Miracle on a 40 footer

By Ron Krebs





Since I had not qualified for any schooling I found myself particularly susceptible to Ken Reed's suggestion that I consider striking Boatswains Mate. Working on the boats as part of the deck crew was not high on my list of favorite things to do, and to be honest with you I looked at striking Boatswains Mate more as a way of getting out of the grunt work than anything else. Ken Reed was an SNBM at the time and was soon to make Petty Officer. He had way more faith in me than I did, but I thought if I could play along, I might get out of some work.


I soon found out when you strike a rate, you automatically get easier jobs. I spent a lot of my time walking around with the duty Boatswains Mate rather than sanding the hull of a “40” footer in dry dock.  All I had to do was put forth the expected effort and I could float. Oh sure, I had to order the BM3 course and read it from time to time, especially when Ken Reed stopped by, but I had not been that enthused when I had been transferred from the Twelfth C.G. district in Alameda, California to C.G. station Grays Harbor in Westport Washington anyway. It seemed all it did in Westport was rain, or mist, then rain some more.  Anything I could do to make my duty at Westport easier was foremost in my thoughts.


At first my goal was to milk this out as long as possible to keep from being stuck on my back sanding barnacles off hulls. All I had to do was study when it was appropriate or expected, and ask questions like I really wanted to learn.  In exchange for this modest effort I was spared from the really crappy jobs.  I found myself having to radically change my thought process the first time Ken Reed took me down to run one of the boats.


At Westport we had one of the old 36 footers. Even though it was a single screw it maneuvered extremely well. Because it was slow I could not get into too much trouble learning. Ken Reed spent hour after hour with me on the 36 footer and I got pretty comfortable with it. We would practice taking the 30 footer in tow then taking it along side and putting it in a slip.


Finally, when Ken thought I was ready he told me the Executive Officer at Westport would be down to check me out. “WHOA”, I had certainly not counted on this. Here I was not even 19 years old and the infamous Chief Wood was going to be checking me out in the operation of a 36-foot motor life boat! Chief Wood was a "salt's salt."  He had a reputation throughout the Coast Guard as one of the best boat operators in the entire Coast Guard. Most of his enlistment had been spent at Life Boat Stations and he had more time at the helm of boats of all sizes than I had breathing. He had attained legendary status in boat handling.


To say I was shaking like a leaf when Chief Wood stepped on board the 36 footer would be the understatement of the century. I was well beyond the “shake” stage, all the way to the harmonic vibration level.


Somehow I survived and learned some new tricks from the Chief in the process. He and I spent more time working on the 36-footer then he moved me to the 40’s.  I knew the first time I got to fire off one of the 40 footers I had found my niche.  While I had grown to think of myself as being able to do quite a bit with the 36 footer, the first time I got to use that extra screw I quickly realized why they had invented twin-screw boats. Not only could I go faster, I could turn in the boats own length. Taking boats along side, you could put them in their slips with a 40 footer better than they could on their own.  While the 40 footer might not be able to roll over and self right itself like the 36 footer, I learned it had a ton of other advantages the 36 footer did not have. And the 40’s had power to the Tenth degree. The twin 6-71 Jimmy Diesels were workhorses and quite capable of producing enough power to tow any length or weight boat or ship for that matter. Years later I had the occasion to be called on to tow the ice breaker North Wind from the side of pier 91 to the face of pier 91. Granted this was not exactly a long distance, but the 40 footer was more than up to the task.


The reason I decided to write this story was to tell about my very first S.A.R. mission as the coxswain of the boat.  I had practiced and practiced with all the boats. I studied and hit the books with a vengeance after I realized I actually liked the idea of becoming a Boatswains Mate.


It was just starting to get dark and the fog had set in. The bar at Westport was calm. A call came in and I believe it was BM1 Riley Polan who was the JOOD that night. I think Ken Reed may have been there too when the call came in from a boat that had lost its engine about 5 miles or so beyond our entrance buoy at Westport.  A decision was made to send me on my very first S.A.R. call.


I remember being briefed very very well before I got underway. I had operated all the necessary equipment and had been checked out on everything. There was virtually no reason why I would not be able to handle this call with ease.


I had no idea my heart was capable of beating as fast as it was when I fired off the 40 footer and called in “underway”. I don’t remember who my seaman or my engineman was on that call but I do vividly remember what it felt like as we passed out of the boat basin into the open water and hit the fog bank.  It was getting quite dark by this time and although our radar was working perfectly and I could see exactly where we were, without the radar it looked as though we were going in circles. All the awesome power of the 40 footer and here we were making headway at an idle. Eventually I did kick the engines up a little, but the danger of deadheads in the water prevented our using much speed.


I went out on the bow a couple of times just to see what it was like and to me the view had not changed in the last hour. It looked like it did when we had cleared the boat basin. The radar gave a different view and I knew we were approaching the North jetty. I had feverishly plotted a course to the entrance buoy and when we drew close I called the disabled boat to get a D.F. (Direction Finder) reading on his location. Everything was going like clockwork even though I was still shaking.  The disabled boat gave me a long count on the radio and I read his location from the D.F.  I yelled the course up to the seaman who had taken over the helm.


I knew all this was being monitored by the station and was comforted they were not calling me to check up on me.  After about 20 minutes on the course I had set from the D.F. reading a sickening thought struck me like a ton of bricks.  I suddenly realized I had not set the compass ring on the D.F. to the compass course we were on before I took the D.F. reading. We were on course all right, except it was the wrong course.  After I pushed my jaw back into place and took a couple of deep breaths, I calmly stated I wanted to double check the D.F. just to be safe and asked the Seaman to take the helm again.


This time I set the compass ring to our then present course and called the disabled boat again. “Give me one more long count to verify your location” I spoke into the mike. The skipper of that boat did so and I yelled out to the Seaman to come to the new course.  As I stepped back to take the helm I commented that the current had moved him quite a bit. No one said anything and I really don’t think they knew I had screwed up.


We had been on the new course for around 20 minute or so when the Seaman yelled there was a craft dead ahead. This surprised me since the location the disabled boat had reported was some distance further. According to my calculations we had another 45 minutes or so before we should have encountered the disabled boat. 


As we crept up on the vessel through the thick fog we all realized this was not the boat we had been sent to rescue. That boat was a 30 plus foot fishing boat and the boat just ahead of us was a little kicker boat probably not more than 15 feet or so.


As we drew along side the kicker boat we found it to be occupied by a father and his young son.  They had left Willapa Bay earlier that day to do some fishing. Willapa Bay is about 12 to 13 miles North of Westport.  The Father was beyond ecstatic they had been found. He told us the fog had suddenly descended on him and his son before they knew what hit them. Then they got lost trying to find their way back to port and had eventually run out of gas.  All they had was a small engine and very little protective clothing to keep them warm.


In fact they had drifted a good 10 to 12 miles in the fog and who knows how much farther they would have drifted before the fog lifted. Even then there were no guarantees anyone would have seen them. A boat that small is very difficult to spot out in the ocean even when you are looking for it. The tide could just as easily have taken them farther out to sea.


Their boat was so small we pulled it into the back of the 40 footer and after notifying the station of our unexpected find, continued on toward our original target. We put the Father and his son forward and gave them blankets to keep them warm. A short while later we came upon the disabled fishing boat and took them in tow.


As we slowly made our way though the fog back toward Westport I am sure I was not the only one thinking to myself how fortunate indeed it was we came upon this small kicker boat. Since I was the only one on the boat who knew the full story, I was then and am to this day struck by the events that happened that night. What if I had done everything correctly?  It is certain we would never have come upon the boy and his father. How much longer would they have drifted? Would they have survived? God moves in mysterious ways for sure. To this day, I am convinced God heard the prayers of that father and he sent a young inexperienced Seaman who was striking Boatswains Mate so he could get out of work, just a little out of his way to save them.




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