In numerous coves and behind numerous breakwaters along our many thousand miles of coastline, utility boats (UTBs) and motor lifeboats (MLBs) rock and tug gently at their mooring lines with engines warm and ready to go. The ready crews are working the “regular jobs” of their ratings, in mechanics, avionics repair, corrosion control, supply, and medical care. Darkness falls. The weather turns for the worse. And, usually after midnight, the call comes. The 1MC blares, “Now, first ready boat crew underway”. The crew runs down the dock, slipping on the ice. The seaman casts off the lines, the engineman opens the seawater intakes, the coxswain fires up the twin diesels. Breaking ice with a paper-thin hull, the boat pulls out of the slip and turns into the teeth of the rising storm. Somewhere, out in the darkness, in the gray-green swirl of waves that blocks the sky, there are souls, cold and wet, huddled on a boat that is adrift, awash, and going down.
The Life Saving Service had been charged with rescuing survivors of shipwrecks off our coasts and in the Great Lakes. The old lifeboatmen lived by the axiom, “The regulations say you have to go out. They don’t mention anything about coming back”. But more often than not they did come back. Relentless training and specialized equipment saw to it.
The Coast Guard inherited the responsibility. The Coast Guard came out of WWII with many missions and no one would ever officially say that any of these missions was more important than any other. But it was drilled into every Cadet at the Academy, every OC at OCS, and every boot at boot camp that, “The primary mission of every Coast Guard unit is search and rescue”. Any unit could be diverted from any mission at any time to prosecute a SAR case.
The Coast Guard was organized by District. Under each District was a Group. Each Group controlled several stations. The stations were the unit closet to the population. The primary SAR assets were the station UTBs and MLBs. From the ‘50s to the ‘70s, the steel-hulled 30-foot and 40-foot UTBs and the 36-foot MLBs dominated. In the ‘70s, the steel-hulled 41-foot UTB and 44-foot MLB took over. The 47-foot MLB replaced the 44 in the ‘80s and worked into the new century. The MLBs were capable of completely turning turtle and re-righting themselves. The 41s, 44s, and 47s had radar.
If the case was too far offshore, the Group’s patrol boats (WPB) were called in. In the ‘50s, the same boats that had provided anti-submarine patrols performed the duty, the 83-foot patrol boats. As these warhorses were retired, a series of newer, more modern cutters took their place. In the ‘50s, the 95-foot Cape-class joined the fleet. In the ‘60s, the 82-foot Point-class brought air conditioning into the fleet, along with several more important improvements. The ‘80s belonged to the 110-foot Island-class. These cutters worked through the turn of the century. The ‘90s brought in the 87-foot Marine Protector-class.
Before the war, search and rescue was a winter activity, driven by severe winter storms that blew commercial vessels onto the rocks. The commercial fishing industry had always been strong in America. New Englanders followed the lobster. Alaskans looked for salmon and king crab. Every section of the country had its own seafood specialty. The boats that worked these fisheries had relied on the Coast Guard for years to bail them out of trouble when rough weather or breakdowns made for hazardous operations. Most often, it was the patrol boat that went out to tow them in. The post-war years saw this relationship grow as fishing boats multiplied and plied deeper water. If they were beyond the range of the PB, a Big White One would tow the boat to a rendezvous with a PB which would bring it into port.
So to with the amateur yachtsmen. The wealthy had always formed sailing clubs to enjoy the sport of boating. The people in these clubs were generally knowledgeable individuals who respected the power of the sea and knew, for the most part, when not to venture into it. Many of these same yachtsmen had formed the original Coast Guard Reserve, later the Auxiliary, to assist the Coast Guard in SAR. Still, accidents happened, and for those caught in a storm or breakdown at sea, the Coast Guard had always been there to assist.
After the war, the Coast Guard found a totally different clientele. The generally softer, less street-wise middle class found itself with more leisure time and more expendable income. Millions took to the water. There was only one problem. States refused to control boats the way they controlled automobiles. Anyone could buy a boat, drop it in the water, sail off, and kill himself. The typical SAR case no longer involved a merchant vessel or fishing boat at the mercy of the winter sea. Most of the SAR work was now done in the summer and was driven by John Q. Public at the mercy of his own stupidity. Near-shore SAR became the most important and highest visibility mission of the Coast Guard. Statistics speak for themselves. Every year, the Coast Guard saves property worth five to seven times its operating budget. The average 5,500 lives saved are beyond price.
And the mission is uniquely Coast Guard. Several government agencies covet various Coats Guard missions. But no other government agency has stepped forward to say that it will put three young men and women in a UTB or MLB, 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, in high seas and heavy weather, time and time again. No other government agency has said that it will go out time and time again when everyone else is coming in. The essence of the Coast Guard is the courage of its young men and women and their willingness to test their limits when the world calls out in peril, and no one else is listening. And, at the military pay scale, the Coastguardsmen are not in it for the money. As the Commandant of Cadets once said to an incoming Academy class, “There will be times when you say ‘Why am I here? I’m overworked, underpaid, and not appreciated. Why don’t I just quit?’ Then will come the day when you look into the eyes of a mother whose child you have just pulled from the sea. Then you will know why you are here. And you will also know you will never quit”.