A Night on Duty at Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet

Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet sat on what was largely a spoil island that resulted from the dredging of the shipping channel, turning basin and Port of Palm Beach, just inside a gap in the Atlantic coastal barrier islands, which were decorated north and south with the manors and estates of Palm Beach. The inlet had been dredged into a ship channel and there was a jetty at either side, huge rocks stacked from the ocean floor to form ship-shredders that reached offshore into the Atlantic Ocean. The inlet drained a section of the “inland waterway” that was probably fifteen or twenty miles up and down the east coast of Florida and at times a LOT of water coursed into and out of that narrow channel.

It was an idyllic setting, really it was … and the current through that inlet combined with the winds periodically turned it into a thrashing, crashing, pounding chaos … and the Coast Guard had deemed it sufficiently dangerous that it bestowed upon the station a brand new 44 foot, self-righting motor surfboat:

Ours was 44371

Tough as nails, two Jimmy diesels powering twin bronze screws, built for the rough seas, tested across the Columbia River Bar. If it capsized … turned upside down … it was designed so that in seventeen seconds it re-righted itself. All the seats had seat-belts. The diesel engines produced a roaring throaty note under power, being exhausted into an 8” pipe that crossed the boat and opened to both sides so the engines could not be drowned. They were designed to be able to run inverted.

Late one chilly winter evening a tug pulled out of the Port of Palm Beach towing an oil barge. It was headed for Miami overnight south along the coast. As the passage progressed the weather deteriorated and a powerful onshore wind carrying a chilly drizzling rain rose off the Atlantic driving a rising sea and surf.

I was “Deathly Ill.” It was a flu-ey thing I think and I had a parching fever, a sore throat and I had chills and aches and pains … and

I had duty.

I was on “The Duty Boat Crew.”

At about eleven P.M. (2300) we received a distress call. A tug with a barge in tow had lost power at sea and they were being blown onshore.

We didn’t have one of those signs over the door like they do at some stations … you know:

“You have to go out.

You don’t have to come back.”

… and we understood it anyway. A tug and barge were adrift in a strong onshore wind and rising sea down the coast from us.

We were underway, roaring. I don’t even remember going out the inlet or turning south. I recall taking the message that the barge was aground on the beach and the tug had set an anchor near, but outside, the surf line. We were to reach the scene and “stand by” to render any further needed assistance.

I was in foul weather gear and so sick that once we were on scene I simply curled up on deck right there … and drifted in and out of sleep listening to the diesels below …

At three in the morning, after a night idling in the bitter wet Atlantic wind, just outside the surf line near an anchored tug, the radio cracked open.

“The tug has lost anchor and is being set onto the beach … toward the barge.”

The two Jimmys howled in the exhaust port and we turned for the beach at flank.

I ran to the stern to ready the tow line for passage as we rode before an increasingly steep swell toward the tug, now partially turned abeam to the seas. The coxs’n turned alongside and I passed the line to the tug crew, who fastened it to the towing bit on their stern. They tossed it over the first solid thing they reached. If the old man’d had a hard-on, they’d’a lassoed that at that particular moment …

… and we powered up, turned offshore into the sea and took a strain on the tow line.

… and the tug turned sideways in the swell and we realized that we were attached to their stern bit and they still had the beached oil barge in tow. We were laboring in a head sea, against a high wind, tied to a tugboat turned in the troughs, nearly in the surf, laboring to pull a grounded oil barge off the beach.

It was hopeless. We could keep a strain on the tow line and maintain a stationary position, or sweep side to side, head or bow quarter on to a steep pounding swell, holding the breached tug off the beach .… until further help arrived … or the fuel ran out.

We labored there for a while … I don’t know for how long … and the problem resolved:

I guess the tug surged in one direction and we in another in the seas … and the tow line parted with an explosive crack.

… and there we were, maneuvering in a steep sea, trailing an unknown length of nylon tow line, approaching another unknown length of nylon tow line to reach a broached tug, now just peaking on the surf break, and try to keep it and its crew from being rolled through swells and against the barge in the roaring surf.

I ran to the stern and found the tow line and began to haul in the cold soaking double-braided nylon in six foot bights. We were maneuvering toward the tug, which we had to reach with our stern, where I was standing, and pass that length of soaked nylon line to them. The stern was bucking and tossing underfoot as we backed down onto the tug. Someone had woven their arms around my ankles.

I wound up from the very soles of my feet and threw the coiled line as hard and as far as I could.

… and missed.

… and there we were again, maneuvering alongside a tossing tug in the rising surf with a coiled towline in the black water off the stern near the props.

I pulled it in as hard and as fast as I could and ended up with it coiled in both hands as the coxs’n rode the rising seas backward toward the tug … the stern rose … and then plunged … my ankles were tightly held, I remember the warmth …

… and the 44 hit bottom and shot back upward, and as we rose above them I threw the line as hard as I could and as far as I could and it landed on deck inside the rail alongside their wheelhouse. If we had struck bottom the tug almost HAD to be pretty much aground in the surf.

They secured the tow line around their forward bit, threw off the barge, and we took a strain as smartly as possible and we … began … to PULL …

… into the surf … into the wind … on a grounded tug beam-on inside the line of breaking surf.

… and she turned … her bow swung into the swell … and I saw her stern rise as the sea passed under it.

She was afloat.

She was under way … they were in tow.

We moved out of the surf, offshore and turned for home.

We towed them through the rest of the dark morning, north toward Lake Worth Inlet and the Port of Palm Beach. We swung far out to sea to shoot the inlet as swiftly and in as straight a line as possible … I don’t remember taking the tug alongside for the passage, so they must have had steerage.

The night seems to have settled somehow by then. I don’t recall any anxiety at towing the tug through the inlet so things must have settled some, perhaps the tide was running out.

… and then we were inside the harbor, in the calm. The sun was just below the horizon in that part of the day when the bronze just shows some rose in the sky but there’s no heat in it yet, and the rest of the sky is still a crisp cold black, and we brought them into the safety of the turning basin and gently put them alongside a pier and they tied up.

There were handshakes … and we went home

… and so did they.

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