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The Pilot

The Pilot
The Pilot

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Longest Day

Every once and a while I will share a story or two about my time in U.S. Coast Guard usually after a moment of reflection about how something that happens today reminds me of an event from all those years ago. So it has been recently.

The last few days have been rather exciting and at the same time extremely tiring. The big eclipse of 2017 passed thru this part of Kentucky and as a result thousands of people from all parts converged on this area to capture a glimpse of the great solar eclipse. Many of them arrived a day or two early and as a result they were looking for something to do...so...a great many of them visited the National Corvette Museum where I work part time taking fun pictures for those who attend. It was so busy the past few days that I found myself absolutely exhausted, so much so today after work I crawled into bed and crashed for a couple of hours after I got home. Oddly enough the exhaustion I experienced reminded me of another event that happened over 40 years ago when I experience one of the most exhausting stretches of my life. I call it The Longest Day.


Back in the summer of 1974 I was stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard station Umpqua River on the Oregon coast. We performed many duties but our primary roll was search and rescue. As part of that roll some of us had the opportunity (pun intended) to stand what we called the Tower Watch. Actually it was a vital function as the Tower Watch were the eyes and ears of the station where those in the lookout tower, a small building positioned along the edge of the ridge that overlooked the Umpqua River Bar, were responsible for 24/7 every day of the year to monitor boating traffic in and out of the Umpqua River crossing. This also included maintaining a Communications watch where we monitored emergency radio frequencies. This watch was rotated every 4 hours and during each week you could stand the morning, mid, or evening watches.  We also had our daily work assignments along with the watches.

During one summer week I was assigned the first 4 to 8 watch which meant I had to get up very early, usually after not much sleep, and then turn to work on our daily work schedule right after getting off watch at 8 that morning, and then return again at 4pm for the evening watch. I was also what was known as the duty Seaman which meant if any kind of rescue situation was required when I was off watch I had to head out as one of the boat crew.

The Longest Day began with my ordinary morning and evening watch. The day before had been a long day and night so I was already tired having been up for most of the previous two days with virtually no sleep, an hour here and there. Around 10pm I was about ready to turn in for the night when we received a call from one of the commercial fishing trawlers that they had stumbled onto a cabin cruiser drifting about 15 miles off shore. Somehow or another they had a power failure and were unable to start their engine or radio for help. As luck would have it, myself and two other crew members headed out to bring them in. Seemed like a routine Search And Rescue, but it turned out to be anything but that.


The night air and the ocean were rather calm, so much so they both seemed surreal as we cut through the waters. On the surface was a thick layer of fog that obscured our visibility, but overhead we could see stars. As we powered our way toward the rendezvous with the cruiser, the propellers from our motor lifeboat stirred up that phosphorescent algae that began to glow pale green from the agitation. I was fascinated by this observation as you could follow the trail behind us far enough until it disappeared into the fog.

Several times along the way we had to take a radio direction signal to alter our course and as I also operated the radar unit I would from time to time take a quick look, adjusting the signal strength to reach out far enough where we would eventually see them. It took us a little while to reach them, but eventually we did and we took the cabin cruise in tow...thanking the crew of the trawler for their assistance.

At that point it appeared we were on our way back to finish up a routine run. When towing another vessel, you must slow down because each hull type has a maximum towing speed. If you go too fast you could cause the vessel in tow to broach and potentially capsize. You also want to let out enough tow line so the two boats are in sync with each other, with both of you rising or falling across a swell at the same time. So we backed off the throttle, let out about 150 feet of tow line and puttered our way toward home. It was going to take about twice as long to get home as it took to get out there. I tried to catch some sleep but it proved to be impossible under the circumstances.

The return trip became one of sitting back and monitoring systems and because I also handled all the lines, I would from time to time check on the towing houser just to make sure all was well. The fog was so thick our vessel in tow at times disappeared into the void of the fog. When were about half way home, our boat coxswain, Myron Dale, asked me to check the radar and get a visual fix on where the Umpqua River entrance Bar was located in relationship to where we were.

I switched the radar back on, peered into the hood and adjusted the power setting. For a brief moment I could see the beach area and the jetties about 7 or 8 miles away...then, the radar went black. I tried to readjust the settings, but nothing on the screen. I turned it off and back on...still nothing.

"uh...Myron...We gotta problem here," I said in a rather confused voice.

"What do you mean a problem?"

"I mean the radar is dead. There is nothing on the screen."

Myron and I exchanged places for a few moments. I operated the boat while he fiddled with the radar.

"Crap...it's dead." He grumbled.

"Yeah...that's what I said." I smarted off.

Myron jumped back on the coxswains chair and tried to use the radio direction finder to lock onto the radio beacon coming from the Umpqua River Lighthouse. It was dead.

"What the h--- is going on?" he again grumbled.

About this time our engineer, Dan Mckean, got into the act and went below to check on circuit breakers and fuses and things like that. They were all in good order.

Myron then tried to call the Umpqua River Lookout tower on the radio. Nothing...not even static. It was dead. It appeared almost everything electrical was dead and we were running blind on a foggy night with a vessel in tow. The only thing working was the depth finder. At the time we could not figure out why it worked but nothing else would. It turned out to be our ticket home. (Later we discovered that one of the two motor generators had burned out. The burned out generator supplied power to everything electrical except the depth finder.)

The problem we faced was in order to cross the Umpqua River Bar, you had a rather narrow section thru which to cross. Too far to the south and you would end up running into the jagged rocks of the jetty. Too far to the north and you might run aground in shallow water, not to mention the possibility of a breaker line forming across the bar. The radar would help us see that as intermitent lines running between the jetties. Difficult enough even for our surfboat which was designed for such things, but having another boat in tow complicated the situation.

Myron was pretty cool and experienced. With the depth finder working he simply said, "Okay, we'll run straight in until we reach the fathom line where we know the end of the south jetty ends. From there we will run north until we see the end of the jetty, then loop around and cut across the bar."

Sounded simple enough, but the fog had reduced visibilty to about 50 feet by this time.

Myron shouted at me to take in some of the tow line so we could better see our tow, which I did. As we approached the correct fathom line, he backed off the throttle to where we were barely moving forward. Dan climbed out onto the bow of our boat and I stood down in the well near the rear compartment. We listened for waves rolling up on the jetty and strained to catch a visual confirmation. In the distance we could hear the waves rolling onto the rocks, but could not see it. Myron, crawled us forward and all three of us strained into the foggy night. Then, about 50 feet away, the end of the jetty came into view.

Myron back down on the throttle, and shouted "Watch that tow line!"

I jumped over to the towing head and quickly took up the slack to avoid the line from going too slack. A slack line could have fouled our props and we would have been in real trouble if that happened.

Myron spun the large wheel and touched the throttles forward just a bit and we arched our way around the end of the jetty eventually turning into the channel. After a quarter mile or so, the fog lifted and we could for the first time in some time breath a bit easier.

It took another hour or so to bring our tow all the way in to the harbor, get her secured, fill out the SAR reports and get all the information we needed to call it a night. By this time it was approaching 3 am While we were performing this, the skipper of the cruiser asked me why we had come so close to the jetty on our way in. I smiled and said,

 "Oh we lost all of out electrical power and were running blind in that fog. We had to cut it little close."

I looked the skipper in the eye and in the faint light of the harbor I could the see the color drain from his face as he began to realize just how serious of a situation we had been in.

My night was not over though. By this time I had been up for over 60 hours and just undergone a stressful ordeal that ran late into the night, but once we got back to the station, I had to prepare to go on watch again for the 4am to 8am morning watch. I was dead tired, but managed to stagger through that watch. By 8 am when I returned to the station I was so tired it was all I could do to grab a bite to eat.

Friday's most of the time we were granted early liberty after lunch, but on this day we were not. Too much going on, so I ended up having to work for most of the afternoon...still with no sleep. I lost track of how many hours I had been functioning, but when we were finally released, I simply fell into my bunk, clothes and all, and fell off to sleep. Luckily I had the weekend off and I estimate that I slept for about 18 to 20 hours before getting up the next day...the day after the Longest Day.




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