Our ongoing travels this past fall found us all over the Northwest, ranging from the Oregon coast up through Washington State and onward into Canada to Whistler BC. Over the course of several cold mid November days, I had the distinct honor and privilege of working with the brave men and women stationed at the United States Coast Guard Station, Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Washington. There I was to document the members of the motor lifeboat rescue teams that work the turbulent waters off Cape Disappointment.
A little bit of history for those who are not familiar with aptly named Cape Disappointment…
Located at the mouth of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean, Cape Disappointment is known as one of the most treacherous and deadly waterways in the western hemisphere. Commonly referred to as “The Graveyard of The Pacific,” the waterways in the area are so turbulent that since their discovery in 1792, well over 2000 shipwrecks have occurred and over 700 lives have been lost. The reason for this is an occurrence that happens when the large waves originating offshore from Japan and the Aleutian Islands charge across the Pacific and meet the strong out flowing current of water emanating from the mighty Columbia River, culminating over the bar at the mouth of the river near the jetty. The result is incredibly turbulent water and extremely high surf that is very unpredictable and unforgiving.
It is the job of the US Coast Guard stationed at Cape D. to make sure that the waterways are safe for all seagoing vessels in the area and many times means they have to rescue people that are stranded or sinking during extremely rough weather. As you can imagine this requires lots of training in often intense and hostile situations, so that they may be prepared to take on this task regardless of the conditions.
As I mentioned above, I had the good fortune of being granted access into this world for a few days to document these hard working and dedicated men and women for my American Worker Project. First off, I have to say what a pleasure it was working with them. As you would expect from any US military unit, their level of professionalism and expertise were unparalleled. During my time with them I was able to go out on onto the high seas several times on the dawn patrol “bar runs” that go out every morning at dawn to give first hand reports of the conditions on the bar so that they can set any restrictions for the day for all watercraft entering or leaving the cut from the Columbia River. I also got to photograph them working on both their 47 foot and 52 foot lifeboats as they did high water surf training, man overboard rescue training and boat to boat rescue and towing drills.
The most exciting of the bunch hands down was the high seas surf training. I was reminded several times by the crew and Senior officers of how lucky I was to be included in this activity, as it is extremely rare that a civilian is allowed to go out in these conditions with them. It is not something that I took lightly and did my best to capture just a little bit of what it is like for them out on the water. The experience is amazing! At times it is not unlike being in a huge washing machine as the boats are tossed around like toys by the power of the huge waves. Imagine yourself standing about 15 feet off the surface of the water, tethered to the railing atop the upper deck of a 47 foot boat with 5 crew members, looking up at waves that are cresting easily 10 feet higher than you. Your instinct is to want to go the other way, but instead the pilot of the boat sends us charging toward the wave, tossing the boat up into the air with a wall of water washing over you as you hold on for dear life and then brace for the next wave which comes only 6 – 10 seconds later. Quite and experience to say the least, but all in a day’s work for these folks.
It was decided that I would ride atop the 47’ as it is the “drier” and more stable of the two boats in the 15-20 foot seas we were about to experience. Plus, this would allow me to get some amazing shots of the 52 foot lifeboat named “Triumph II.” A boat commissioned in the 1960’s and one of 4 still in service today. This boat has the unique feature of being much heavier, which means instead of riding up and over the waves, it tends to cut through them resulting in some very dramatic views as you can see from the photos below. The boat completely disappears from view, only to punch on through like a submarine surfacing. As amazing as this seems, it is something this boat is well equipped to do as it is designed to withstand winds of over 100 mph and waves in excess of 32 feet in height.
I imagine it was quite comical watching as I tried to hold on with one hand while attempting to shoot with the other hand, all the while bouncing around like a tethered paddle ball as we experience several G’s when our boat careened over a mountain of water and then proceeded to rain down opon us like a waterfall. Now, I like to think of myself as having my sea legs, having been on water a great deal over my life, but I was definitely being challenged that day. Funny as I may have looked, it was good that I opted not to use my normal surf housing but instead rigged splash bags to save on the extra weight. It is a miracle my gear survived in tact but better to have a lightweight splash bag than something that ends up being more like holding a bowling ball on a rollercoaster. It was comforting knowing that you are with highly trained professionals and that if something goes too horribly wrong, you can escape out of the surf zone and regroup… but one can only imagine what it must be like going out in a bad storm in seas that are twice as high and are not just restricted to one area, but rather go on relentlessly for hours. To add to that, once you reach the people you are saving, it often requires someone going into the cold turbulent water to pluck them from the sea. Bravery is an understatement. Moreover their sense of pride and dedication in what they do is infectious.
Special thanks go to Petty Officer 2nd Class Ali Flockerzi for helping to connect me to the right people, To LCDR Commander Chief Tom Condit, (without his trust and permission I would never have gotten the access needed to create these images) and last but not least Sr. Chief Greenlief and the many other crew members that took me under their wings for a few exciting days on the water. I have the utmost respect for what they do. They put themselves and their lives at risk daily, doing whatever it takes to keep our waterways and homeland safe. After hanging with them for just a few short days it really brings new meaning to the slogan used for many of the branches of the US military. “So that others may live…”