Since lifesavers have gone to sea, they’ve relied upon survival equipment to protect them and enhance their ability to help others. Beginning in the 1970’s, the maritime industry began to see dramatic innovations in this field. (1)
Retired Surfman BMCM Thomas McAdams and Surfmen of old, “look at the present and marvel at the equipment of today.” (2)(3) Over the decades, professional rescuers have graduated from oil-skin rain coats and cork lifejackets to complex hypothermia protective garments, signaling devices, helmets, and safety belts. (1)
On 12 February, CG 44363’s boat crew wore anti-exposure coveralls, boat crew survival vests, and heavy weather safety belts. (4)
Lifesavers’ prime concern is protection from hypothermia and floatation in the event of immersion. In the frigid Pacific Northwest, water temperatures remain near 50°F and debilitate a victim in minutes. Professionals use a “50-50-50 rule” to predict survivability: a victim has a 50% chance of survival for 50 minutes in 50°F water. (5)
The anti-exposure coveralls worn by Bosley and his crew- sometimes called “Mustang suits” for their manufacturer’s namesake- combine floatation and thermal protection in one foam-filled suit. The suit’s outer shell is a tough, nylon material that encapsulates about ½” of closed-cell foam. While the suits are bulky, they keep wearers fairly warm and dry until they enter the water. (5)
Once immersed, anti-exposure suits fill up with water and the wearer becomes soaked. By tightening straps and cuffs, the wearer ensures that the layer of water warmed by their body heat stays close to their core. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Boat Crew Handbook estimates that in 50°F water, a person will remain usefully conscious for about three to five hours. (5)
Over their lifejackets and survival suits, all Coast Guard crew members wear a boat crew survival vest, also called a “pyro” (pyrotechnics) or “SAR” (search and rescue) vest. Survival vests provide a crewmember with a variety of means to signal their position should they fall overboard: they contain a strobe light, whistle, signal mirror, knife, meteor flare kit, and day/night handheld flare. (6)
U.S. Coast Guard photos
Crews have always needed to keep themselves tethered to their pitching lifeboats. Lifesavers of old used segments of line to tie themselves to their vessels, but modern crews use boat crew safety belts, also called “surf” or “heavy weather” belts. (1)(6)
These robust belts wrap around a crewmember’s midsection and come with two side straps with carabiner-like clips to connect to D-ring attachment points around the boat. (6)
Though helmets were available and stowed on board, the 44363’s crew did not don them. In the 1990s, crews wore full-cut “Pro-Tec” whitewater helmets with reflective tape and a Velcro patch for attaching a strobe light.
Jason Linnett photos
The first dry suits were evaluated by the Coast Guard in the late 1980s. Testers at the National Motor Lifeboat School were impressed with the performance of Typhoon-brand suits from the United Kingdom, where the Royal National Lifeboat Institution was already using them. (7)(10)
In 1997, dry suits were appearing at Coast Guard stations. When dry suits were first issued to the fleet, some units only received a handful to be shared amongst twenty or more boat crew members. On 12 February 1997, the second boat crew on CG 44393 heard how miserable the conditions were and opted to wear their dry suits. (7)(10)
Dry suits keep the wearer completely dry and can extend a crewmember’s useful consciousness to 10 or 12 hours. Dry suits act like a watertight rain coat for one’s entire body and have tight rubber or neoprene seals at the wrist and neck to keep water out. (5)(6)
Like a rain coat, however; dry suits do not provide much insulation or floatation. To maintain body heat, crews wear polypropylene thermal underwear against their skin, and fleece “bunny” suits above that. Dry suits are not inherently buoyant, so crews must also wear an appropriate personal floatation device over top, followed by the standard boat crew survival vest. (6)
In 1997, boat crewmembers carried pyrotechnics, a knife, and other audio and visual signals. Today, the Coast Guard has added personal locator beacons (PLBs) to each survival vest. (5)(6)
Operating on the same internationally recognized frequency as vessel emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), these PLBs last for hours and direct rescue crews to within a tight radius of a survivor using search and rescue satellites. (5)(6)
Today’s helmets are simpler and lighter than those of the 1990s, even though some sailors expressed concerns about the ear openings of the Pro-Tec full cut helmets. (7)
In total, today’s boat crewmembers are each issued over $3,000 of survival equipment. (6)
The Rescue and Survival Systems Program After the Mishap
The investigations into the loss of CG 44363 directed headquarters to recover all survival equipment and evaluate it for premature failure. Additionally, ADM Kramek directed that headquarters reevaluate the boat crew helmet design. (4)(7)
While the specific survival equipment changes to come out of the 44363 mishap were relatively few, the tragedy marked the early beginnings of sweeping improvements in the Coast Guard’s rescue and survival system (R&SS) program. (7)
Following another deadly Coast Guard accident at Station Niagara, New York in March 2001, the Coast Guard accelerated improvements to its R&SS program. Crews continued being issued more and better personal equipment, documentation and maintenance systems were enhanced, standardization inspections improved, and policy clarifications addressed prevalent operational inconsistencies that put crews at risk. (7)(8)(9)
Today’s crews have excellent equipment and a strong R&SS program that has grown out of mishaps like these. To understand how the Coast Guard’s R&SS program continues to evolve, an examination of two specific pieces of equipment is helpful. (6)(7)(10)
Boat Crew Safety Belts
The first boat crew safety belts were helicopter door-gunner belts purchased through military supply sources. Mishap-generated changes to safety belts occurred as early as the 1980s, following an incident at Station Tillamook Bay, OR. (10)
Between 1987 and 1988, the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, WA tested different safety belts, helmets, and dry suits. The top-performing equipment was later adopted service-wide. (10)
Mishaps continued to drive improvements: during a 1993 rollover at Station Grays Harbor, WA, five of six crewmembers slid out of safety belts when their 52′ motor lifeboat rolled over. (10)(12)
Afterwards, the Coast Guard modified the design with thicker, grippy material on the inside of the waist belt and a better quick release buckle. Additionally, Headquarters was directed to clarify proper adjustment and use of safety belts in the Rescue and Survival Systems Manual. (10)(12)
In 1997, boat crew safety belts had robust waist security and were fitted with non-locking wire gate clips. (4)(7)(10)
Some of the facts about how belts were used by the crew of CG 44363 are vague. About the administrative investigation, ADM Robert E. Kramek noted that, “there is an absence of detail on the issue of boat crew safety belts and helmets.” This matter deserves further examination and sheds light on the way the Coast Guard drives change. (4)(7)(10)
condition of beltS
After the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board and 13th Coast Guard District held a news conference and displayed a belt with failed clips that was recovered from the accident. The clips were stretched out. Other accounts detail that a belt was found with elongated clips and failed stitching along its webbing. One belt was found on James Island in perfect condition with both clips connected to each other. (4)(7)(10)
The way this belt was found indicates that it came off of a crewmember during the rollovers. Also, the arrangement of the clips shows that they were likely not secured to D-rings on the boat. The way the clips were connected to each other is identical to the way that crewmembers used to stow—and still stow—the clips of their safety belts when not in use: on the top edge of their survival vest. (4)(7)(10)
what may have happened
Other Surfmen with first-hand knowledge corroborate that belt damage was related to a “straightening out” of the non-locking snap hook. But they explain that before its clips let-go, one belt was put under incredible strain by being pulled in opposite directions. When parts of the coxswain flat separated from the hull, one clip was attached to the boat and the other to the coxswain screen or engine room vent, causing extreme pull from two directions. (4)(7)(10)
Another type of failure can occur when the geometry between a clip and its attachment point force the clip’s gate open. This “dynamic rollout” or “ring rollout” is a major concern in the world of aviation hoisting and Surfmen have noted that this was possible on lifeboats with open-gate clips. In the 1990s, members from Station Cape Disappointment, WA were tasked to investigate this liability. (10)(14)
Some Surfmen find the possibility of ring rollout remote with taut safety belts on motor lifeboats. However, of the six clips in use aboard CG 44363 that night, only one of SA Wingo’s remained attached after the final rollover (his other clip detached from the coxswain screen when it was carried away). Therefore, it is possible that a variety of the failures listed above may have occurred. (10)
While safety belt hardware did “fail”, it is not considered a contributing factor in the three deaths; no safety belt can be expected to withstand the force of an 18-ton steel vessel rolling three times over rocks. And from a structural standpoint, the hardware’s integrity performed remarkably well—”too well” as some Surfmen contend—because of the stretching the belts were able to endure before the clips detached from their attachment points. (4)(10)
It is unknown what greater investigative documentation exists to corroborate these first-hand accounts, but as with the case of boat crew helmets, the history speaks for itself. The Coast Guard felt that the belts had failed, and in December 1998, reacted by changing the clip design on boat crew safety belts. (4)(7)(10)(13)(15)
A December 1998 13th District message announced that the Quillayute River mishap, “prompted a review of boat crew personal protective equipment, resulting in the identification of a boat crew safety belt superior to the one currently in service.” (10)(15)
(left) 1997 non-locking (center) 1998 “Talon” locking (right) post-2001 “Super Talon” locking
U.S. Coast Guard photos
The message detailed a new design (the “Talon” clip) that locked once closed, because the feature would “prevent inadvertent release of the snap hook from an attachment point.” The change was effective immediately and all non-compliant models were to be removed from service within 180 days. (10)(15)
Testing and actual use of the Talon clip uncovered problems, however. The 1998 message warned commands that the design required users to “be thoroughly familiar with the operation of the hook… paying particular attention to working the latch gate release.” It cautioned that, “operation should be second nature.” (6)(7)(10)(15)
Surfmen who used this model of belt remember how difficult the mechanism was to operate with cold, wet hands, and how the opening was too small for easy use with a vessel’s D-rings. Considering how the clips from CG 44363 held-on to the point of popping belt stitching, many Surfmen felt the modification was a “knee-jerk reaction;” they didn’t assert that any belts had “failed” on 12 February. (6)(7)(10)(15)
In addition to difficulty of use, the Talon clips suffered structural failures. Members at the National Motor Lifeboat School documented how the Talon clip could break apart when subjected to tension and side force. Because of the difficulties, numerous Surfmen kept their original, non-locking safety belts and continued to use them, in contravention to the change.
Non-Locking Clips Reauthorized
In June 2000, the Coast Guard issued a routine message directing units to remove belts with Talon clips from service, and around 2001-2002, the present-day “Super Talon” clips were introduced. Though they had initial quality problems due to metallurgical integrity, they have operated well since. (6)(10)(13)
The 2007, 2014, and current 2015 editions of the Rescue and Survival Systems Manual all state that belts with the “Super Talon” clip are the only model to be purchased, but allow existing stock of belts with wire gate and “Talon” clips to be used until unservicable. (6)(7)(10)(13)(15)
It is not known when exactly this change occurred, but the Coast Guard came full-circle from a requirement for locking clips, back to an acceptance of non-locking ones. Throughout each change, every edition of the Rescue and Survival Systems Manual included notes of caution taken verbatim from the 1998 13th District message. (6)(10)(13)(15)
While reviewing the CG 44363 mishap, 13th District Commander RADM J. David Spade expressed the opinion that, “the severity of the head injuries was such that helmets would not have prevented their deaths.” Coast Guard Commandant ADM Robert E. Kramek did not agree with this assessment. ADM Kramek also directed headquarters to reevaluate the boat crew helmet design. (4)(7)
The subject of helmets is multi-faceted and spans the decades leading up to and beyond the 1997 accident. (4)(7)
Headquarters Focuses on Helmet Improvements
The Coast Guard has gone to great lengths to design or select the best equipment for its crews. Compared with even two decades ago, today’s boat crews have an incredible assortment of gear. However, some equipment programs have experienced growing pains. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, helmets have been one of these problematic areas. (2)(3)(4)(7)(10)
Motorcycle helmets were the first to be adopted by the Coast Guard’s motor lifeboat community in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, between 1987 and 1988, the National Motor Lifeboat School began evaluating less-cumbersome watersports helmets. (1)(7)(10)
Evaluators sought alternatives because motorcycle helmets were heavy, inhibited communications, and felt claustrophobic when crews ended up in the water. (10)(12)
Additionally, faster, rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) were entering service and exacerbated another issue: neck strain. Many users had already experienced head and neck strain from the force of waves, and high-speed RHIBs promised to make this phenomenon worse. A Royal National Lifeboat Institution study on high-speed ejections corroborated these concerns. After thorough evaluation, testers at the National Motor Lifeboat School selected the Pro-Tec full-cut helmet. (10)(12)
Replacement was slow and issues persisted for several years. Of the six crewmembers involved in a 1993 rollover at Station Grays Harbor, WA, two had their motorcycle helmets ripped off by the violent motion. Investigation into the rollover noted that crewmembers were reluctant to use kayaker helmets (relatively new at that time) because they thought the motorcycle helmets were much stronger and offered extra warmth. (10)(12)
Following reports like this, commercially available whitewater sports helmets continued to replace motorcycle helmets. The Coast Guard had learned that motorcycle helmets behaved like drogues underwater, could be ripped from wearers’ heads, and created a risk to crews. (1)(7)(10)(12)
After 11 September 2001, Boat Forces advanced homeland security missions and boat crew equipment adapted too. In 2009, after years of using plastic kayaker helmets, the Coast Guard adopted a military-style “special operations headset adaptable helmet” (SOHAH) made by Gentex as its “primary boat crew helmet”. This model offered ballistic protection (blue), and eventually came in a non-ballistic version (orange, bump protection only). (6)(10)(13)(16)
Lifesaving Systems photos
With this change, the familiar kayaker helmets would no longer be authorized after October 2011. The Coast Guard’s surf and heavy weather community was generally displeased with this change. During actual rough weather use, SOHAH helmets created too much drag when hit with waves and spray. As with the first motorcycle helmets, users had their heads forced backwards from the “scoop” created by their helmet. (9)(13)(16)
In August 2011, Boat Forces changed its mind about helmets and reversed course: ballistic SOHAHs would not be the primary helmet, both SOHAHs were optional, and kayaker helmets were once again approved. (17)
Problematic All-in-One Design
One week after this announcement, Boat Forces distributed further clarification about helmets: units were reminded not to discard SOHAH helmets (since they were still authorized), and announced that it was “designing a new helmet to meet requirements of every mission for the multiple types of units.” Part of this decision stemmed from Boat Force’s concern that previous helmets were not adequately rated. In June 2012, the new helmet was available to order. (17)(18)(19)
The new “CEANT XT4” helmet was made by Italian manufacturer Mango and was tested by a variety of Boat Forces units before final approval. (10)(19)
Unfortunately, once this “all-in-one” helmet saw widespread use in the fleet, numerous helmets experienced failures under normal conditions. Users noted critical failures in the internal headband system causing the helmet to detach from its liner and fall off. In March 2013, Boat Forces issued a safety advisory about the liner problem. (10)(20)
From March 2013 to November 2016, the Coast Guard Office of Boat Forces issued four safety-related updates regarding the CEAN XT4 helmet. In March 2015, Mango began manufacturing the CEAN XT4 in the U.S. and implemented several design improvements. By November 2016, problems with the liners persisted, despite reported manufacturer mitigation earlier in the year. After four years of struggles and thousands of dollars, many units went back to buying SOHAH and kayaker helmets made by Pro-Tec and PT Helmets. (10)(20)(21)(22)(23)
(left): Pro-Tec “Ace Wake” (right) PT Helmets “Alpha“
U.S. Coast Guard photos
In June 2018, the Coast Guard tried again to obtain an “all-in-one” helmet to meet the needs of the entire Boat Forces community. Building on the lessons of the previous seven years, the Coast Guard selected the Revision “Caiman,” an adapted special operations-style helmet. Rather than issue a deadline for eliminating previous helmet models from service, Boat Forces allowed units to continue using older helmets until no longer serviceable. (10)(24)
Looking to the future, lessons learned and feedback from the fleet continue to improve the efficacy of the Coast Guard’s rescue and survival systems program.
(1) Noble, Dennis L. Lifeboat Sailors. Potomac Books, 2001.
(2) LT Young, Stephanie. “The Champion Lifesaver of the Pacific Coast.” Coast Guard Compass, 25 July 2012, http://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2012/07/the-champion-lifesaver-of-the-pacific-coast/.
(3) “BMCM Thomas McAdams, USCG.” YouTube, Robert Ornelas, 5 Oct. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoWwTVK0sFw.
(4) CDR Hasselbalch, James M. Investigation into the Capsizing and Subsequent Loss of MLB 44363 and the Death of Three Coast Guard Members That Occurred at Coast Guard Station Quillayute River on 12 FEB 1997. March, 1997 (including reviews by RADM J. David Spade and ADM Robert E. Kramek)
(5) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Crew Handbook, Rescue and Survival Procedures. ser. BCH16114.2, 2017.
(6) Rescue and Survival Systems Manual. ser. CIM10470.10G, U.S. Coast Guard , 2015.
(7) Noble, Dennis L. The Rescue of the Gale Runner. University Press of Florida, 2002.
(8) “Coast Guard to Hold Ceremony to Commemorate 10-Year Anniversary of Fallen Station Niagara Crewmembers.” Coast Guard News, http://coastguardnews.com/coast-guard-to-hold-ceremony-to-commemorate-10-year-anniversary-of-fallen-station-niagara-crewmembers/2011/03/22/.
(9) PA1 Jorgensen, Lauren. “Loss of crewmen still affects service 10 years later.” Coast Guard Compass, 24 March 2011, http://greatlakes.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2011/03/loss-of-crewmen-still-affects-service-10-years-later/
(10) Interviews with active duty and retired members, grades E-5 to O-6: Surfmen, investigation members, Officers-in-Charge, and Commanding Officers
(11) Archival collection, Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, OR
(12) CWO Booth, D. J. U.S. Coast Guard Station Grays Harbor Class “B” Mishap, Motor Lifeboat “INVINCIBLE.” January 1993
(13) Rescue and Survival Systems Manual. ser. CIM10470.10F, U.S. Coast Guard, 2007.
(14) “Lifesaving Systems Corp.” Dynamic Rollout: An Unnecessary Risk, lifesavingsystems.com/videos/dynamic-rollout-an-unnecessary-risk, https://lifesavingsystems.com/videos/dynamic-rollout-an-unnecessary-risk.
(15) U.S. Coast Guard 13th District Message: ALDIST 307/98- Boat Crew Safety Belt Upgrade, 14 December 1998
(16) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Update: Clarification of Helmet Policy Update, 24 September 2009
(17) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Update: Clarification of Helmet Policy Update, 17 August 2011
(18) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Update: Clarification of Helmet Policy Update, 23 August 2011
(19) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Update: New Helmet Guidance- Mango Helmets USA Model USCG CEAN XT4, 7 June 2012
(20) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Update: MANGO CEAN XT-4 Safety Measure, 5 March 2013
(21) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Safety Message: PPE-001/13
(22) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Update: Cean Sports Boat Crew Helmet Updates, 17 March 2015
(23) U.S. Coast Guard Boat Forces Update: Cean XT4 Helmet Liner Failure, 21 November 2016
(24) U.S. Coast Guard ALCOAST 240-18: New Revision Helmet Contract Announcement, 2 July 2018
cover: An early Typhoon-brand dry suit aboard a 30′ surf rescue boat. U.S. Coast Guard photo