Written by Fireman Loumania Stewart.
The search and rescue alarm sounds at Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash., early one fall morning. Petty Officer 1st Class Bradd Beckett, boatswain’s mate and surfman, races to the 47-foot motor lifeboat along with his crew.
The crew hurries to assist a boat taking on 14-foot waves near the south jetty at the Columbia River entrance. Arriving alongside the boat, Beckett turns to his skills and knowledge acquired the previous year at the National Motor Lifeboat School to bring the distressed mariners and his crew back safely.
The National Motor Lifeboat School is the only school of its kind. Co-located with Station Cape Disappointment, instructors at the school provide training on the Coast Guard’s motor lifeboats to students arriving from all over the United States, Mexico and Canada. These students learn to perform in some of the harshest maritime weather conditions in the world, near the entrance of the Columbia River on the border of Oregon and Washington State.
“I am one of the few fortunate people in the Coast Guard to have sat through all three courses NMLBS has to offer,” Beckett explained. “Both the training environment and knowledge laid out to the students glistened with years of pride and professionalism. The classes gave students something that no station could: immediate feedback with multiple chances to correct the problem.”
The school opened in 1980 near the Columbia River entrance, an area often referred to as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” due to numerous shipwrecks. The 20-foot surf, 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds that can occur in the region mark an ideal place for the training center.
This winter, the school will hold two surf and three heavy weather courses. Each course will offer students the techniques, skills and exposure to successfully maneuver the 47-foot motor lifeboats. These students will return to their respective units and provide training for others and apply newfound skills to future operations.
“The instructor staff is looking forward to an extremely challenging winter with each student, as well as a very rewarding season for the motor lifeboat community,” said Chief Petty Officer Jeremy Bock, lead instructor at the school. “The goal this winter is to graduate all 58 students and have them return to their respective units, employ the techniques and skills that were learned, then stand the watch as heavy weather and surfman qualified boat operators with new confidence in their abilities.”
The crews stationed at the school are what make the unit known as the “Center of Excellence” throughout the Coast Guard community. National Motor Lifeboat School crews offer expert facilitation, maintenance and instruction to ensure a successful graduating class from every course. When courses are not going on at the school, the crew maintains the boats and trains consistently to become more proficient on the water.
“The crews aboard the boats were what really made the classes work. They put in more hours in the three-week class than some Coasties get in an entire currency period,” remarked Petty Officer 2nd class Adam Saltzman, a previous student at the school and current crewmember there. “The crews make or break the underway evolutions. The crewmen at the school are better at what they do than any unit I’ve ever visited or been a part of.”
Right now the surf is just picking up. But the training has already begun. The crews are readying for the intense winter months so regardless of surf or storm the Coast Guard’s motor lifeboat community will be there when you need them.