The search-and-rescue alarm sounds at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash., early one fall morning. Petty Officer 1st Class Bradd Beckett, boatswain mate (boat driver) and Surfman (highly-qualified boat driver) at Cape Disappointment, along with his crew, races down to the 47-foot motor lifeboat. The crew hurries to assist a disabled vessel taking on approximate 14-foot waves near the South Jetty at the Columbia River entrance. Upon arriving alongside the disabled vessel, Beckett refers to his skills and knowledge acquired the prior year at the National Motor Lifeboat School, co-located with Station Cape Disappointment, to bring the distressed people, his crew and motor lifeboat to safety.
The NMLBS is the only school of its kind. Instructors and crew professionally and safely provide direction on the 47-foot motor lifeboats to student boat operators 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 (basic, heavy weather and surf)," 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."
This winter, NMLBS 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 safely through rough conditions. These students will return to their respective search-and-rescue units and provide training for others and apply newfound skills to search-and-rescue operations.
"While attending the heavy weather course, you could easily identify which students had been to the Basic Coxswain Course, a recommended prerequisite to the heavy weather course, and those who hadn't," Beckett added. "The students who attended the basic course would go through the fundamentals they learned at the NMLBS, whether it appeared to be necessary or not. As weather conditions worsened throughout the course, these students showed significant ability over the others. Anyone that has been on a twelve-hour, search-and-rescue case in dark, cold, rainy and windy weather can testify that the 'fundamentals' are what gets a person through the experience successfully."
The students and instructors make up the class, but the crew stationed at NMLBS is what makes the unit known as the 'Center of Excellence' throughout the Coast Guard community. NMLBS crews offer expert facilitation, maintainance, and intruction 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 onboard 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 NMLBS 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.”
It is not a requirement for Coast Guard members who want to operate the 47-motor lifeboats to attend the NMLBS, but it is highly recommended. Each surf course lasts 26 days and the heavy weather runs for 19.
"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," stated Chief Petty Officer Jeremy Bock, lead instructor at NMLBS. "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 NMLBS opened in 1980 near the Columbia River entrance, an area often referred to as the 'Graveyard of the Pacific' due to the numerous shipwrecks associated with harsh conditions there. The 20-foot surf, 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds that can occur mark an ideal place for the training center.