ASTORIA, Ore. — Most people can't see them hidden in small marina on the Washington side of the Columbia River. But the small boats of the U.S. Coast Guard's Station Cape Disappointment are quick to speed out of Baker Bay to pluck the unfortunate from the mouth of the Columbia River.
And now they can do so a little bit faster.
Station Cape Disappointment in February received two new 29-foot, Freedom-Class Response Boat- Small vessels — as they're known in the Coast Guard's lexicon — to replace their 10-year-old Defender-class predecessors.
"Its key factor in search and rescue is its speed," said Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Nicholas Palisano, one of the crew of the new response boats and their larger brethren, the 47-foot motor lifeboats, that Cape Disappointment is known for. "It doesn't have the equipment or the outfit of the motor lifeboat, but it can get somewhere about twice as fast, which is good in the summertime.
The typical transit time for one of the new boats from Cape Disappointment to under the Astoria Bridge is about 20 minutes, said Palisano, half as much as in a 47-foot motor lifeboat. But the new vessels, he added, are only meant for seas of less than 6 feet, at which point the Coast Guard switches to a motor lifeboat.
The 29-footers, powered by twin 225-horsepower Honda outboard motors, can cruise for up to 200 miles at speeds of about 32 knots, or 39 miles per hour. The older 25-footers were known for their maneuverability, while the new 29-footers, with a wider, shallower planing hull made of corrosion-resistant aluminum alloy, are quicker in regaining speed after a turn. Both operate similarly, as do the larger vessels such as the 47-footers, a feature Palisano makes it easier for Coast Guard units transferring to different stations.
Near the bow of the boat is a mount for an M240 and a fold-down seat for a gunner to aim and shoot from.
"It can respond to anything, from search and rescue and law enforcement," said Palisano. "It can do a marine environment protection, if there was a spill response. We could equip it for ports, waterways and coastal security with the machine guns."
For Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick O'Brien, a boatswain's mate and qualified coxswain for the 29-footers, it's about visibility.
"With the 25-foot, there were a lot of blind spots, so the improved visibility really helps," he said. "The upgraded electronics gives us a greater visibility of radar contacts, including locations, speed and boat name and details. For search and rescue this speeds up in our finding a vessel in distress."
The interior, said Palisano, was a big part of the upgrade in boats, providing more visibility with 360 degrees of convex windows around the top of the boathouse, redundant navigation systems and seating for six.
"The seats are much better," he said. "We have these air-bladder, shock-mitigating seats. They pretty much absorb the weight of the waves, so your back doesn't take it. You can set it at different pressures, depending on the sea state."
A minimum crew of three operates the 29-footer, but it has internal seating for four crew members, plus room for additional response and boarding team members.
"All of these new features are here to help us (the crew), to do our job so we can find the person in distress much faster," said O'Brien.
The Coast Guard in late 2011 awarded Metal Shark Aluminum Boats a $192 million contract to replace up to 470 aging 25-foot vessels with the 29 Defiant. The company, based out of Jeanerette, La., could in the contract also provide 20 Defiants to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and another 10 to the U.S. Navy.
The older 25-foot Freedom-class boat was introduced in 2002, with approximately 300 used by the Coast Guard.
Palisano said the new 29-footer is great for quick responses, but in bad weather, the station still relies on its two 47-foot motor lifeboats and the 53-year-old 52-foot Triumph motor lifeboat, designed for firefighting and offshore rescues under the worst sea conditions. The larger vessels include self-righting technology that pop them right-side up in case of a capsizing.
"They ride better, they go farther, they go slow, but they get there," said Palisano.