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Coast Guard 44 Motor Lifeboat

Illustration by Jim Ewing

July 4, 1980. A 58-foot powerboat was laboring off the wave-tossed Oregon coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Celia. As it approached Tillamook Harbor, the seas grew rougher, funneling between two jetties. The yacht attempted the passage but became uncontrollable. A Coast Guard 44 Motor Lifeboat plunged into the maelstrom. Positioned to break some of the waves, it escorted the yacht to safety.

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Then two men were swept from a small boat, the deadly breaking seas threatening to toss them onto the rocks. The same lifeboat plowed into the confused swells, perilously close to the jetty, and its crew of four plucked the pair from the water. Coxswain Richard Dixon earned two Coast Guard medals that day aboard one of the Coast Guard’s most capable, faithful and beloved vessels.

Introduced in 1962, the 44 MLB was the agency’s first steel-hulled, self-righting lifeboat, a husky 44-footer with a 13-foot beam, a crew complement of three or four, and room for as many as 21 “passengers.” Power came from Cummins or General Motors diesels. Top speed was about 16 knots. She could tow vessels as large as 100 tons, and operate in surf as high as 20 feet and in seas up to 30 feet in sustained winds of 50 mph.

Crews trained on the boats off Oregon’s Cape Disappointment, where conditions were just right. “With the river current colliding with strong tides at the mouth of the river often causing 10- to 20-foot breaking waves and Beaufort Force 10 [winds] across the wide river mouth ... the location proved ideal,” one report said.

More than 100 44 MLBs were built, and in 1997 the 47 Motor Lifeboat replaced it. For those who served on them and the thousands they saved, the 44 MLB took you out and brought you home. During their entire service history, none was lost at sea, and only one was damaged beyond repair during the Quillayute River disaster.

April 2014 issue