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Anatomy of a Search and Rescue Case: Beware the Bar - PassageMaker
Beware the Bar

This post first appeared on the official blog of the 5th Coast Guard District, MidAtlantic, it is reposted here as it is a work in the public domain. 

It’s 6 a.m. on Feb. 23, 2018, and the sun has yet to rise on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Two Coast Guard 47-foot Motor Life Boats sit at the pier at Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet in Nags Head, North Carolina

Two Coast Guard 47-foot Motor Life Boats sit at the pier at Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet in Nags Head, North Carolina

All is quiet on the pier at Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet, where two steely boats bob and sway in the shadows. One of the two suddenly roars to life, deck lights blazing and radar antenna twirling.

Five orange-clad figures bustle around on the boat, popping in and out of the compartments, snapping on life jackets. When the boat is deemed ready, they huddle up on the back deck and discuss the plan for this early morning underway trip.

Their objective: conduct a bar report.

Every morning, approximately 30 minutes before sunrise, the station crew heads out to assess the conditions of the Oregon Inlet bar, a sandy shelf that lurks only about 5 feet underwater at the inlet’s entrance. The bar serves as a harsh welcome mat for boats entering the inlet; rushing water collides with the sand bar, rockets up to the ocean’s surface, then spikes in a turbulent pile of breaking waves.

Station Oregon Inlet crews monitor the conditions at the bar, relay the information to local mariners, and help boaters navigate the dangerous strip of whitecaps and waves. It is a recurring part of the crew’s routine; depending on the weather and boat traffic, they often conduct bar reports more than once a day.

At 6:34 a.m., the crew reaches the bar, pleased to see that conditions are considerably mild. Waves arc about 2 feet over the ocean’s surface before dipping back down, tugged along by a strong ebbing current. Winds skim the waves at 10 mph, tossing up a pleasant, 64-degree breeze.

The 2-foot breakers are a welcome sight to the crew, who have experienced upwards of 14-foot waves at the bar. Boat rides are often wild, stomach-dropping roller coaster rides in the inlet, but such is life at a Coast Guard surf station.

The crew hovers near the bar to watch the procession of recreational fishing boats parade by, most of them headed out for a day of angling at the Gulf Stream. They all glide easily through the small waves at the bar, and the Oregon Inlet crew starts entertaining thoughts of breakfast back at the station.

Until, that is, a 60-foot sport fisher crests the bar, then completely stalls.

A flip switches on in coxswain BM2 Travis Porter’s mind. His eyes scan the name stamped on the boat’s stern – Lor-A-Di – and he calls out to its crew on the radio, trying different frequencies. When they don’t respond, he approaches. The Coast Guard crew sidles up alongside the stalled boat, their 47-foot Motor Lifeboat looking quite stalwart beside the sleek, white Lor-A-Di.

Through a shouted conversation, BM2 Porter learns that the vessel’s engines have failed and that the Lor-A-Di is completely dead in the water.

For a brief moment, he observes the vessel crawling south, tugged along by the strong current. He glances at the waves, now building to heights of 4 feet, and makes the call: “Prepare the deck for a stern tow!”

The well-trained crew flies into action, coiling lines and rigging gear. Even SN Nathan Kapsar, now technically participating in his very first search and rescue case, moves without hesitation, unfurling the heavy towline. On Porter’s command, the MLB’s engineer, MK2 Mathieu Desautels, chucks a heaving line to a crewman waiting on the Lor-A-Di’s bow: success in one throw.

USCG boat crews practice towing on a regular basis.

USCG boat crews practice towing on a regular basis.

Station Oregon Inlet coxswains and crew members practice towing on a regular basis, and on this February morning, it shows. In a matter of minutes, Porter tows the Lor-A-Di over the bar and away from the breaking waves.

Once clear of the whitecaps, the Coast Guard crew detaches the tow and waits nearby while the boaters examine their vessel for damage and try to restart the engines. They rumble to life, but the Lor-A-Di’s captain reports a severe vibration in the propeller shafts. They need to head back to Wanchese Harbor, but they won’t be making the journey alone.

Porter and his crew focus on the new mission at hand: escorting the seven people aboard the Lor-A-Di back to their homeport.

Although it’s only about 10 miles to Wanchese Harbor, the going is slow and the trip takes over an hour. The Station Oregon Inlet crew sees the Lor-A-Di safely moored, then waits for another MLB crew to arrive and relieve them.

This second crew conducts a vessel inspection to check all of the mariners’ safety equipment. The inspection goes smoothly; this was only the Lor-A-Di’s second voyage, and the brand new sport fisher is well-equipped.

Meanwhile, Porter wheels the MLB around and points the bow southeast, where the sun now gleams over the waters of Oregon Inlet. They have already accomplished so much, and all of it before breakfast.

A Coast Guard 24-foot Special Purpose Craft-Shallow Water boat from Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet in Nags Head, North Carolina, gets underway for an early morning patrol in Oregon Inlet.

A Coast Guard 24-foot Special Purpose Craft-Shallow Water boat from Coast Guard Station Oregon Inlet in Nags Head, North Carolina, gets underway for an early morning patrol in Oregon Inlet.

Later, when asked about this case and others like it, Station Oregon Inlet personnel revealed that this is a common occurrence in the area.

“I have been stationed at Oregon Inlet for four years and have been a part of about 50 cases,” said Porter. “The most common case we get here is towing disabled vessels. Oregon Inlet is beautiful, but is a very dynamic and challenging area for mariners.”

“The shoaling conditions change on a daily basis, which is another reason this area is so dangerous,” SN Kapsar added.

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When the station crew responds to a disabled vessel, they often find that the culprit is none other than the Oregon Inlet bar.

“We see lots of capsizing, grounding, and damage on the bar,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Mark Dilenge, the station’s officer in charge. “Even on a flat day, the amount of ocean water that flows in and out creates huge tidal effects, which can be super dangerous.”

The 54-foot fishing boat Synergy washes up on the beach after capsizing in Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, Sept. 16, 2017. Watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector North Carolina in Wilmington, North Carolina, were alerted at about 5 p.m. that Synergy had capsized and five people were in the water.

The 54-foot fishing boat Synergy washes up on the beach after capsizing in Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, Sept. 16, 2017. Watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector North Carolina in Wilmington, North Carolina, were alerted at about 5 p.m. that Synergy had capsized and five people were in the water.

On Sept. 16, 2017, a fishing boat capsized while crossing the bar, sending all five people aboard into the water. The Station Oregon Inlet crew rescued all five and brought them ashore.

Luckily, the crew is not only well-trained to tow vessels around and over the notorious bar, they are also well-equipped.

The 47-foot Motor Lifeboat is the workhorse on which station personnel rely to facilitate these missions, and rightfully so – the robust, aluminum boat is capable of handling much harsher conditions than those the crew experienced on Feb. 23.

In order to avoid being pulled to safety by a 47 MLB, the Station Oregon Inlet crew urges mariners to keep a constant eye on weather forecasts, heed the station’s bar reports, and take time to familiarize themselves with the Army Corps of Engineers’ depth surveys.

After properly outfitting their vessels and preparing themselves for every voyage, boaters should be able to fully enjoy Oregon Inlet and all its charms.

“I love the area,” said Kapsar. “I love how much history the Outer Banks have. The first Surfmen were here, and now I get to be a part of that history, protecting the same coastline they did.”

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