Coast Guard crewmembers in the Pacific Northwest are experts in rough-weather operations. Here, Alaskan storms strike rugged mountain ranges and rivers spew plumes of sediment over narrow continental shelves to create the area’s infamous “breaking bars.” It’s no accident that the 13th District is home to the National Motor Lifeboat School, where some of the finest ”surfmen” are made, next to the legendary Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash. Across the Columbia River, the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School at Tongue Point and Air Station (AirSta) Astoria, Ore., teach personnel how to conduct rescues despite the district’s unique challenges: frigid water, rough surf, and high cliff tops.
The 13th District reorganized last summer to streamline its chain of command. It now consists of two sector commands: Sector Puget Sound, commanded out of Seattle, with helicopter rescues operated out of AirSta Port Angeles; Sector/AirSta Columbia River, commanded out of Warrenton, Ore., and Group/AirSta North Bend. Most of Sector Columbia River’s law enforcement and rescue operations are coordinated from Warrenton, while the safety and security of the Columbia and Willamette rivers’ shipping traffic is assured from both Warrenton and Marine Safety Unit Portland.
In District 13, where the nation’s largest Vessel Traffic Service operates, it has the additional responsibility of operating a Maritime Force Protection Unit (MFPU), one of only two in the nation formed and trained specifically to escort the Navy’s Trident ballistic-missile submarines to and from their homeports. MFPU Bangor, Wash., established in 2007, recently received the last of its full complement of 33-foot special purpose craft-law enforcement boats, along with 64-foot special purpose craft-screening vessels, boats built specifically for the purpose of conducting naval escorts.
High Cliffs and Rough Seas
Rough surf over the breaking bars of the Pacific Northwest, made worse by stormy winds, often threatens to capsize vessels, and the 13th District’s captains of the port are on watch during the stormy season. Occasionally, it’s necessary to close a bar to traffic entirely until a storm subsides – an unfortunate reality for shipping commerce in the Pacific Northwest, but better than the alternative; rescues in the region are dangerous for victims and rescuers.
In the past year, two District 13 crewmembers have been recognized by outside organizations for outstanding bravery and skill in rescue cases. On Dec. 18, 2010, Aviation Survival Technician (AST) 3rd Class Christopher Austin, a rescue swimmer on his first day of duty, pulled a fisherman’s unresponsive body from the rough, 45-degree surf over the bar at the mouth of Washington’s Willapa River. The man later survived, and for his efforts, Austin has been named Coast Guardsman of the Year for 2011 by the United Services Organization, commonly known as the USO.
Another rescue swimmer, AST2 Thomas Henry, recently received the Admiral Chester R. Bender Award for Heroism by the Coast Guard Foundation, in recognition of two harrowing helicopter rescues, including one on March 25, 2010, in which he assisted four surfers, individually, from a small rocky cove in which they had been trapped.
Recreational fishermen are often at great risk in the Pacific Northwest – especially at an area near the Columbia River mouth known as Buoy 10, where large numbers congregate in August to vie for returning salmon. After a crowded and hazardous season in 2001 – in which seven fishermen died and the Coast Guard responded to 315 search and rescue (SAR) cases in a single month – the Buoy 10 program, a safety outreach conducted mostly by volunteer auxiliarists, was launched. In the past five years, nobody has died in the Buoy 10 fishery during the salmon season, and the number of SAR cases averages less than 20 percent of the 2001 peak.
The coastal waters of District 13 became more hazardous than usual on March 11, 2011, when tsunami surges, triggered by the Tohoku earthquake off the coast of Japan, struck the West Coast. In the district, the damage was most extensive in the harbor of Brookings, Ore., at the mouth of the Chetco River. The surges destroyed about 75 percent of the harbor, smashing vessels and docks into each other; a dozen boats were sunk, and several swept out to sea.
The response to the surge was led by then-officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Chetco River, Master Chief Petty Officer James Clemens. With the station’s motor lifeboats keeping station offshore, Clemens and five members of his team put themselves in the path of the surge to evacuate people from docks that were literally breaking apart beneath them. Total damage to the port was estimated at nearly $7 million. For his efforts, Clemens was named the Coast Guard’s Shipmate of the Week on the Coast Guard Blog, Coast Guard Compass, and featured in “The Faces of Homeland Security – Heroes on the Front Line” by the Department of Homeland Security.
As the Buoy 10 program illustrates, much of the Coast Guard’s work is driven by human behaviors, which lie at the root of the service’s prevention/response posture. In the early weeks of 2011, the Coast Guard was compelled to form new partnerships in response to an unprecedented situation on the Washington bank of the Columbia River. The Davy Crockett, a 431-foot World War II-era cargo barge, which had languished for nearly 20 years at anchorage near the city of Camas, broke apart and pieces of the vessel sank sometime in January when its owner attempted to illegally cut the vessel apart for scrap. It soon became clear Davy Crockett was leaking oil into the river.
Several factors combined to make the Davy Crockett a unique problem: First, while the oil was predominantly bunker fuel, the investigation also revealed smaller amounts of lubricants or coolants containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly toxic compound banned in the United States since 1979. Second, the owner of the vessel, after complying for about a week with Coast Guard instructions to clean the vessel, essentially walked away, sticking taxpayers with the cost of cleanup – a cost, according to Daniel LeBlanc, commander of Marine Safety Unit Portland, that had reached $19.55 million by August 2011.
Because the Davy Crockett could not be refloated and taken to a shipyard, LeBlanc was forced to ask the Coast Guard commandant himself, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., for authorization to remove and destroy the vessel in place – something the service had never done before. After receiving permission, the Coast Guard, along with Unified Command members from the Washington Department of Ecology and the Department of Environmental Quality for Oregon, teamed with various partners from other federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to launch the clean-up. First, they built a $1.4 million steel cofferdam around the vessel to prevent further spillage as the demolition took place. As of August 2011, cleanup crews had removed 32,000 gallons of oil and 800,000 pounds of debris from the sunken vessel.
The Davy Crockett case promptly led the Coast Guard and its partners in the region to consider how such a costly situation might be avoided in other parts of Sector Columbia River. “The Davy Crockett was just one of many derelict vessels out there,” said Capt. Bruce Jones, commander of Sector Columbia River. “So my predecessor, Capt. Doug Kaup, said: ‘It’s time to come up with a comprehensive plan for all these vessels.’”
The Derelict Vessel Task Force, led by Sector Columbia River, was stood up promptly after the Davy Crockett response was launched. “The program’s original goal is to identify and inventory derelict and abandoned vessels within this area of responsibility, which is mainly the Columbia River and the Willamette River and the coast of Oregon,” said LeBlanc. “But eventually this will spill over to become more of a Northwest initiative, after we finish with our pilot project.”
The Task Force is a remarkable initiative, aimed at preventing another situation like the Davy Crockett – but then the 13th is a remarkable district, with qualities that present the Coast Guard with unique challenges.
This article was first published under a slightly different title in the Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.