The Coast Guard’s Anacapa Light, on Anacapa Island off California’s coast, was never intended to be a rescue station. When you are the only one available to help, though, you’re it.
The flashing-light SOS came from offshore near the northeast corner of Santa Cruz Island, some ten or eleven miles away. Seas in the Santa Barbara Channel appeared to be running toward the southeast. Even in the darkness we could see breakers frothing the surface of the ocean.
Boatswains Mate First Class Larry Boylan, officer in charge of the light station, got on the radio to check for Coast Guard cutters in the area. He found the nearest to be at Santa Barbara, more than 30 miles from the scene of the distress signal. Boylan opted for a two-man boat crew to respond. For coxswain he chose Boatswains Mate Second Class Leo Whaley, and for engineer he gave me the nod, Engineman Third Class Jim Baker.
Anacapa Island, 14 miles off shore from Oxnard, California, resembles a tilted mesa rising from the sea. A 140-foot vertical cliff runs most of the length of the island on the side facing the mainland. An indentation in the steep side of the island formed a natural cove where the Coast Guard installed a dock and lifting machinery to take the boat out of the water. The ocean surge would tear loose, or wreck, any vessel tied to the dock.
Boylan turned on the floodlights in the cove, then we groped our way down 153 mist-dampened cement and metal steps fastened to the face of the sheer cliff. We wanted to hurry, but at the same time we couldn’t afford to fall on the slick footing.
At the lower landing Boylan climbed behind the levers in the hoist room and lifted the boat out of its cradle. He pivoted the boom and lowered the thirty-footer even with the dock.
The station boat was equipped with four monel cables, two on each side, attached fore and aft so it could be picked up and stowed in a cradle on the lower landing. Each cable ran to a metal triangle that rested on top of the open-backed cabin. The design and position of the triangle allowed a crewman to throw it over the hook beneath the boom, allowing the hoist operator to lift the boat out of the water.
I turned on the blowers for a couple of minutes to rid the bilge of any gasoline fumes. After completing a pre-start inspection of the engine I hit the “start” button. While it warmed we donned life preservers. Surrounded by sheer rock walls and with eight to ten foot swells rolling past the dock, we couldn’t afford an engine misfire.
CG 30150 had a radio, but the antenna, mounted to a swivel attached to the side of the cabin, was kept folded during lifting operations to avoid interfering with the hoisting cables.
When Leo gave the nod, I signaled for Boylan to lower us into the water. The senior boatswains mate watched the surge of water flowing past the dock and rebounding against the rock wall at the back of the cove. He timed the drop so that we hit in relatively smooth water between waves. I threw off the iron triangle and shouted, “Go.” Leo pushed the clutch lever forward and hit the throttle to get us out from beneath the hook. We feared a wave raising us into the heavy lifting gear.
Despite its heavy double-planked hull, the boat began rolling and pitching before we left the shelter of the cove. Leo thought it was too dangerous for me to go on deck to try raising the radio antenna. I didn’t argue.
As soon as we hit the open sea, waves began crashing over the cabin. Even going slow the 8,000-pound boat buried its nose in each wave, then reared up sending water and spray the length of the vessel. The windshield wipers quickly proved useless.
Leo flung open the windshield so he could better judge the approaching waves and steer to take them head on. We knew that if the seas turned us sideways, we would broach.
The next one came crashing through the open windshield, a torrent of water dumping into Leo’s chest and face. As the brine fell away he sputtered and gasped, shaking his head to clear his eyes. Twisting the wheel he increased throttle to help the boat turn to meet the next mountain of water towering above us.
It’s hard to judge the height of waves but when I looked up from the bottom of a trough, the ocean seemed like it was piled up 20 feet high before it came crashing down, engulfing us. My thoughts went briefly to the old Coast Guard saying that, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”
Between waves I looked over the side to check for bilge pump operation. A steady stream of water flowing from the discharge eased my concern somewhat.
Another worry that kept growing was for the engine, a Chrysler marine with an updraft carburetor. If the water in the bilges sloshed too high it could be sucked into the low-hanging intake system. Also I knew that if water got onto the engine, it would likely short out the ignition. If the screw stopped turning we faced a long swim in a cold ocean. Oh how I wished for a diesel.
Having little to do but hang on, I sat on the engine cover to keep it from being dislodged by the deluge cascading through the open windshield. Seawater sloshed from side to side across the deck as we rolled with each wave. Soon I was thoroughly soaked except beneath my foul weather jacket.
Each time we crested a wave the comforting sweep of Anacapa light flashed through the sky. One moment the island stood solidly off our port quarter, the next we seemed to be in a deep hole surrounded by dark ocean spotted with spume.
We didn’t talk much. I don’t know about Leo, but I was plenty scared. If we caught a wave wrong or the engine faltered, our boat would broach. Swamped vessels usually settle stern first. Hopefully three or four feet of the bow would remain above water for us to hang on to. It might be a couple of hours before we were missed, and it’s anybody’s guess how long for a cutter to find us. With seas cresting 20 or more feet in height, a ship would have to be almost within hailing distance for us to be seen in the darkness. And of course hypothermia would soon sap our energy in the mid-50-degrees water.
Each time we dropped into a trough the wind eddied into the back of the open cabin sucking exhaust fumes and ocean spray with it. Before long I began feeling nauseous. The taste of salt on my lips aggravated the feeling.
After an hour and a half of battle with the towering seas we came abreast of the far end of West Anacapa Island, barely five miles from our launch point. We decided to maneuver into the shelter of the island and crank up our radio to check for any new developments.
Leo handled the boat skillfully, working his way across the waves in a zigzag fashion until the seas settled somewhat in the lee of Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands. We turned the corner and ducked behind West Anacapa where the waves were rolling but not breaking.
There’s an old saying, “One hand for the ship, and one hand for yourself.” I have to admit that I had both hands in a death grip on the rail atop the cabin while I clawed my way along the narrow deck to raise the radio antenna.
Leo called the station and Boylan answered immediately. I could imagine him hovering over the radio wondering if he had lost a boat and crew. Not knowing is worse than actually facing danger yourself.
Boylan told us that the SOS signal had stopped shortly after we launched. He learned from NMQ, Coast Guard radio, Long Beach, that another boat in the area had towed the stricken vessel to a safe anchorage.
We were greatly relieved, but we still had the chore of coming up the lee side of the island chain, then exposing ourselves again to the unruly seas while working our way along the base of the storm-battered cliffs to Anacapa Cove.
We couldn’t go very fast with the waves bouncing us around like a chunk of driftwood in the surf, so it took about an hour to round Arch Rock at the eastern end of the island. That’s when the full fury of the ocean hit us head on. Working our way along the base of the steep cliffs reminded me of how powerful the waves were. The roar of the ocean made a constant din, with an occasional sharp report echoing across the brine. Giant waves crashing into the sheer wall of the island sent foam and spray fifty feet into the air.
Before we drew abeam of the cove, Leo began quartering across the seas to enter the relative calm of the sheltering cliffs.
Getting the boat out of the water successfully relied on the skills of Boylan putting the hook at just the right height, without it bashing in the cabin, and of Leo in stopping the boat precisely underneath the hook where I could reach it. That was a daunting challenge complicated by being tossed around on a three-dimensional ocean.
Everything worked as though a mysterious guiding hand directed our course. We rode a quartering wave into the cove, like a surfer standing tall on his board. Leo shifted to reverse, then gunned the engine. The boat slid down the backside of the wave and drifted into the cove. Another wave lifted us and I saw the hook just above as we approached the crest of the mound of moving water. Leo added enough throttle to stop us momentarily and I threw on the iron triangle. The boat hardly swung as Boylan hoisted us clear of the turbulence.
When I stepped onto the dock, my knees buckled momentarily. I thought about kissing the weathered boards underfoot, but I didn’t want the waiting crewmembers to know how scared I’d really been. It’s hard to be nonchalant when you can’t stand without something to hold onto.
Leo leaned against the dock railing, mouth agape, like a dazed fighter barely standing at the bell. Salt water dripped from his clothing and pooled beneath his feet.
We both used the handrail during our climb back to the top of the island. All 153 steps were still there.
This story appeared in the
February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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