CHATHAM — Sitting across from its movie star predecessor, a much used but less-heralded U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat was given its own 15 minutes of fame during a ceremony Friday at Coast Guard Station Chatham.
The 44301 was the first 44-foot motor lifeboat purchased by the Coast Guard, commissioned in Chatham in 1963, and it was the last to go out of service just seven years ago.
On Friday, a crowd of almost 100 gathered at the station for a short ceremony unveiling a new exhibit outside the station celebrating the 44301.
"There's a vast amount of historical significance to this boat," said Rear Adm. Linda Fagan, Coast Guard 1st District commander, who was in attendance along with several other Coast Guard dignitaries.
After being purchased in 1963, for $125,000, the boat was used by crews, including at Chatham, for 46 years before finally being decommissioned in 2009. This summer, visitors who take tours of the station's lighthouse can get a closer look at the boat from a viewing platform.
The 44-foot boat was designed in the 1960s as an evolved version of the 36-foot lifeboats, the most famous of which is the 36500, used in the rescue of 32 crewmen off the tanker Pendleton in 1952. The heroics on board the 36500 were featured in the recent Disney movie, "The Finest Hours."
The 36500, in Chatham specially for Friday's event, sat 100 feet away from the 44301, and Fagan drew a connection between the two boats, saying there was a "historical linkage."
Coxswain Bernie Webber, who led the crew on the 36500 during the Pendleton rescue and earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the Coast Guard for his role, helped evaluate and test the 44301, Fagan said.
The 44301 was a "major step forward in lifeboat design," said Fagan. "The vessel's design sparked worldwide interest."
The 44301 and its 109 counterparts used at Coast Guard stations across the country featured twin diesel engines, a steel hull, and improved accommodations and protection for the crew, according to the Coast Guard.
Today, the Coast Guard uses 47-foot motor lifeboats, 117 of which are in service.
The technology has come a long way, said Jeffrey Wheeler, deputy chief of the Coast Guard Office of Boat Forces, who worked with the 44-foot boats for many years, both on rescues and in training.
"I was sitting on a wooden seat," said Wheeler. "The kids now have shock mitigation devices."
But as advanced as the boats may be, they can't accomplish anything without the men and women who operate them, said retired Master Chief Boatswain's Mate Jack Downey, who had a more than 40-year career in the Coast Guard.
"Yeah, it's a great boat," said Downey, who reminisced about training in the 44301 at motor lifeboat school in 1991.
But the boats can't do anything without qualified crews, he said.
"When you look at that 44-footer, you can visualize the DNA of the 36500," Downey said. "But you also see the long line of people that have manned these boats."