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Big breaker hammers 47-foot MLB

The crew had been practicing in the surf when the Motor Lifeboat was slammed by a breaking wave

The crew had been practicing in the surf when the Motor Lifeboat was slammed by a breaking wave


Gary Robertshaw, an amateur photographer and experienced surfer, knew what was coming. He saw the thin lip taking shape on the big wave approaching the Morro Bay, Calif., breakwater from the northwest. He realized the 47-foot Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat (MLB) riding the seas between him and the big wave was in for a lot more than the 15-footers the crew had been negotiating.

With the big wave starting to break, Robertshaw began clicking images. But when he lowered his camera for a moment, he was stunned. The Motor Lifeboat — designed to be self-righting — was gone. Twelve seconds later, the vessel was sitting upright between the swells. Its crew was safe, and the boat seemed to be intact.

A Coast Guard officer who investigated the incident says that, miraculously, not only were none of the five crewmembers on board injured, but the only damage to the boat was bent windshield wipers. Lt. Mick Scott says that the two qualified surfmen, engineer and other two crewmembers followed Coast Guard policies and procedures.

“They actually did exactly what they were supposed to do, but they didn’t have the power to get up and over the wave,” says Scott. As a result, the 47-footer slid down the wave, landing on its transom. The force of the wave then pushed it over on its side, rolling it 100 to 120 degrees, dunking the crewmembers strapped into their seats on the flybridge.

Robertshaw, 62, who lives in Atascadero, about 14 miles inland from MorroBay, gives the following eyewitness account.

Morro Rock, a 576-foot-high monolith, anchors the north corner of the harbor of Morro Bay, and the north jetty of the ocean inlet extends beyond the rock to the south. There is high ground where the rock and jetty intersect. Robertshaw placed himself there at about 10 o’clock on the morning of Dec. 4.

“We get large waves in MorroBay several times a year,” he says. “I had heard these were coming in, and I went down and I saw Coast Guard boats were out, too.” The waves when Robertshaw arrived were about 15 feet, he estimates. He assumed that the boats were practicing in the surf.

In the distance, Robertshaw saw two large waves approaching. “I spotted this one because I could see the lip of it starting to feather when it was way out there,” he says. “When it … gets that thin lip on it — being a surfer — you watch for that because you don’t want it to break on you. I don’t think they [the MLB crew] could see that. They had swells in the way, and I was up a bit higher.”

When this set of two large waves reached the Motor Lifeboat, Robertshaw says, the first one passed by them. “They went over it without any consequence,” he says. “It broke after it passed them.” He says he is certain that when the crew saw the second wave breaking “there was nothing they could do.” He estimates the wave at 22 to 25 feet.

Robertshaw resumed shooting once he saw that the boat had disappeared. “Then I saw something small and gray appear out of the white water,” he recalls. “I didn’t know whether it was a piece of the boat.” He wondered if he should alert someone but then remembered there was another Coast Guard boat nearby.

“I guess my finger just kept pushing as I saw the gray appear,” he says. “I finally saw the wheelhouse come up. That just amazed me because it looked like they had never gone anywhere. They were all sitting in the same place. The mast was intact. The flags were there.”

Lt. Scott says two Motor Lifeboats were dispatched Dec. 4 to escort a Coast Guard buoy tender out through the inlet. The one in Robertshaw’s photographs was the “safety boat.” Its duty was to stand by between the offshore tips of the two stone jetties to be there if help was needed. It and the other escort boat had been practicing for two hours in 14- to 16-foot seas but had not confronted a breaking wave, he says.

“They were hammer-down the entire time when they saw that wave coming,” says Scott, who is not a qualified surfman but consulted with two of them during his investigation. “As they were going up the face of that wave, the throttles were forward.”

Richard J. Dein, a retired Coast Guard commander who oversaw the project that created the 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, says the vessel is designed to handle 30-foot waves and 20-foot breakers. “That in some ways is arbitrary,” he says. “It gives the designers something to shoot for. All 20-foot breakers aren’t the same.”

Dein, who joined the Coast Guard in 1965 and retired in 1989, explains that there are three types of ocean waves: plunging, sloughing and spilling. The face of a plunging wave is a “giant curve,” like the one in the film “The Perfect Storm”; a sloughing wave has a foaming face; and a spilling wave has a smaller, breaking curve on its top.

There also are old and new waves, Dein says. Old waves exist in the form of ocean swells, while new waves are created by recent events, such as hurricanes, and possess “a lot more energy than an old wave.” Old waves are slower, he says. Newer waves can travel at 25 knots.

The shape of a wave, old or new, is determined by the sea bed over which it passes, Dein says. It is the friction of the sea bed against the moving water of the wave that slows the bottom portion of the water while the top races ahead, breaking and toppling into the void that the lower water has yet to fill.

Coast Guard personnel selected for surf duty on Motor Lifeboats are sent for three weeks of training at the NationalMotorLifeboatSchool at Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River near Ilwaco, Wash., an area dubbed the Graveyard of the Pacific. “One of the first things we do is teach people to do surf swims,” Dein says. “It’s not to see if they can swim; it’s to see if they are afraid of the water.” The candidates are put in immersion suits and dumped into the Pacific, left to swim ashore in moderate surf.

With those who are uncomfortableculled from the ranks, the rest are put on Motor Lifeboats in the surf to show them the capabilities and limits both of the vessels and themselves, Dein says. Then they are shipped back to their stations to practice. “You can’t teach the requisite skills in three weeks,” he says. Trainees become qualified surfmen only after the chief at their station is convinced, following extensive experience, that they can handle themselves when the chief is not there and the chips are down, Dein says.

Experience teaches a surfman to read the waves and understand how to approach them, Dein says. “You’re taught to look all around and not just focus on what’s in front of you,” he says. The surfman observes which way a wave is breaking — starting in the center and moving outward or the opposite, breaking out-to-in. “You want to get to the low side, where it hasn’t broken yet,” Dein says. Sometimes that isn’t possible, he says, but in any case timing is critical. “You sit and you watch, count the timing between the sets. The operator is reading all these things. He wants to position his boat out of danger and use [the] wheel and throttle to do that.

“The operative word of operating the Motor Lifeboat is control,” says Dein. “There are better ways to eat waves. You want to take a wave bow-on. It provides the least resistance to the wave. You don’t want to take a breaker at 45 degrees, ever. And you want to take it with some momentum. If you’re just stationary, the wave will control you.” Powering into a wave, the boat has the momentum to punch its way through, he says. And when the boat is in motion, the rudders are able to work. “If you’re at idle speed, you have very little control,” he says.

Examining Robertshaw’s photos, and without an opportunity to talk with the crewmembers on board, Dein says that on the surface it appears the operator of the Motor Lifeboat at Morro Bay did not have adequate control to safeguard the vessel. He says he believes the boat would have remained upright had it been handled correctly.

Dein notes that, in the photos, there is no bow wave from the Motor Lifeboat before the wave hits, indicating it wasn’t moving aggressively, and there is no prop wash, as there would be if the operator were pouring on power. Another image shows the bow pointing skyward. “If he had enough momentum, the bow wouldn’t have been up in the air,” Dein says.

Rather, like a reticent boxer back on his heels, the Motor Lifeboat appears to have taken the wave’s punch on the chin, creating a dramatic but telling photograph for Robertshaw.

Scott says the actions of the surfmen that day should not be judged by “what you see from a picture that was taken several hundred yards away in confused seas.”