Back from the Deep

by Donald L. Nelson

Republished By Permission Of The Author

Don's "Labor Of Love" is the tracking of Coast Guard station boats, notably the 36 foot MLB which served the Coast Guard and the public well for many years. He is not letting their history die. This article rambles a bit but it is worth the read. If you want to pursue the topic further go to his website, Don's Coast Guard Motor Life Boat (MLB) Webpage. I know I intend to read more of it. - Jack

I am constantly getting emails generated by people visiting this website, Don's Coast Guard Motor Life Boat (MLB) Webpage, most from former Coasties but also from those who find it of interest. I appreciate and thank all who do so. Most are complementary for bringing back memories, some from those who were unaware of the mission the Coast Guard accomplishes. Many include stories of missions they were a part of including pictures. I treasure them all, as it reminds me of a great branch of the service that does a great job that seldom gets the credit that it so surely deserves. As you realize, I concentrate on mainly small boats, MLBs and MLB stations. I would like to post most of these on this website, but it is just not possible. Every once in a while I get one that must, and I do so.

A while back I received one from Tom Dye BMCS USCG retired, who resides in Hawaii (yes, Hawaii). I also get a number of them from foreign countries. What really got my attention from Tom's email was that he owns and has refurbished a 36-foot MLB and an old 25-foot surfboat. But the kicker was that the MLB was 36454. That number struck my memory recall as it was two numbers away from the 36-footer that was at the Portage Station that I served at in 1952-53. No. 36456 and also that I thought 36454 was sunk and lost during the tragic mission off the Columbia River in January 1961. How could this be?

I followed this up with many emails back and forth with Tom, who filled me in on the details, along with information on a 25-footer CG-25326. After numerous emails, he mailed me a packet full of pictures. I soon realized Tom is an all boat person with a career in the Coast Guard, refurbishing boats of all kinds, a commercial fisherman and a very active member of their local Coast Guard Auxiliary. Digesting all this has not been easy to add to this website, but let's get going.

I'll start with CG-36454 that was built in the mid-1930s. At the time of the disastrous rescue mission of January 12, 1961, she was assigned to the Point Adams Lifeboat Station along with a sister 36, No. 36535 (as a side note, CG-36535 was the last 36-foot MLB to see active service in the Coast Guard, and is now restored and preserved in a museum). They also had a 52-foot MLB, the wood 52301 MLB, Triumph I, built in 1935 (one of two built).

I'll try to make this story as short as possible for those not familiar with this tragic rescue mission. A call was received on January 12, 1961 that a fishing vessel, the Mermaid, was disabled in the breakers off Peacock Spit at the mouth of the Columbia River. The Point Adams Station dispatched 52301 followed by 36454 on the Oregon side of the river. Prior to this, a 40-footer, 40564, and a 36-foot MLB were dispatched from the Cape Disappointment Lifeboat Station on the Washington side of the Columbia River.

Almost from the beginning, things started to go bad and eventually got worse. The mouth of the Columbia River, which is very active with ships and boats, has sand bars and waves that are treacherous even on the best of days. The Mermaid had lost her rudder and was drifting through the breakers. Cape D's 40-footer capsized and sank as the Cape D 36 got a line on the Mermaid but just couldn't pull her out. 36454 from Point Adams recovered all three crewmen from the sunken 40-footer. 52301 standing by went into the wild surf and got a line to the Mermaid which soon broke. As they turned around for a second try, a rogue wave capsized the 52-footer from Point Adams Station with the loss of the five crewmen and eventually rolled up on the beach damaged beyond repair. Keep in mind this is a night mission.

The two 36-footers eventually got lines to the Mermaid and pulled her out of the surf to safer waters in the main channel. Cape D's 36 towed the Mermaid to port while 36454, due to conditions and waves, decided they had best go out to the Columbia Lightship and offload the crew and survivors from the lost 40-footer. They tied 36454 off the stern. Two Coast Guard cutters, the Modoc and Yocona were also dispatched along with two Coast Guard aircraft to drop flares as it was a dark night. It was later discovered 36454 had somehow filled with water and sank. The end result was five Coast Guard crewmen died and three Coast Guard boats, a 36, a 40 and a 52-footer (36454, 40564 and 52301) were also lost. Not a good day for the Coast Guard. This is a short version of the whole story, but not the end, as I learned from Tom.

Here is where one of the best kept secrets along with a media blackout by the Coast Guard took place. Weeks later and 68 miles south of the Columbia River Lightship, 36454 popped up to the surface and beached at Neakahnie Beach some 1,500 yards from where Tom (then 8 years old) lived. The Coast Guard had written off all three boats lost, so technically 36454 was fair game for salvage rights. There was a battle with the Coast Guard for rights to the boat. Wes Shetler won the battle, claimed the damaged boat and reconverted it to a salmon troller.

In 1975 Tom, now in the Coast Guard and stationed at Tillamook Bay Coast Guard Station was patrolling the bar off Nehalem River in CG-36535. They received a distress call that a troller was in trouble. They responded and towed her to port. Tom recognized the boat as the old CG-36454. The owners were disgusted as the engine was cooked and said it was up for sale. Tom went into hock and purchased it. He wanted that boat.

From 1975 to 1992 the boat did not remain idle even with Tom still serving in the Coast Guard. It remained a fishing troller going through a few modifications and a few diesel engines. It was in the care of Tom's cousin, Robert Carrasco and was home ported in the small fishing village of Garibaldi, Oregon, but she always fished along the Washington/Oregon coast. Upon Tom's retirement, he relocated to the Hawaiian Islands and had 36454 barged over in 1994.

At this point I'm thinking Tom has salt water mixed with a little fish oil in his veins, plus a skill to renovate boats. But most important I believe is his unending desire to help boaters in distress. He operates a non-profit Vessel Assist and Rescue and fast response towing service which is the only private rescue service in the Pacific, known as the Hawaiian Island Sea Rescue and Fast Response Towing. He has modified 36454 to fit these needs, equipped with all the equipment and survival gear to respond. It has been renamed the "Get Away" and has been re-engined again with a GM 4-71 diesel.

To say the least, this is a remarkable story of a Coast Guard boat that sank in 1961 and the quirks of fate cloaked in unbelievable twists and turns and ends up where it is now, and in the hands of someone who really cares. If it could talk, what a story of historical value it could tell us. Well over 60 years old and still raring to go with lots of life left in her and doing the job it was built to do ... to rescue boaters in distress.

Again this proves that the hulls of the 36 foot MLBs were built to last and take a pounding that probably no other wood hull could take.

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