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Lifeboat gets thrown a lifeline

A neglected 44-foot Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat is restored and returned to service

Ken Bennett has a soft spot in his heart for the 44-foot Motor Lifeboat (MLB), the old workhorse of the Coast Guard’s rescue stations. The 44 MLB, also known as a “surfboat” because of its extreme capability in rough water, was the precursor to the 47-footer the Coast Guard now uses for heavy-weather patrols and rescues.

This 44 MLB now serves a Coast Guard auxiliary flotilla in Grand Haven, Mich.

Bennett, 44, of Jenison, Mich., served for 11 years on 44 MLBs as a Coast Guardsman on Lake Michigan. That and the 44’s legendary prowess in big seas and bad weather explain why Bennett and a handful of other Great Lakes auxiliarists spent three years of weekend, vacation and after-work hours restoring USCG MLB 44359.

Bennett says 12- to 14-foot seas are not uncommon on Lake Michigan, and the waves often are steep and close together — the kind that “make you want to wet your pants,” he says.

“Anytime we have surf conditions — once the seas hit 6 feet or better — we take the 44 out,” Bennett says. The restored MLB is now the workhorse of Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 20-05.

MLB 44359 spent 28 years of service on Lake Michigan until the Coast Guard decommissioned it in 1994. Bennett served on that Motor Lifeboat as a boatswain’s mate — the officer-in-charge — during its last year of service out of Coast Guard Station Muskegon.

“I know her from the inside out,” says Bennett, who works now as a long-haul driver for UPS. Like 44359, Bennett spent all of his Coast Guard career on Lake Michigan — working on or around small patrol boats. “That’s what I love to do,” he says. “I went into the Coast Guard to drive small boats, and here I am still doing it.”

After decommissioning, MLB 44359 wound up at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum, along with the 312-foot World War II Navy submarine USS Silversides and the 1927 Coast Guard cutter McLane, a 125-footer — both of which are in the water. Bennett says 44359 sat out on the hard, neglected and uncovered, until an old-boat buff, Randy Rottschafer, of Port Sheldon, Mich., bought it with the intention of bringing it back to life. In search of hard-to-find parts for the vessel’s twin 185-hp 6V53 Detroit Diesels, Rottschafer talked to an engine dealer who put the new owner in touch with the former crewman. Bennett says he was intrigued with Rottschafer’s plan to restore the MLB and asked if he could do the work in return for Rottschafer letting the auxiliarists use the boat. Rottschafer agreed. The owner’s only caveat: MLB 44359 has to tie up at his dock when it is not in use. “Randy just likes to look at it,” Bennett says.

The auxiliarists have a five-year lease now to use the MLB. They run it and they maintain it with the volunteer help of Master Chief John Anten, a Coast Guard reservist and former engineer on MLB 44359 who is attached to the Coast Guard station at Grand Haven.

Bennett says the 44 was in “derelict” condition after seven years of neglect. “I had to get a hankie out and wipe away my tears,” he says. “The [steel] hull was fine. There was little or no corrosion. But structurally, it had been let go, let go, let go.”

One of its engines was blown and needed to be replaced; the other had to be rebuilt, projects that Anten took on. Bennett and 10 other auxiliarists — chiefly Brian Miller, 34, of Grand Haven and Ronald Grams, 67, of Newaygo — stripped the hardware off, sandblasted the steel down to bare metal, repainted it, took the deck off to pull out the bad engine, rebuilt part of the deck, refitted the deck, replaced a transmission cooler, rewired, replaced the rub rail, upgraded  electronics, repaired piping, replaced hoses, installed a fuel pump and starter, and fitted the boat with a protective canvas cover.

The restoration took three years and included replacing one engine and rebuilding the other.

“It has been a heck of an undertaking,” Bennett says. “I’m a perfectionist. My goal was to get it back identical to the way the Coast Guard had it when I was on it.” The only noticeable differences: MLB 44359 has better electronics than it used to and a blue auxiliary stripe instead of a red Coast Guard one painted on the hull.

Bennett thinks it cost about $40,000 to fix up with donated labor and a lot of donated materials. The return on investment: A boat the flotilla can use for heavy-weather rescues, dewatering disabled boats, fighting fires, doing training missions, taking on big tow projects and blocking traffic to keep boats out of security zones.

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“It’s a working boat for us,” says Miller, 34, and it’s a piece of history preserved. “It’s got a pretty good life, considering where it’s been.”

“I don’t regret one minute of it,” says Grams, who grew up on Lake Michigan and remembers seeing the 44s running out of the Coast Guard station across the St. Joseph River from his house. Besides giving 44359 a new lease on life, he says the three-year project gave him the chance to get to know the other auxiliarists better.

“They’re a nice bunch of guys,” he says.

Bennett says he’s happy to be skippering a 44 again.

That’s the good life, and he feels good, too, about resurrecting 44359. Among its exploits was one in the mid-1980s when its crew took it out to secure several 300-foot rock barges that had broken loose in heavy seas and stormy weather in Muskegan’s inner harbor. “Those barges had mowed down a bunch of sailboats on their mooring buoys,” Bennett says. MLB 44359 “ended up pulling those barges in 50-knot winds to get them anchored again.”

The goal was to keep the lifeboat as original as possible.

MLB 44359 was on display along with a bevy of much larger Coast Guard cutters at the Coast Guard USA Festival in Grand Haven in August 2007. A week-long event that draws some 250,000 visitors, the festival includes a parade, boat tours, crafts and food, a memorial service in honor of deceased Coast Guard men and women, and a big raft-up on the river to view a spectacular fireworks display.

The 44359 drew a lot of old Coasties who served on MLB 44s, says Grand Haven auxiliarist Michael O’Brien. “There was a lot of exuberance, a lot of happiness over the 44,” he said.

The Coast Guard built 110 of the 44 MLBs between 1962 and 1972 at its yard in Curtis Bay, Md., according to, a Web site devoted to the 44-foot Motor Lifeboat. Other countries, among them Great Britain, Italy, Norway, Portugal and Iran, bought or built their own version of the 44, bringing the total number of builds to 162, according to the Web site. The Coast Guard began retiring the 44s in 1990 and replacing them with lighter, faster, bigger 47s, which also were easier on the crews.

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The 44s originally cost about $225,000 apiece and are described by the Coast Guard as self-bailing, self-righting, “almost unsinkable,” with a long cruising range (for its size) of 215 miles. It displaced a hefty 39,500 pounds, and could power up to 14 knots under its twin diesels.

The MLB was designed for rescues and patrols up to 50 miles offshore.

“It was a well-designed boat,” Bennett said. “It did a fine job. It never failed you.”

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.