood Third Class Boatswain Red O’Neil, along with Dan McKean, our engineer, another sandy headed with a dark red beard old timer.

 “Come on Sport…let’s get you strapped in,” Red shouted as he swung around the backside of the coxswains flat where he opened the white equipment storage box behind the coxswains chair and extracted two sets of a seatbelt-like harnesses. He fumbled with the tangled mess before handing one to me. After receiving it I am sure I looked somewhat puzzled as to what to do.

See this part…snap it around low on the hips like a seat belt then pull it tight…like this,”  Red demonstrated using his harness, “ then take the two end pieces and snap them into the eyes built in the bulkhead there and there. Once you’re snapped in, lean back and take out the slack…use your legs like shock absorbers and hold on here and here…it’s going to get rather bouncy once we head into the surf…like this…

Again he demonstrated by placing tension on his harness, leaning back until the straps tightened and then he began to rhythmically bend at the knees.  I followed suit.

Myron looked on with approval and started to verbally give his opinion when the radio cracked.

            “…303 this CG44331.”

Master Chief Boatswains mate John Whalen, Commanding Officer of Station Umpqua River and one of the best surfboat operators in the Guard, also one of the most unorthodox…was approaching from up channel in the 303’s sister craft CG44331.

I turned to my right and spotted the 331 loping along about three hundred yards behind our position. It was mid-morning and the early fog had not completely burned off. Behind them the black bulk of the Umpqua River jetties curved away into the distance filtered by the haze until they disappeared. Nothing was more beautiful than morning on the channel where the haze blended the features of the surrounding terrain into a soft gray. Then, when the sun poked its disc above the ridge, its rays would spread through the haze like golden beams and generate highlights on the dunes against the darker background. I soon discovered that I would never grow tired of witnessing such moments.

The 44’s were powerful rescue boats, yet at the same time they often appeared vulnerable out on the bar almost like toy boats thrown up against an unforgiving adversary. They first came on line in 1964 a few years before my time. Chief Whalen was one of the first to operate them, a new breed of surfboat operator in his day, who helped write the book on how to handle the new vessel.

Tom McAdams
During the 44’s initial evaluation the legendary Chief Tom McAdams would run the prototype through the treacherous waters off Cape Disappointment, where the Columbia River met the Pacific, until they broke it.  Afterward they would limp back to port, have it repaired then they tried to break it again. When it didn’t break anymore, they figured they had themselves one fine rescue boat, certainly a much better craft than the old wooden hulled 36 footers. The old 36 footers were venerable craft, but ancient by the standards required of the new era. Even so, two old 36 footers were still under commission back then, one, the CG36498, sat tied to the fuel dock still used from time to time but only when necessary. Even with the newer 44’s it was still seat of the pants operations, only now they had a vessel with far greater capabilities.

The 331’s gleaming white hull glowed against the dark gray background as a beam of sunlight broke thru the haze, and its red slash across the bow became readily apparent in the new light. On the hill beyond and somewhat to the south, the Umpqua River lighthouse cast its one red and two white beams through the thinning fog. Less than one hundred yards to the north of the lighthouse was the lookout tower which was not really a tower but a small building resting on the edge of the ridge that commanded a view of most of the channel and the bar along with a long stretch of coast as far as the eye was allowed to see.

            “Go ahead 331…” Myron responded.

            “Looks like a good day to break in our rooky, how's Bridge doing?”

Being the reserved sort of fellow I was at the time, I was embarrassed by the comment. Everyone at the station had nick names or shortened names…that’s just the way it was. To have one made that person feel like they were an accepted part of the unit.

            “Ah Roger that Chief…I think my young cherub here is a bit nervous.”

            “He won’t be in a few minutes. How ‘bout you take a quick run through the surf then sit outside by the number two buoy as I come through.”

Myron removed his tight fitting helmet and propped it against his leg. It felt good to get it off his head and feel the fresh air circulate around his ears again. The 303 continued to slowly roll from one side to the other and the light wind whipped the diesel exhaust into the coxswains flat with its noxious fumes. His bright reddish orange neoprene survival suit squeezed him a little too tightly around the shoulders, but was loose around the waist. He glanced at me and detected distress in my expression. He winked at Red and cast a sly grin while nodding at him. Red chuckled.

            “Hey Sport…you’re look’in a might peek-ed around the gills there bud.”

I could only muster a forced grin as my insides were beginning to turn to mush and my head was spinning. My once rosy cheeks were now pale and my jowls and under the eyes contained a delightful greenish hue. Red could not hold his laughter.

            “You know they say there are two kinds of seasickness…”

            “Oh yeah…I didn’t…ummmph…know that," I naively replied stepping feet first into Red's joke.

            “Yeah…you see there’s the kind where you get so sick you’re afraid…and there’s no doubt about it… you’re going to die…”

            “Must be pretty bad….what’s the other kind?”

Red laughed again knowing he had set up his young rookie, “Well sport…then there’s the kind where you get so awfully sick…you’re afraid you won’t die.”

 He, Myron, and Dan burst into a loud obnoxious laughter at the old worn out joke. Red must have told that to every rookie that ever passed through the station at one time or another. I could only grin but wasn’t going to let them get the best of me. I replied,

            “I figure I’ll…ooouuuumph…survive.”

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 A moment later I leaned over the side and emptied my gut with a loud retching much to the delight of the gulls swarming around the boat. They dove into the slime covered water and fought each other for some of the larger of the regurgitated chunks. I felt much better afterward, but also felt foolish and embarrassed. Red laughed and patted me on the back.

Aint it amazing at how wide your mouth opens up when you barf big like that…and how those stupid gulls…man-o-man…they’ll eat anything won’t they, even something as vile as puke.”

The laughing continued, but Red could see the disappointment in my eyes. He knew that everyone was different when is came to getting seasick. Some of the boys never had a problem, while others almost never got used to it.

“Hey Sport, don’t let us laughing at you bother you none”, he said slapping me across the back, “most all of us have done the same thing at one time or another. You’ll get used to it soon enough. Next time out have ole Cookie get you a bag of plain peanuts still in the hulls so you can crack and eat them while you’re out…keeps your mind occupied where you don’t think about it so much and it helps settle your stomach. You ain't a real Coastie, until you toss your cookies a time or two.  We’re expected to ride the big stuff…and if that don’t get your insides churned up…”

           I interupted him, “Gee thanks Red…that makes me feel just all warm and fuzzy inside," then I leaned over the side one more time, only this time a thin ribbon of yellowish fluid oozed out between the strained retching sounds.

Reds laughter increased in volume as he patted me across the top of my helmet, “You’re alright Sport…you’re going to do just fine. Now, let’s get this here show off high center and have some fun.”

By now the 44331 had pulled alongside and cut the engines to idle about twenty yards off the starboard side. Myron spun the 303 slightly to get a better angle so they could hear each other above the roar of the surf and the grumbling of the engines.
           
Looks like the middle ground is beginning to lay down some…I guess we better get some drills in before we lose the tide”, Chief Whalen shouted.

Chief Whalen loved to operate the 44’s on drills. He was quick to talk affectionately about what he considered engineering marvels. Equipped with LORAN navigation and RADAR technology, and a tough hull design, they could plow through the waters of the North Pacific in any kind of weather, and they could turn on a dime and tow a battleship with the twin diesel engines rated at 180 horsepower each. Geared and supplied with special props, they could handle breakers upwards to thirty feet, designed to make a 360 degree roll in heavy surf, snap upright in a few seconds and keep on going.  It was a simple conclusion to him and anyone who operated a 44…they were the best surfboat design in the world hands down.

The small fleet of fishing trawlers and charter boats that operated out of Winchester Bay had grown to admire the abilities of the 44’s and the crew of the Umpqua River Station. There was a kind of unwritten acknowledgment and respect they showed for each other, an almost symbiotic relationship. Each needed the other, each depended on the other, each, could only function if the other were there. The Umpqua River Lifeboat Station had a unique relationship with the community of Winchester Bay as they were located in the heart of the small community. The local folks knew the station boys treating them as though they were their own son’s in many cases. It was a bond with roots going back several generations, a bond of trust not easily broken, nor easily mended once lost. A monument dedicated to those who lost their lives operating out of Winchester Bay served as a reminder of the dangers a life on the sea subjects on those who dared to challenge it.

 Myron replaced the helmet and secured the strap under his chin. Turning toward me he said,

            “You ready for this…

            I nodded.

            “Okay…Let’s do it…

He waved his hand in the air in a circular motion then pointed toward the bar and pressed the twin throttles full forward.  The 303 surged, the stern driving low as the torque of the props driven by a combined 360 horsepower bit deep. He spun the wheel to straighten the bow and then cut across the front of the 331 about fifty yards out. A foamy wake exploded out from the bow and the deep staccato rumble of the engines vibrated the air. Without taking his eyes off the bar, Matt shouted above the roar so I could hear.
 
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         “Always remember…let this be the first and most important lesson you learn…never underestimate the bar and never overestimate your own abilities, once you hit the surf you have to stay on top of it at all times always keep your head moving, look ahead to the next series before you come out of the first, know what you are going to do before you do it, learn to react, learn to think quickly, this bar never stops coming at you, it will pound the crap out of you, always pushing, always shoving, always looking for a way to bust your butt. You must not let it have it’s way but you must control it. You must be in control of your vessel at all times, know what it will do and more importantly, what it won’t do.”

I barely heard a word. My mouth was dry, but my body was wet partly from sweat, partly from the spray blown into the coxswains flat as the powerful boat surged into the ever increasing chop. Oddly enough my seasickness disappeared with the adrenalin rush. I was scared but excited, intrigued, but wished I could have more time to prepare. Time ran out.

The first layer of breakers across the middle ground rose to meet us and Myron throttled back causing the 303 to surge downward toward the bow. He spun the wheel to port then to starboard lining up the next breaker, waiting for the swell to build…timing his approach…full throttles forward and the 303 lunged into the rising wall of foaming water. The bow shot upward to what seemed like vertical, then hung for moment on the crest and in a rush slammed into the trough behind the cresting swell. The jolt caught me off guard and I didn’t bend my knees in time and almost lost my footing but recovered.  The 303 sat seemingly lost between two walls of giant swells that now surrounded us.  
 
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Myron spun the 303 to port, backed off the port engine and pushed the starboard engine forward spinning the 303 within its own length. A second later he jammed the port throttle to meet the other and spun the 303 to starboard timing it exactly to rise into next breaker cresting in front of them. The 303 plowed through the top of the crest and became airborne. For a moment we were weightless as the bow of the 303 arched slowly toward its collision with the surface, the engines screaming in protest as their props broke free. The impact staggered all of us, but we adjusted to the forces applied to our bodies, our heads jerking downward and forward, our bodies twisting against the torque. An arm of the curling breaker slammed into the corner of the 303’s coxswains flat and a jolt of water slammed into my face as it shot through an opening along the side. It took my breath away as it surprised me at how cold and salty it was.  I shook my head to clear my vision and glanced over toward Red whose smoke stained teeth glowed in the dim morning light through his wide grin.

            “The old 44’s are the bulldogs of the surfboat fleet. They power their way through the surf with brute force”.  Red yelled above the roar of the surf and engines so I could hear.

 Myron slowed the 303 turning the port side broadside to the next approaching swell, working the throttles causing them to alternately rumble then whine, then roar, spinning the wheel with a delicate touch, rubber necking his head right to left and back again. He rose up slightly to get a better view, then plopped his seat down quickly and cursed aloud as he realized the next breaker was approaching more quickly than he anticipated. He spun the wheel and jammed the starboard throttle forward…there was a delay and the 303 did not respond…a loud clanging bell began to ring indicating the engine had died. I wasn’t sure what was happening as my eyes were transfixed on the approaching breaker. Myron instinctively cursed out loud and he repositioned the throttle to neutral and slammed his free hand on the red starboard engine re-start button located in front of the helm. 

The engine sputtered…and he cursed out loud again and repressed the switch.  The engine roared to life and the ringing stopped as he jammed the throttle forward while spinning the wheel to port, but it wasn’t in time and the 303 angled at 45 degrees across the breaking swell. It rolled sharply 90 degrees to starboard and tons of water began to fill the lower well and swirl around our bodies. My eyes grew wide as the 303 tipped, close to rolling, and I was plunged into a dark, salty, freezing torrent of foaming water. I held my breath knowing from previous indoctrination that the 44 can and will roll 360 degrees…it was designed to do so…but I had no desire to experience this activity, not on my first outing.  A few seconds later the 303 snapped sharply to port righting itself from the near rollover and surged forward, the water that collected in the lower well draining out the self-bailing ports.

Myron yelled out loud with a whooping laughter and Red joined him as he turned toward the stern to take a glance of what they had just come through. I hadn’t taken a breath in close to a minute and gasped for air while I shook off the shock. That 90 degree roll on my side drenched me as much as a full roll would have. The 303 spun again lining up with the next and final line of breakers. Myron pulled the throttles back and brought the 303 to a complete stop waiting for the swell to develop before pressing them slightly forward. The final swell broke about 10 yards in front of us and slammed into the bow with the force of several tons. The 303 lunged upward and then through the swell and Myron kicked the throttles forward and headed out to open water.
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            “And that’s the way we ride the waves!” he shouted as he high-fived Red.

 I was speechless. Never had I experienced such a rush…such a sense of fear tempered with excitement and now the knowledge that I too was a full fledged member of the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station having seen the elephant for the first time.

Myron delighted in breaker drills but his concern was with the engines as it was a real problem when they shut down during drills.

            “Dan, when we get back in take a look at that engine and figure out what’s going on there…that’s the second time it’s shut down on us this week.” he shouted at our engineer.

           Dan shouted back, “Done that already. Can’t find anything wrong with it Myron…we’ve checked it out top to bottom…everything is set up like it should be.”

            “Well, something’s wrong.  Check it out again when we get back in.
             
For the next hour the 303 and 331 traded turns running breaker drills through the Umpqua River bar. By the time we finished, I felt like I was a real veteran. As the bar began to moderate and the surf converted into shallow swells, we headed back in. By this time, the sun was full up and the fog mostly burned off.  The experience, the sights and sounds taught me to enjoy those moments when the golden dunes were illuminated by the beams of sun that broke through the clouds. It was the colors, the sounds, the odors, and the feel of the moment that moved me the most.


Now as part of one of the oldest military branch of the United States my purpose was to perform my duty at the best of my ability. From that point on I wanted only to be prepared to do what had to be done when the time came. Somewhere inside of me I knew that destiny would bring me into conflict with this purpose.  

Any surfboat pilot could perform the routine stuff…train with breaker drills…tow in the broken down boats or run bar patrols as had been performed hundreds of times. Only the best could do the impossible.  Only the best could look death in the face and tell it to move aside. Only the best was what was expected of us. There prevailed a hovering specter lapping over our shoulders, always watching, always taunting. Somehow after that first introduction with what the Umpqua River Bar had to offer, I knew it was only time before something more seriously sinister would thrust its ugly world into ours...into mine. As it turned out, it wasn't long before I was to witness near tragic events that rammed home the importance of always being ready to face the dangerous unknown challenges that is the life of a Wave Warrior.

(From the Lassie series: footage of the CG44303 vs the Umpqua River Bar)








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