So picking up where we left off, our ongoing travels this fall took us all over the Northwest, ranging from the Oregon coast up through Washington State and onward into Canada to Whistler BC. Which brings me to this current post and latest installement into The American Worker Project.
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. After making contact with the station’s Commanding Officer LCDR Tom Condit, I was invited there to document the hard working members of the motor lifeboat rescue teams that patrol 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 emanating offshore from Japan and the Aleutian Islands, charge across the Pacific and collide with the strong currents flowing 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 high surf that is unpredictable and extremely unforgiving.
When someone is in trouble at sea, stranded, alone and taking on water, it is the US Coast Guard who answers the call. They will go out in extremely adverse conditions and lay their lives on the line to rescue those in need. 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 and honor 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. The purpose of these runs is 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 at the Columbia River. I also got to photograph them working on both their 47 foot and 52 foot motor lifeboats as they did high seas surf training, man overboard rescue training. boat to boat rescues and towing drills.
The most exciting activity 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 these huge waves. Imagine yourself standing roughly 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 Surfman who is driving 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. Now consider this… the day I was on board for surf training was a relatively tame day for them. While it was a white knuckle ride for me, it was but a fraction of the conditions that they are actually able to handle. Quite an 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 that 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 four 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 above and below. The boat completely disappears from view, only to punch through like a submarine surfacing. As amazing and treacherous as this seems, it is something this boat is well equipped to do, being that it is designed to operate in winds of up to 70 mph and waves in excess of 32 feet in height.
I imagine it was quite comical to them watching me as I tried to hold on with one hand while attempting to shoot photos 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 which then proceeded to rain down upon us like a waterfall. Now I like to think of myself as having my sea legs, as I’ve spent a great deal of time on water 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 my cameras with 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 roller coaster. In hindsight it was comforting knowing that I was 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 not just restricted to one small area, but rather go on relentlessly for hours. To add to that, once you reach the people you are trying to save, it often requires a rescue swimmer going into the cold turbulent waters 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 Lieutenant 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…”