Our latest tour to Astoria, Oregon over two days was really four tours in one all involving USCG facilities and 13 Navy Leaguers attended. We started Monday morning, August 25th, with the Columbia River Air Station just west of Astoria where the rescue helicopters are stationed. Our tour guide here was one of the pilots of these amazing 63’ humming birds, LT Adriana Knies. We had a close-up look at the helos, MH-60T Jayhawks, and a chance to hear from and talk to some of the rescue swimmers who’s training and capabilities are truly amazing. The rescue swimmers are the folks who are lowered or jump into the water (or maybe the side of a cliff), they are physically and mentally fit to an unnatural degree, they are fully qualified EMT’s and they are totally dedicated to saving lives which they do on a regular basis. Our guide during this part of the tour was AC3 Brian Rodriquez, who explained that the 6-month basic training course has a dropout rate of 75%, includes mountain training and requires recertification every 15 months. This kind of reminds me of the Navy SEALS BUDs basic training.
Although this portion of the tour was focused on the search and rescue mission, Sector Columbia River executes virtually the full range of Coast Guard missions in a uniquely challenging and complex maritime environment. Its Command Center at the air station overlooks the world famous Columbia River Bar and “Graveyard of the Pacific”. The Sector ensures Maritime Safety, Security and Environmental Protection from the Pacific Ocean to coastal Oregon and southern Washington and associated ports, 420 miles of coastline, and throughout the Columbia, Snake and Willamette River systems to Idaho.
Later the same day we toured the Aids to Navigation Station in Astoria (think Buoys and Light Houses). Although this subject may seem esoteric to some, it turned out to be a very interesting experience. The mechanics and machinery used to keep the buoys and other navigation aids working was an intriguing topic to learn about from some very knowledgeable people. Our guide here was BM2 Jonathan Fairbank. I was particularly interested to learn how the buoys in the Puget Sound shipping channel, in 600’ of water, are able to stay put in fairly significant currents with aircraft carrier sized ships buzzing by and depending on them to stay in the right traffic lane. This station is the home Port for the USCG Buoy Tender Fir.
Tuesday morning found us back on the Washington side of the river at the Cape Disappointment National Motor Lifeboat School. Our tour guide was the unit CO, BOSN4 Kevin Clark, a 30-year Coast Guard veteran. This is the only school for rough weather surf rescue operations in the country and students, up to 150 per year, occasionally come from Canada and other countries. Of the five classes available, the Heavy Weather Coxswain Course is the “meat and potatoes of the school.” The course provides students with the specific skills needed to operate the motor lifeboat in the rough weather environment for which it was designed. The course stresses rough weather towing, surf operations, motor lifeboat handling, and risk management. The goal of the Coasties attending this school is the “Surfman” designation; there are currently only 200 Surfmen in the entire Coast Guard. The 47-footer is the current MLB in use at the school taking the place of the 44-footer in 1996. The Columbia River bar, aka the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” provides an ideal rough weather training environment with its deep river channel, rock jetties, coastal surf zones, and waves that can often exceed 20 feet. Our tour began with a presentation of the school’s history and function and then moved into the amazing 47’ self-righting motor lifeboats that are currently used in all of the 20 river bar surf stations in the country. We also saw some impressive videos of these boats in action and then were treated to a tour of one of these boats.
The day ended with a self-guided tour of one of the two lighthouses at Cape Disappointment.