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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Coast Guard boats damaged in high seas were built in Port Orchard, WA

Coast Guard boats damaged in high seas

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Both of Coast Guard Station Chatham's $1.2 million 42-foot rescue boats were seriously damaged while attempting to cross the Chatham Break in heavy seas.Cape Cod Times/Merrily Cassidy

It's called the "last light bar check," and the Coast Guard unit at the Chatham station does it every day's end.

But this time a routine exercise would end with Chatham's two $1.2 million rescue boats damaged and a Coast Guard jet, helicopter, 110-foot cutter and two patrol boats from Provincetown and Nantucket scrambling to rescue the rescue crews.

On Wednesday, investigators will arrive from Washington, D.C., to look into what happened. The company that made the two boats, Safe Boats International of Port Orchard, Wash., has been awarded at least $145 million in contracts to build a fleet of similar vessels for the Coast Guard.

The last light bar check is a way to gauge the safety of the notorious Chatham Break, a collection of dangerous sandbars that migrate across the mouth of Chatham Harbor and sometimes make going out to sea or returning to port a life-threatening enterprise. The Coast Guard needs to know whether the bar is passable so that it can inform other mariners, like the Chatham fishing fleet, or in case they are called out to a night rescue.

The forecast Friday night wasn't particularly horrendous. A low-pressure system was climbing up the coast and wind speeds were expected to reach 12 to 25 knots, with waves of 5 to 9 feet. That kind of sea is well within the 15-foot swell the vessel is rated to withstand, Coast Guard Station Woods Hole Lt. Commander Justin Peters said Monday.

But waves at the Break behave differently from those at sea. Throwing hard over a shallow sand bar, they are steep and pack a lot of force.

Peters said the crew of four on the first vessel arrived within sight of the break at around 5:30 p.m. Peters said the crew followed procedure, stopping to evaluate the waves before judging it was safe to proceed. They soon took a wave over the bow that smashed both windows on the bridge, flooding it with hundreds of gallons of water. The water knocked out the electronics and disabled the steering and both engines. After being rocked by two more waves, the boat was carried by the outgoing tide beyond the breakers into deeper water where they anchored and awaited rescue from a second 42-foot vessel.

That vessel met a similar fate at approximately 6:30 p.m., when a wave knocked out the bridge windows and flooded the cockpit, but it was able to limp over to the other boat on one remaining engine.

Larger rescue craft from the stations at Provincetown and Brant Point, Nantucket ,were dispatched, as was the 110-foot cutter Tybee, which was cruising Nantucket Sound.

A Jayhawk rescue helicopter took off from Air Station Cape Cod and a Falcon jet flew overhead to check on the crews. Peters said one crew member was treated after being hurt by glass.

The Tybee arrived on scene at 9 p.m. and towed the disabled vessel to Station Woods Hole. Brant Point's 47-foot vessel accompanied the second rescue boat to the same station.

Peters said the Coast Guard is looking at the Chatham inlet from the air to evaluate the safety of the sand bars. He said investigators from Washington, D.C., were due by Wednesday to look into the circumstances of the incident.

Safe Boats has manufactured 300 25-foot boats for the Coast Guard under a $145 million contract, but the two 42-footers at Chatham, in service for two years now, are the only two of those kind in the service. Instead of outboard motors, they are propelled by hydraulic jets that allow the boat to operate in less than 3 feet of water. They can also right themselves if they are capsized by a wave.

"These boats were tested significantly before they were put into service at Chatham. They have been out in surf numerous times in these conditions and larger," Peters said.

He said the men at the helm of both boats were the two most experienced mariners at the station.

"There are limitations to what you can do with a boat," said veteran Chatham fishermen Peter Taylor, who said the crew exercised poor judgment. The conditions were ripe for dangerous surf over the bar, he said. Big tides meant a lot of water streaming out of Pleasant Bay on the outgoing tide, smashing into big winds blowing out of the east, he said.

"What do you think is going to happen? No way I would ever consider crossing that to go fishing," said Taylor. "They absolutely misjudged the situation."

He was critical of leaving the fishing port unprotected as a result.

Peters said a replacement 27-foot rescue boat was on its way up from Point Judith, R.I. Another is already stationed in Stage Harbor. Neither is rated for the kind of seas that the 42-foot vessels can withstand.

Peters said cutters and patrol boats from other ports have also extended their reach to help cover Chatham.

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