For those in distress, a Coast Guard 47 MLB is a welcome sight

Crewmembers of a 47-foot motor lifeboat perform surf drills on the Columbia River entrance on Feb. 8, 2011. — Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment

Her lines are not sleek. The steel, grey vessel looks short and stout. But for those who find themselves in distress in churning waves and howling wind, there is nothing as beautiful as an approaching Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat (MLB).

The MLB has a top speed of 25 knots. What it lacks in speed it makes up for in rugged, all-weather durability. Powered by two 435-horsepower Detroit diesels, the 47 is designed to operate in hurricane force winds, towering 30-foot waves and 20-foot surf. The MLB is completely self-righting — meaning, if a wave knocks it completely upside down it will roll until it is upright.

The motor lifeboat is operated by a crew of four, which includes a coxswain in command. The coxswain’s three ratings reflect the capabilities of the boat and crew.

A basic coxswain can operate in 10-foot seas and up to 30-knot winds. A heavy weather coxswain is cleared to operate in 20-foot seas and 40-knot winds. The surfman rating allows a coxswain to operate in 30-foot seas, 20-foot surf and 50-knot winds.

“It does its job well,” BM2 Chris Seevers, a heavy weather coxswain assigned to Station Menemsha told The Times when asked to describe the MLB. “It’s not a show horse. A mule? Maybe, more of a mule.”

The 47-foot MLB assigned to Coast Guard Station Menemsha is one of a fleet of 32 MLBs assigned to the First Coast Guard District, which includes the eight-state area from Maine to northern New Jersey and eastern New York.

The First District is broken up into five sectors. Station Menemsha, designated a heavy weather station, is part of sector Southeastern New England, an area that includes the waters of Rhode Island and Cape Cod.

BMC Jason L. Olsen is the officer in charge. He is responsible for a crew of 22 men and women assigned to Station Menemsha. The station includes a 25-foot response boat small (RBS) inflatable in addition to the MLB.

Notified of a call requiring a response the Coast Guard standard requires the MLB crew to be underway within 30 minutes.

The Menemsha crew points with pride to the fact that the actual response time is much quicker. Noting a report on August 13 of three men in the water south of the Vineyard, Mr. Seevers said, “We were underway in about five minutes of the call.”

Every mission begins with risk assessment by the members of the crew. It is a step-by-step process of numerically rating various factors that include sea and weather conditions, crew experience, and vessel condition on something akin to a scorecard. Depending on the point total, the crew may proceed, request further review, or call the mission off.

The goal is to avoid high-risk missions that could pose a risk to crew and equipment when no lives are in danger. Each member of the crew has a say in the process irrespective of rank or qualifications.

The coxswain is responsible for checking a digital log prior to departing on a mission and completing the log at the end of a mission. The benefit is that before setting out the crew knows what is missing or in need of repair.

Each qualified member of the crew carries pepper spray, handcuffs, a baton, and a Sig Sauer P229 40 caliber pistol. In addition, when necessary, the boat carries two shotguns, an M16 and an M240 machine gun.

On a clear, bright day last week Chief Olsen invited a Times reporter and videographer to observe the capabilities of the 47 motor lifeboat and its crew.

The log showed that the MLB did not have its full stock of MREs (meals ready to eat). That was not an issue that morning but would be if the crew were called into action for an extended period.

Break-in crewman Nicole Cancellare, a recent arrival, eased the MLB out of the harbor as coxswain Nick Meegan looked on and provided assistance. Training is an ongoing process Chief Olsen said, and every member of the crew must be able to handle the boat in the event of an emergency.

Once outside the harbor the crew moved crisply through a series of drills. A full body dummy named Oscar went over the side. “Man overboard,” shouted a crewman.

Each member of the crew moved to his or her assigned station. A crew member threw a life ring identified as a “datum” which provides a point of reference to gauge the strength of the current. “Datum deployed,” shouted the crew member.

New recruit Luis Santana and coxswain Chris Seevers moved to the starboard side rail to retrieve Oscar from the water. As Mr. Seevers reached down to pick the full weight dummy from the water engineer Matt Lawson reminded the new crew member to hold his shipmate from the back.

An anchoring drill provided a test of the crew’s ability to secure the boat in the event of a loss of power in order to maintain its position. The most devastating cause could be an engine fire.

“Fire, fire in the engine room,” shouted a crew member. Hatches were shut to seal off the engine room. Engineer Matt Lawson moved to activate the MLB’s fire-suppression system capable of flooding the engine room with CO2.

Each qualified person is required to log 40 hours every six months, 10 of which must be at night on one of the unit’s boats. “Our crew, including me, we totally exceed those hours,” Chief Olsen said. “Not just for our mission, but just to get underway and train. It is just the fact to get out in the boat and fly the flag and show everybody that we are out there and performing our mission.”

Station Menemsha performs a variety of duties. In the summer, keeping recreational boaters safe is a priority. The Coast Guard stops boats to check for proper safety gear or for safety infractions, for example, allowing children to ride on the bow. “That’s my biggest pet peeve,” Chief Olsen said.

In the winter months the focus is on commercial boat traffic and fishermen. Captain Tom Quintan operates a commercial scalloping boat out of New Bedford. On August 13, he responded to a Coast Guard broadcast and rescued three men in the water south of Martha’s Vineyard, whom he later transferred to the 47 MLB out of Menemsha.

“I am always impressed with the way those guys handle those things,” Captain Quintan said of the 47. “It means to me that they can come out in almost anything. I give those guys a lot of credit. That boat is one solid machine.”

Captain Quintan said that following the rescue the Coast Guard thanked him for being a good Samaritan.

“I said, hey it’s the least I can do. You are the first guys we want to see in a bad situation.”