The Life of the Crew


The Life of the Crew at a Lifeboat Station
in the 1930’s until the early 1940’s


Warren M. Hulburt
Former Chief Warrant Officer
United States Coast Guard


During the preparing of the text, I failed to mention the importance of the lifeboat calls or assistance rendered. This was a great part of the daily life of the crewmen. Although most of the boat calls were routine, such as towing fishing vessels back to port, occasionally we would have a hair raiser: For instance, breaking the tow line while crossing the bar or staying out over night with a tow when it was too rough to cross back in. The station also was active in the summer time in assisting surf bathers who had ventured out too far.Before world war two there was a little known fact that after the crewman’s name, rank and serial number, a large “L” was put in parenthesis. That designated life saving service and prevented the crewman from being transferred to the cutter service.

I was never a member of the crew of the Port Orford Lifeboat Station. I came close to being a member two different months in the same year. I was on temporary duty at the Coquille River Lifeboat Station, where we were giving surf training to crewmembers of lifeboat stations on the Oregon coast. The same thing was happening on the Washington coast. We were training with a 26-foot pulling surfboat. It was on a trailer that we towed to Battle Rock. We did this five days a week for four weeks.  Each day we spent four to five hours in the surf. We could not understand why we were doing this. We found out later that as each crewmember completed the training, it was entered in his service record. This would allow the powers to be a help in sending them on to landing craft training.

I would like to give a small resume of some of my duty stations: Yaquina Lifeboat Station, Newport, Oregon; Tillamook Bay Lifeboat Station, Barview, Oregon; Point Adams Lifeboat Station, Hammond, Oregon; Grays Harbor Lifeboat Station, Westport, Washington (temporary duty); Seattle Repair Yard (temporary duty), and Tongue Point Buoy Depot, Astoria, Oregon (temporary duty). But that is another story. I never lost my love for lifeboat stations.

If you will, I would like you to follow me down memory lane to the years of 1930 and 1940. What we did then, how we did it and what we did it with, would no doubt be considered archaic by today’s standards. We did a hell of a job with what we had to work with. I would like to give you an over-view of the life of the crew of the lifeboat stations of that era. All stations followed the same method of operation. Therefore, I would like to use the Yaquina Lifeboat Station as my subject for two reasons, both of which I am very proud. First, that is where I signed on as a surfman. Second, down the road, I ultimately became that station’s commanding officer.

As surfmen we had no boot camps. We learned the hard way just by doing it. The Coast Guard also had a contract with the International Correspondence School. For rating courses, there were only two types of ratings in the stations at that time. They were boatswain mate and motor machinist mate. To be recommended for any of the rates one must have completed their course with passing grades.

Vacancies in the lifeboat stations were few and far between. Should one occur, it would be one of three reasons. First the crewmember retired. Second, the crewmember was paid off. Third, the crewmember had drowned. When I signed on as a surfman, I was given the number of one of the three surfmen that had drowned on the Yaquina Bay bar some months earlier. That was a very sad day for the station, not only did they lose three surfmen but also they lost two civilians. Two crew men were rescued but their 36 foot lifeboat was lost.

When a vacancy occurred, the officer in charge would see if he could find a young wharf rat, so to speak, that knew the difference between a flood tide and an ebb tide. At this point, I will have to admit that I was one of these wharf rats.

As I finished signing my enlistment papers, I was handed a typewritten sheet that said the crew of the Yaquina Bay Lifeboat Station is happy to have you aboard. Below is a listing of things that we do when we are not saving lives or property or doing maintenance. The list went like his – motor lifeboat drill, pulling surf boat drill, beach apparatus drill, resuscitation drill, blue book drill, flashing light drill, semaphore drill, wig wag drill and international code flag drill. Below that in bold type…

"You will be proficient in all of the above drills within the next six months.  Failure to do so could be grounds for terminating your enlistment."

Before I start explaining the drills, I want to tell about the lifeboat. The one displayed in the yard of the museum is a type TRS, 36 feet long. She is self bailing and self righting. The self bailing is accomplished by the relieving ports or scuppers. It is necessary for them to be self bailing when crossing over the bar as occasionally one would experience taking a breaker or two, partially filling the well deck.  The self righting is done by a heavy bronze keel. The lifeboat had several safety features for the crew. One was a belt that went around the helmsman and snapped into two eyebolts. The second was a short piece of line with a loop spliced in each end and a turnbuckle in the center. The loops were placed over the port and starboard quarter bits and the turnbuckle was hooked into an eye in the bulkhead which allowed the line to be tightened. This formed a “V”.  A safe place for the crew to be was in this “V”.

The district commander, Jensen, came for an inspection. He had us at general muster and was giving a pep talk. As he walked up and down the line, he stopped at a young surfman and said, “Son, if I ask you a hypothetical question, can you give me an honest answer?”

The surfman said, “Yes, sir”.

The commander said, “Let’s suppose you are crossing out over a rough bar with the 36 foot lifeboat… what would you be doing?”

The surfman thought for a few moments and said,  “Sir, I would be hanging on.” 

The commander said, “Would you be hanging on with both hands?”

The surfman said, “Yes.”

The commander said, “Son, remember in the Coast Guard when the going gets rough, it is one hand for yourself and the other one for the government.”

The lifeboat was powered with a six cylinder, twin ignition, Sterling marine engine with wet exhaust. It would do about nine knots an hour. The story was told by an old retired surfman that the first motor lifeboats were equipped with a 15 gallon tank fitted in the stern, complete with valve and plumbed to the outside of the hull. This was to be kept full of oil at all times to be used to smooth the waters when it was necessary. If one knowingly dumped 15 gallons of oil in an estuary today, he would likely be subject to court martial.

The lifeboat drills consisted of allowing the surfmen to handle the boat, running compass courses, docking and undocking. While under way some one would throw a life jacket over board and holler “man over board”. The man at the wheel would then make a 180 degree turn and get close enough to the life jacket to pick it up with a boat hook. This seems quite easy and in most cases it was, but occasionally due to wind and tide, it was necessary to make a second pass at it. This was acceptable.

The pulling surfboat drill was done with a 26 foot self bailing Monamor. This boat was constructed to accommodate eight oarsmen on four seats and one coxswain with a large steering oar called a sweep. The drill was conducted on a routine basis, using the manual of oars such as out oars, lash oars, toss oars and let fall oars. These were all done in cadence. Occasionally, during the summer on at least one of the holidays, the crew would don their undress whites and would strut their stuff along the waterfront until a crowd gathered. The coxswain then would command in oars to lash oars. The next command would be prepared to capsize. Each crewmember would stand and grab a small righting line that was fastened to the railing on the port side. The next command would be man the starboard rail. Two men to each line would stand on the rail leaning out. This would submerge that rail and would put all of the crewmen in the water.

One problem to watch for was the port railing coming over the top and hitting a crewmember in the head. This made it necessary to grab the railing and push away. The reverse of that was for all crewmen to climb upon the bottom, bringing the riding line with them. Then bracing their feet against the keel and rocking the boat. The boat would soon be right side up. Dumping all of the crewmembers back in the water. The boat would bail itself out and the crewmembers would climb back in. The eyes would be on the coxswain to see if he made it around the stern without getting wet. If he did, he had one of two options, to be thrown over board or jump over board. It was standard practice for the motor lifeboat to take the pulling surfboat in tow as in many cases some of the crew would swim back to the station.

At this time I would be remiss if I did not comment on the types of motor lifeboats at the stations today. Namely, the 44 footer, the 47 footer and the 52 footer. The 13th Coast Guard district was no stranger to the 52 footers. In the early 1930’s the district commander picked a crew from the various Coast Guard stations on the Oregon, Washington coast and sent them back to the Coast Guard yard in Maryland to man two 52 footers. They had expected to find a stretched version of the 36 footer. To their surprise they found no resemblance. They had a high free board, flush deck, no well decks, a small cabin forward where it could be operated from inside the cabin or out. The boats were powered with diesel engines. The two boats were identical. They split the crew up and put half on each boat.

The Coast Guard Cutter Persius was standing by to escort the two 52 footers down the east coast. About a day and a half out, the Persius notified the lifeboats to hold their course in speed as she had a mission to take care of and would catch up with them in twelve hours. This was accomplished and they proceeded on down the east coast to the Panama Canal and up the west coast. One of the boats went to the Grays Harbor Lifeboat Station. It was named the Invincible. The other went to Point Adams Lifeboat Station, Point Adams. It was named the Triumph. These two vessels had brilliant careers in saving lives and dollar value of property. I do not know when the Invincible played out its life as far as the Coast Guard is concerned. It was sold to an individual who had it made over into a fishing vessel. I do know what happened to the Triumph. On January 12, 1960, during a storm, she was called out to assist a fishing vessel at the mouth of the Columbia River. She was lost on the bar with all five crewmembers. There is a memorial in the city park in Hammond, Oregon dedicated to the Triumph and her crew.

Beach apparatus drill

Most stations had two beach apparatus carts – a small cart that carried enough equipment for the drill. The second cart was a large service cart with the amount of equipment to complete a rescue. The object of this drill is to remove passengers or crew from a vessel run aground in heavy surf. A line would be shot to the stranded vessel by a small cannon called a Lyle gun. The crew aboard the ship would pull in the shot line where a whip line had been stretched. When the whip line was received there was a plaque attached giving instructions where and how to make the whip line fast and also the hawser. One side of the instructions on the plaque was written in English and the other side was in French. When all lines were attached the breeches buoy was pulled out to the stranded vessel and the personnel was removed one at a time. This was a very interesting drill as it was a timed drill. Our best effort was 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

Resuscitation drill

When a crewmember was resuscitating a person, it was about the same as today’s CPR. However, we did not do mouth to mouth. We had a five man method – one man on each arm, one man on each leg and one on the chest. They would go through a cadence count, raising the arms above the head and lowering to the body. The legs would be rubbed toward the heart. The crewman at the chest would be performing the same as CPR. This would be continued, no matter how long it took, until the person was brought back to life or until a doctor had pronounced him dead.

Blue book drill

This was a book of instructions for the Coast Guard stations. It had 150 pages. This book contained motorboat laws, rules of the road, complete resuscitation drill, complete beach apparatus drill and night storm warnings. Each crewmember was required to memorize all items in this book.

Flashing light drill

This was a key similar to a telegraph key, equipped with a battery and a light bulb. A message would be sent by using the Morse code – dots and dashes.

Semaphore drill

This is done by using two small flags, positioning them at different angles to spell words. I noticed a set of semaphore flags with a book open to the semaphore alphabet under glass at the Port Orford museum.

Wig wag drill

This is a red flag about four feet square attached to a staff. It is used to send messages by Morse code – dots on the right and dashes on the left.

International code flag drill

We had a complete set of these flags at the station, however, they were used for the most part aboard ship. There was a flag representing each letter of the alphabet, and a flag representing the numbers zero through nine. We also had a miniature set on a stand in the day room. Each crewmember was required to memorize the operation of each flag. Also the crewmembers were required to memorize the phonetic alphabet such as Able standing for A, B for Boy, C for Cast, D for Dog, E for Easy, F for Fox, etc.

The western area inspections office in San Francisco would send out an inspector about twice a year. He would arrive unannounced. He would be with the station usually about three days. He would start his inspection at the lookout tower. He inspected every thing – the condition of the tower, the condition of the ladder, the catwalk, the logbook and especially the entries in the log each time the clock was punched. It was required to punch the clock every thirty minutes.

The lookout tower was manned with four hour watches around the clock. The inspector would move to the office where he would inspect the personnel file, the station log, the record of public property, expendable and nonexpendable and the ordinance. He would then hold a general muster with the crew in full uniform. Next would be bunk inspection. Each crewman was required to have on hand a complete sea bag. Each article of clothing in the sea bag was required to be rolled and tied and have stenciled name showing. Each article had a specific place on the bunk to be displayed. This allowed the inspector to walk by and see if any article was missing.

We were given about thirty minutes to change into undress blues and report to the day room. We would be seated in a row. The inspection officer and the officer in charge would be seated at a table in the center of the room. The inspecting officer would hand the officer in charge a type written sheet containing a number of sentences. Each sentence contained about fifteen words. The officer in charge would send the first fifteen words by flashing light to the #1 surfman. The surfman would be required to give the sentence back to the officer, word for word. This would be continued up and down the line for several times. The commanding officer would ask #1 surfman to recite the beginning of the resuscitation drill. After each sentence, he would move on to the next surfman and continue down the line. A crewmember would act as the subject and would complete both phases of the resuscitation drill.

In about six weeks the office would receive the inspectors report along with a letter from the district commander stating the deficiencies, if any. They would allow about two weeks to make any corrections and report same to the district commander.

Copyright © 2005, Warren Hulburt