(p.166) (p.167) Appendix B. The U.S. Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School Uslss/Uscg Methods of Boat Launch
From the early 1900s to the 1960s, the 36-foot MLB was the primary heavy-weather coastal rescue craft. The crews manning these boats typically had extensive experience operating these boats in their local area, with highly capable leadership from seasoned veterans whose boat- handling skills were passed on directly to each new crew member. Training was conducted on the local level at each unit, which allowed these crews to share their experiences and techniques. As the venerable 36-footer was replaced in the 1960s by the new 44-foot MLB, crews came to realize that these steel- hulled craft were more capable and more complicated than the wooden lifeboats they replaced, and a gradual trend in decreasing experience levels among the boat crews soon became evident as stations transitioned to the 44-footer.
In Coast Guard District 13 (comprised of the stations in Oregon and Washington), severe surf conditions are routinely encountered by lifeboat crews. By the late 1960s, the District became concerned that there was no readily available means of sharing lessons learned and practical experience with the new 44-foot MLBs. As a result, the Cape Disappointment station was selected as a site where 44-foot MLB boat crews could meet and practice operations in heavy weather and surf. This initially informal training proved to be so successful that staff positions were later added to the station crew at Cape Disappointment specifically for this lifeboat training. As this arrangement continued to evolve, it gained Service-wide recognition as a valuable tool for training lifeboat coxswains and crews. Ultimately, in 1980, the Coast Guard assigned lifeboat resources, staff, and funding to permanently establish a formal school, along with a standardized curriculum, to be known as the National Motor Lifeboat School (NMLBS), co-located with Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Washington. Increased training needs and a focus on standardization have caused the lifeboat school to expand through the years, including new shore maintenance facilities, offices, and classrooms that were added in 1993.
The primary purpose of the National Motor Lifeboat School is to teach coxswains standard practices and procedures to use in operating lifeboats and carrying out rescue missions, especially under conditions of extreme weather and surf. The school also teaches proper maintenance procedures for both the hull and engine systems, with the goal of promoting the highest degree of professionalism and competence. The school is located at the mouth of the Columbia River at Cape Disappointment. Since 1878, this area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” has been home to USLSS and USCG coastal rescue facilities. The Columbia River runs headlong into Pacific Ocean and, coupled with frequent storms, creates some of the roughest sea conditions in the world. The river current collides with strong tides at the mouth of the river (usually referred to as the “bar”), often causing 10- to 20foot breaking waves and wind/sea state extremes.
When formally established, the school had five 44foot MLBs in its inventory, with school staff responsible for boat maintenance. Student coxswains learned operating skills and maintenance techniques specific to this boat. When the 30-foot SRB was introduced in the mid1980s, several were assigned to the school, and similar skills were taught on this faster response supplement to the lifeboat fleet. The inventory of school boats continues to change today to reflect actual Coast Guard station boat resources. The 30-foot SRB has been completely removed from Coast Guard inventory, as well as from the school’s boat inventory. The school was an integral part of the testing and development of the new 47-foot MLB, with a team assigned to the school conducting extensive operational tests of the prototype lifeboat. Their input was invaluable in improving and finalizing design details before full production was begun in 1996. The school now operates a fleet of five 47-foot MLBs.
The school today has a permanent staff of sixty-eight active-duty Coast Guard personnel, including a Chief Warrant Officer as Commanding Officer, a Chief Boatswains Mate as Executive Petty Officer, and a Chief Machinery (p.168) Technician as Engineer Petty Officer. A support staff of two administrative personnel along with a nineteen-person maintenance staff (nine deck rates and ten engineering rates) ensures the lifeboats are always ready for training missions. The core of the school’s capability lies within the expertise of its eleven instructors, all of whom are senior enlisted personnel with a strong background in lifeboat operations. They are all First Class Petty Officers with Boatswains Mate (BM) or Machinery Technician (MK) ratings. School staff coxswains must have demonstrated superior seamanship knowledge through use of the lifeboat, and must have achieved certification as surfmen.
The “Heavy Weather Coxswain” course is the school’s core curriculum. It teaches experienced lifeboat coxswains the skills needed in advanced seamanship, near-shore rescue techniques, and operation of the lifeboat in seas up to 16 feet (5 meters) and wind/sea states up to 40 knots (Beaufort Force 8). The extreme environmental conditions of wave, weather, tide, and surf found near Cape Disappointment make it the ideal proving ground for these coxswains to hone their skills.
The “Basic Coxswain” course is designed for the novice lifeboat coxswain, focusing on standard procedures and practices with emphasis on heavy-weather use of the motor lifeboat. The “Ready for Operations Supervisor (Evaluator)” course provides baseline knowledge for senior personnel involved in the continuing oversight of the lifeboat fleet and the routine evaluations of crews. This course was developed to provide station management personnel with the information and experience necessary to support the lifeboat fleet on a daily basis. The Coast Guard requires its Group-level lifeboat fleet managers to assess the materiel condition of the lifeboats under their control and the competency of the crews that operate them. This annual assessment is known as a “Ready for Operations (RFO)” inspection and is an integral part of maintaining lifeboat fleet standardization. It is also an adjunct to the Readiness and Standardization Program.
The “Engineering Maintenance/RFO” course provides training for senior engineering management personnel, similar in focus to that of the “RFO Supervisor (Evaluator)” course described above. It was developed in response to the need to provide field- and middle-management-level (p.169) personnel the information and exposure to the 47-foot MLB so that they may effectively support the boat through proper maintenance and routine inspection. Not all the personnel assigned to the stations or groups, particularly machinery technicians, have adequate experience in maintaining lifeboats. This course teaches technicians standard maintenance and operations procedures specific to the lifeboat, and helps to increase awareness of problems or trends within the fleet.
Programs were developed in 2003 to address the Service-wide shortage of certified surfmen. A four-week prototype surfman class was developed from the surf-man training syllabus, with the goal of students attaining their surfman qualification. Because of the success of this class, it will be permanently added to the school’s curriculum, and two four-week classes will be held annually. A total of ten BM2 positions were added to the school crew as two-year surfman apprentices, to be filled with certified 47-foot MLB coxswains. Surfman apprentices will then be reassigned to surfman billets upon successful completion of this program.
Although most of the school’s resources and efforts are devoted to resident training, it also serves the lifeboat community through its Readiness and Standardization Team and by evaluating prototype changes to the 47-foot MLB. The MLB Readiness and Standardization Program has been a continually evolving effort to create and maintain a standard fleet of boats, with standard levels of training, and standard mission-applicable procedures. The Readiness and Standardization Team (STANTEAM) consists of a Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate and several BM1 and MK1 inspectors, all of whom serve as the technical experts for the entire Coast Guard’s lifeboat fleet, and conduct routine assessment inspections biannually of all lifeboat stations. These assessment visits help to maintain fleetwide standards in procedures, education, training, maintenance, and equipment outfit for the Coast Guard’s lifeboat community.
The STANTEAM spends three to four days at a station. The station crew is administered a written exam to test their knowledge of the lifeboat, its systems, and Navigation Rules (72 COLREGS). A thorough inspection of each lifeboat is conducted, identifying any problems or variances from standard procedures and configuration. Each lifeboat is subjected to a “full power trial” where all systems are checked and engine performance is compared to standard parameters. Each station crew is graded on their performance of standard procedures during a series of drills, including recovery of personnel from the water, towing, dewatering, day/night navigation, crew member piloting, search patterns, and basic engineering casualty control exercises. The STANTEAM then provides a detailed debriefing to the station crew, and reports an overall assessment of the unit to Coast Guard management at the District and Headquarters level. This service is also being extended to stations having the new Response Boat- Small.
Lifeboat hull, engineering, and equipment improvements are developed at the school or submitted by station operators through the school. Working with naval engineering and logistics staff members, the school often conducts evaluations or prototypes new ideas. When completed, a detailed change for the lifeboat fleet is funded and implemented with emphasis on maintaining a fleetwide standard. The school also works jointly with the Coast Guard’s Utility Boat (UTB) Systems Center in Yorktown, Virginia. Together, the NMLBS and the UTB Systems Center comprise the “Centers of Excellence” intended to assist, train, and guide the Coast Guard’s multi-mission boat fleet.
USLSS/USCG Methods of Boat Launch
One aspect of USLSS and USCG lifeboat/surfboat history that deserves some mention is the technique and equipment used to launch these craft for operation. Overall, the method of boat launch tended to depend on the type of craft being launched (i.e., lifeboat or surfboat), the proximity of the station to the water’s edge, and the surrounding topography and hydrography. In general, lifeboats were too heavy and large to allow manual launch over a beach from a transportable carriage or cart. Surfboats, on the other hand, were typically small enough and light enough to permit direct launch from a carriage or cart over a beach into the surf. This section will focus on the three primary means of boat launch used by the USLSS and USCG: carriage launch, slipway launch, and afloat mooring.
The lower-profile topography and poor coastal road system, combined with the hydrography of a gradual slope to the shoreline, along the Atlantic coastline tended (p.170) to dictate beachfront USLSS station locations that were set back a short distance from the water’s edge as protection from surf and storm surge. As a result, the preferred method for rescue craft launch was use of a man- or horse-pulled carriage dragged to the scene of the wreck, with the boat then manually launched directly into the surf opposite the wreck’s location. This dictated that only the lighter-weight surfboat could be used, although there were some stations near harbors or inlets that also had a lifeboat, but not carriage-launched.
In the Great Lakes region, many stations could be located at or very near harbor or river entrances, allowing the construction of launching ramps or slipways directly from the boathouse into the water. As such, heavier craft could be used, and it was not atypical for a Great Lakes station to be equipped with a lifeboat and a surfboat, both of which were launched down the slipway.
The Pacific Coast stations were initially a bit more unique in boat launch methods. Some stations were located similarly to those on the Atlantic Coast (i.e., constructed along the beachfront), but due to the prevalent severe surf conditions, they needed the self-righting capabilities of a lifeboat for better crew protection. In this case, what is seen from USLSS records is that the smaller self-righting Dobbins pulling lifeboat was assigned, but launched from a transportable carriage at the scene of the wreck. Some stations were built with a slipway and equipped with the larger lifeboat types, but it was not until the Coast Guard era that this was the general practice for stations in this region.
The regional approach to station construction and boat launch methods remained in effect through the early Coast Guard era, but three separate factors led to changes that resulted in the construction of a more standard type of station and method of boat launch: (1) the deterioration of the original USLSS station structures; (2) the development of newer and larger rescue craft with motor propulsion; and (3) the need for fewer stations due to the wider use of motor propulsion with its longer response range (compared to rowing or sailing). In the post–World War I period, the Coast Guard began to experience serious problems with continued maintenance and operation of the original USLSS stations. Time, weather, and (p.171) heavy use had taken quite a toll on the buildings and associated facilities, and it became evident that many, if not most, of them would require immediate replacement or rebuilding. At nearly the same time, the development of newer, but larger and heavier motorized lifeboats and surfboats such as the Type H MLBs and MSBs, and later the Type T series MLBs, allowed a station to respond to rescue cases at longer ranges than before. This, in turn, allowed the Coast Guard to close stations that were no longer needed for coverage of a particular geographic area, and focus boat resources at locations that were more favorable in terms of construction and ease of launch. The larger size and weight of these boats, though, forced the Coast Guard to generally abandon over-the beach launch methods and more universally adopt a slip-way method of launch similar to what the RNLI had been using in Britain for some years.
During the USLSS era, the primary carriage in use for surfboat or Dobbins lifeboat launch was an iron-framed, four- wheel carriage that could be pulled by either the station crew, a team of horses, or both. The iron wheels were usually 4 feet in diameter, with a 6-inch-wide tread. Although improved late in the 1800s by Captain McLellan, basic carriage design remained consistent throughout the USLSS period. Station crew member towing was by means of rope bridles, three to a side, with one crew member pulling on each bridle. The forward axle towbar could also be pulled by crewmen, but could also be the point of attachment for a one- to two-horse team depending on the station’s allotment. Although the iron wheels were made relatively wide to allow passage over soft sand, the carriage and boat together weighed quite a bit (typically over 2,000 lbs), and it was not uncommon for the crew to experience great difficulty in pulling the boat to the launch site, especially if weather and beach surface conditions were poor.
During boat launch from a carriage, each crewman had specific assigned duties. After positioning the carriage at the edge of the surf, the crew would first slide the boat back on the carriage over the rear axle (shifting the weight off of the forward axle), then remove the forward axle and wheels, and then lower the front of the carriage down to the ground, keeping the rear axle and wheels attached. The boat was then pushed off the carriage into the sand at the water’s edge in preparation for launch into the surf. The carriage and front axle assembly were pulled back away from the water’s edge. Recovery and reloading were essentially the opposite, with the crew positioning (p.173) the carriage (minus the front axle assembly) in front of the beached surfboat, pushing the boat up and onto the carriage and over the rear axle, then lifting up the forward portion of the carriage frame to replace the forward axle and wheels.
In the Coast Guard era, with the parallel development of better automotive/truck suspensions and pneumatic tires, as well as the heavier motor surfboat types, a single-axle, rubber tire–equipped trailer was introduced that was intended to be towed by either a station truck or a tractor. The total tow weight of the later-model motor surfboats (typically over 4,000 lbs) was much greater than the pulling surfboats, so it was no longer possible for crewmen to manually pull the motor surfboats on their carriages for long distances over the beach for launch. The McLellan-type four-wheel carriage continued to be used for pulling surfboat launch right up to the end of pulling surfboat beach launch operations in the early 1950s, but was retrofitted with rubber tires starting in the 1920s.
The modern-day equivalent of carriage launch, which continues in use by the Coast Guard, is a truck-pulled boat trailer for direct launch of certain types of rigid-hull inflatable boats. This allows the Coast Guard more flexibility in rescue coverage over a geographic area, being able to use commercially available boat ramps for launch and operation rather than having to respond only from a station location.
These trailers are also used for transport of smaller boats on cargo aircraft such as the Coast Guard’s HC-130 Hercules.
During the USLSS era, slipways were built as fairly simple marine railway–type launch ramps, with a single- or double- bay boathouse constructed at the top of the ramp. Boats were launched and recovered along the slipway by means of a four-wheel cradle on twin rails, with recovery accomplished by manually winching, with a windlass, up the ramp back into the boathouse the boat on its cradle. As mentioned above, this type of arrangement was usually built for stations located along the Great Lakes and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific Coast.
During the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, starting in the 1930s, a major program of Coast Guard station construction was initiated using funds provided under the Works Project Administration (or WPA). These “Roosevelt”-type stations typically had, as one of their design hallmarks, either a single building or two separate buildings for station crew and boats, with a fairly elaborate wooden marine railway for the launch of boats directly into the water at protected locations, such as harbor entrances, inlets, or coves. The boathouse was designed with separate bays for each boat type assigned; i.e., there were separate bays for the motor lifeboat, motor surfboat, and pulling surfboat, with each boat stored on its own four-wheel, twin-rail carriage that could roll out of the bay and down the ramp via gravity into the water.
Each carriage was attached by wire rope or cable to a powered winch for the purposes of boat haulout. Upon leaving the boat bay, the tracks (set at a gauge slightly wider, 5′6.25″, than the standard railroad gauge of 4′8.5″) could either converge at the top of the ramp before entering the water or descend independently to the water’s edge. The length of the marine railway ramp varied from station to station depending on the local topography and nearshore water depths. Generally a slope of about ⅜″ per linear foot was installed in the boathouse proper, followed by a 1⅛″ per linear foot slope outside of the boathouse down to the water’s edge. This arrangement would provide sufficient, but controllable, downward travel of a boat on its cradle (with crew already aboard).
The advantages to this arrangement were that larger and heavier boats could be accommodated such as the Type T series motor lifeboat, and below-waterline maintenance and repair of the boats could be more easily performed. Boats could also be better protected against storm and ice damage. Some stations were required to cover extensive beachfront areas, and so they were also equipped with the tractor- or truck-towed carriages mentioned above for surfboat launch.
Some stations, rather than a slipway, had an over-water boathouse constructed with a boat lift. Although it was not intended that a boat would be launched directly from the lift to go on a mission, the lift could provide better facilities for boat maintenance and repair.
Some classic examples of the “Roosevelt-type” station with boathouse and slipway that are still in existence include Station Castle Hill, R.I., and Station Humboldt Bay, Calif. The bright white-painted station houses and boathouses, along with the typical motor lifeboat and surfboat on the ramp, served for many years as the well- recognized symbol of the coastal rescue mission of the Coast Guard. Even this arrangement, however, had its day and could not accommodate more modern mission needs and developments.
Contemporary Launch Methods
By the 1960s, many of the Roosevelt-type stations were, like their USLSS predecessors, beginning to deteriorate due to weather and use. The missions of the Coast Guard had significantly expanded beyond coastal search and rescue to include law enforcement, aids to navigation, and environmental protection. These missions required larger station crews, along with a need for more extensive (p.176) communications, command, and maintenance facilities. The boats were changing, too. The Type T series MLB was being replaced with the 44-foot steel MLB, which could not be launched down marine railway ramps due to the boat’s increased size and weight; therefore, it had to be kept afloat alongside a pier or dock. The old motor and pulling surfboats were being replaced with faster and more capable 30-foot and 40-foot utility boats, which also could not be ramp-launched or beach-launched from a carriage.
Beginning in the early 1970s, then, we see the Coast Guard beginning another program of station construction. This time, however, boat ramps were abandoned, and in their place more extensive dock facilities were constructed. In many instances, these would include a means of boat haulout using a special mobile cradle. Some of the Pacific Coast stations had fully enclosed boat slips constructed that also included an overhead gantry type of cradle hoist. Crew quarters were modernized, and a separate operations center was provided with radios and radar consoles.
The contemporary Coast Guard station typically consists of a large building with accommodations for the operations center, galley, and crew. Usually adjacent are located the boat docks and, in some cases, boat shelters for assigned craft, plus usually some facility for boat haulout and maintenance. All assigned boats are kept moored afloat when not underway, except for some of the smaller skiffs or RHIBs, which may be kept on a tow trailer for transport to a convenient boat ramp for launch. In the Great Lakes region as well as at some New England locations, stations haul their boats out for the winter months to avoid ice damage.
It is interesting to note that a number of European lifeboat organizations still use the old tried-and-true methods of launch. For example, although most of the RNLI’s newer heavy-weather lifeboats are kept afloat at station locations, this service still has a number of stations that rely on slipway launch due to local shoreline conditions. The RNLI, the KNRM in the Netherlands, and, to a lesser extent, the SNSM in France still rely on carriage launch over the beach of their rigid-hull inflatable rescue boats. In particular, the KNRM has developed a highly specialized tractor/carriage combination for launch of its Valentine-type large RHIB rescue craft.