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Bad boat design led to a Coast Guard catastrophe

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By Finn J.D. John
January 22, 2012

Part Two of a two-part series. Part One is here.

WHEN THE CALL came in at the Point Adams Life Station on the night of Jan. 12, 1961, engineman Gordon Huggins was about to go off shift. Two boats out of Cape Disappointment, a 36-foot motor lifeboat and a 40-foot utility boat, were trying to rescue a rudderless fishing boat, the Mermaid. They needed a more powerful vessel to take the boat in tow. The “Cape D” crew was asking for the 52-foot motor lifeboat Triumph, the biggest and most powerful rescue boat available, to go take over the tow. The seas were burly, but nothing too alarming … yet. It all sounded pretty routine.

Huggins was the new guy at the station, and he was eager to get some experience in the 52-footer. So he asked the engineman on duty, a veteran of many rescues, if he could take his place.

Point Adams Life Station in Hammond as it appeared in the early 1970s, a decade or so after the Triumph was stationed there. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Huggins would have wanted to spend as much time with the Triumph as possible, because he didn’t have any experience with this type of motor lifeboat. He couldn’t have; the boat was almost unique. Only one other 52-footer like it was built — and there was a reason they didn’t build more.

In most circumstances, the wooden 52-footers were fantastic rescue boats. They certainly looked, felt and handled as if they could take on anything.

But astonishingly, the 52-footers were not self-righting. Flip one over, and it would stay over. And not only that, but there was no provision to prevent seawater from flooding the air intake for the boat’s diesel engines if it did flip over, so even if you could get it back right-side-up, it was still done for.

(By the way, the Coast Guard later developed a steel 52-foot MLB, which was a phenomenally effective and excellent boat. This was a completely different design, and the only thing it shared with the Triumph was overall length.)

Now, granted, the boat was extraordinarily stable. It would take tremendous force to roll it over, and it was large and powerful — able to rescue up to 160 people at a go. It certainly was useful on rescues. But it’s hard to understand why the Coast Guard thought it would be OK to station a boat like this in the one spot on the North American continent where any motor lifeboat, of any size, can count on being rolled at least once.

Five Coasties were about to pay the tab for that decision.

Doomed boat races to the rescue

Out to sea the Triumph chugged. The seas were much bigger now; the boat was clawing its way over (and through) the tops of 35-foot breakers as it made its way seaward.

Finally it reached the 40-foot utility boat, which had been dragging the Mermaid through the sea for two and a half hours. Because it had lost its rudder, the Mermaid had to trail crab pots behind it to increase its drag, to keep tension on the tow line and prevent the rudderless boat from yawing out to the side and being rolled by a wave. The 40-footer didn’t have the power to pull all that stuff through the sea fast enough to get much of anywhere. The rescuers hoped the bigger 52-footer would.

By now the waves were breaking all the way across the bar. So as the Triumph took over the tow and started pulling on the Mermaid, the 40-footer, accompanied by the 36-foot motor lifeboat, started heading for shore.

As the two boats reached the line of breakers across the mouth of the river, visibility got bad enough that they lost sight of each other. The faster 40-footer was in front, the slower 36-footer behind, but it didn’t much matter how fast the two boats were; you could only cross the bar as fast as the waves would let you.

First disaster of the night

As the boats got to the most dangerous point in the crossing, a trio of giant swells came up behind the boats and broke over the bar. The first two were fearsome, but slipped beneath the boats before they broke. The third did not.

On the 40-footer, crew member Darrell Murray looked behind and saw a huge breaker bearing down on them from behind. Fifty years later, at the age of 76, looking back on an entire career of rescuing people on the Columbia River Bar, Murray still remembered this one particular wave as the biggest breaker he’d ever seen, in an interview with journalist Erika Weisensee.

It could have been worse. It could have broken over the transom of the 40-footer. But instead, it broke right behind — probably because Murray got on the throttle trying to get out of the way. The boiling foam picked the stern of the boat up high into the air and it rocketed down the wave face like a surfboard — and the bow lanced into the sea in front of it, and the breaker pushed the stern up and over and down.

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Crew members of the Coast Guard motor lifeboat Triumph II lay a wreath on the sea in a 2008 memorial service commemorating the loss of the first Triumph’s crew members 47 years earlier. (Photo: David Marin/U.S. Coast Guard)

The three Coast Guardsmen managed to get out from under the upside-down boat and clung to it, waiting to be swept off by the next massive comber — waiting, essentially, for death.

Then the 36-footer came over a wave, slamming hard into the upside-down 40, and its crew members pulled all three of them to safety.

Six rescuers make it — just barely

But now the 36-footer was in trouble, too. Its aft compartment had sprung a leak in the collision with the 40-footer, and was now filling up with water. Giving up on crossing the bar, the Coast Guardsmen turned around, leaving the upside-down 40 behind, and headed for the Columbia River Lightship as fast as they could go — which, as the aft compartment filled up more and more with water, was not very fast.

By the time they got there, the aft deck was fully awash. They moored there and clambered aboard the big lightship, grateful to be alive. The next morning, they found the motor lifeboat had completely sunk and disappeared.

By this time, the Triumph was long gone.

Trapped in a sinking boat

The big motor lifeboat had snapped its tow line to the Mermaid, which was then carried by the relentless wind into the breakers on Peacock Spit — which by this time were enormous. Well, no motor lifeboat crew was afraid to go into breakers; that’s what motor lifeboats were made for, right?

Not this one.

Gordon Huggins, the engineman, had gone below decks to take care of a nosebleed when he felt the boat roll onto its side. He thought nothing of it — until the boat paused a moment and then finished the roll. Huggins stood there on the ceiling, now thoroughly alarmed. The engine conked out, of course, and a few minutes later the lights went out. He was left in the inky blackness, with water slowly leaking in through the companionway. He tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge: the pressure of the water held the hatches closed. He was trapped.

Several minutes later, miraculously, another wave hit the boat and rolled it back upright. Huggins tried the latch again and this time it opened for him. He was alone. Everyone else was gone.

Huggins stayed with the boat as long as he could as the wind blew it closer to Peacock Spit. He knew he would inevitably end up in the 50-degree water, and that when he did, he’d have about 15 minutes before he’d go hypothermic and die. Every minute that the boat stayed upright, drifting closer to the shore, was another five minutes or so that he wouldn’t be trying to swim through the freezing surf, so he rode it as long as he could.

Then another giant wave hit the Triumph and rolled it again, pitching Huggins into the sea. He floated in his life jacket, eyes on the breakers, curling up into a ball whenever one approached, getting colder and colder.

Then he felt the sandy bottom beneath him and staggered ashore on Peacock Spit. He was the only survivor of the Triumph’s crew.

Mermaid pounded to pieces

Two more 36-foot motor lifeboats from Point Adams came and tried to take the Mermaid and its crab pots in tow. Again, they made almost no progress. Finally a huge comber broke over the Mermaid, snapping the tow line and somersaulting the helpless fishing boat, breaking it into pieces. On board were the two brothers who owned the boat, and one member of the Triumph’s crew who they’d rescued.

The Coast Guard searched all night for survivors, but found nothing. The total death toll was seven — five of the six Triumph crew members, plus the brothers from the Mermaid.

Was the 36-footer really lost?

There’s a sort of odd afterword to this story. Remember the 36-foot motor lifeboat that sank after just barely getting the six Coast Guard guys to the lightship? According to an old motor-lifeboat Coastie named Thomas Dye, that wasn’t the end of its story. According to Dye, the sunken boat actually washed ashore by the Nehalem River and was claimed by a local fisherman named Wes Shelton. Dye says he bought it in 1975 after recognizing it by its serial number as the lost motor lifeboat from the Triumph incident.

Dye said he sold the boat sometime in the early 2000s. When last he heard, Dye said the historic vessel was being used as a pleasure boat by a fellow in Garibaldi.

(Sources: Noble, Dennis. Rescued by the Coast Guard. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2005; Weisensee, Erika. “50th Anniversary: One of Coast Guard’s greatest sea tragedies,” Natural Resource Report, Jan. 10, 2011; correspondence from Tom Dye, BMCS, USCG )