Coast Guard vet recalls rollover

U.S. Coast Guard veteran Ron McCrae commanded this 36-footer during part of his time saving lives out of Yaquina Bay.

PHILOMATH — The fogs of time have not clouded the memory of U.S. Coast Guard veteran Ron McCrae 49 years after a routine mission turned his world upside down.

“It was November 5, 1969, and I can see it unfold like it was yesterday,” remembered McCrae, 68, a Toledo native and Newport High School graduate who signed up for the Coast Guard with two buddies in his senior year.

As Veteran’s Day approaches on Sunday, Nov. 11, thousands of former service members are likely to reflect on the exploits and sacrifices of their military careers. Like others, McCrae was looking for patriotic adventure when he joined and found it in abundance at USCG Station Yaquina Bay.

Only 18, McCrae was a crewmember on the unit’s 44-foot motor lifeboat when it was ordered into the maw of a fall storm to rescue the seagoing tug “Rustler,” hauling a barge north from Mexico when it became disabled two miles off Newport.

“The Marine Science Center measured the seas at 40 feet and the winds at 80 knots that day,” recalled McCrae. “Our 52-footer was in Coos Bay for maintenance, so it was up to us.”

It was late on Wednesday when the motor lifeboat, with its crew of three, exited the bar to search for the tug and its cargo. Aboard the 44-footer were Seaman McCrae, EM2 Tim Stone, the engineer, and the boat’s coxswain, BM1 Ron Haigh.

When the Rustler couldn’t be found, an armada was launched including a Coast Guard aircraft from Port Angeles and the USCG cutter “Yacona” from its base on the Columbia River. Meanwhile, shore parties were sent to vantage points between Depoe Bay and Beaver Creek to watch for debris and any survivors.

“We found her a couple miles off Cape Foulweather,” said McCrae, a former medical clinic manager who now indulges his interest in firearms as a helper at Philomath Gun Shop.  “She was in pretty good shape and out of immediate danger, so we went back for fuel before the storm got any worse.”

As the motor lifeboat set out in the dark to return to the Rustler’s side, a large wave one mile west of the bar knocked it sideways, followed by a “38-foot breaker that broadsided the boat,” rolling it over completely.

“The first wave knocked the anchors off the bow, and one was set to go through the window, so I started to unstrap and grab it when somebody yelled ‘Hang on’ and the second wave — a mountain of whitewater — turned us upside down.”

McCrae recalled holding his breath in the smothering darkness and breathtaking cold as the open cockpit was suddenly plunged into the sea.

“The thing I remember most is that it gets real quiet when you’re underwater,” he said. “It probably lasted only 15 or 20 seconds, but I was ready at the end to unbuckle and say I was done.”

When the boat bobbed up, the crew scrambled to assess the damage: all communications gear except the FM radio was swept away along with life rings, anchors and a mast. McCrae said it was unlikely the boat could survive a second rollover — the hold was designed to take on 400 gallons of seawater but any more would drown the engines — so the vessel headed west to escape the breakers.

The cutter Yacona found the motor lifeboat eight miles offshore, where it passed a radio to the crew before returning to shepherd the Rustler. When the Yaquina bar was deemed impassable for a vessel of its size, the Rustler was escorted to Coos Bay.

The battered motor lifeboat, which was later retired but is now on display at the Columbia Maritime Museum in Astoria, limped back to the entrance of Yaquina Bay where it was met by the Oregon State University research ship “Yaquina.” Together, the two vessels crossed the heavy bar Thursday morning at first light.

Chief John Webb, the unit’s commander at the time, told a News-Times reporter after the incident that Coast Guard boats were built to be self-righting, “but not a boat is made to run upside down.”

He commented that if the Rustler had been in real danger of breaking up, the wounded 44-footer would have been sent to her aid in spite of the considerable damage.

“Our task is to preserve life and property at sea, in that order,” he told the reporter.

Ron McCrae rose through the ranks to become a coxswain, driving an array of boats including a 36-foot motor lifeboat that now rests on the front lawn of USCG Station Yaquina Bay. It was under McCrae that the 36-footer was last ordered to sea.

“She had already been retired and had been stripped of all radios when we got a distress call from a boat that had left Depoe Bay,” remembered McCrae. “Our other boat was down for maintenance, and she was all we had.”

Grabbing a portable radio, McCrae launched the boat and began searching for the distressed vessel.

“All we found were pieces of his boat,” he said. “He never made it.”

McCrae’s four-year enlistment ended with memories of achievement and tragedy, luck and misfortune. Nearly five decades later, he pondered those years and concluded they were the most important of his life.

“I think about the people who sacrificed far more than what I did,” said McCrae, recalling how another 44-footer based in Washington rolled three times during a 1997 rescue mission off Quillayute River, killing three of its four-member crew. “Because of things like that, veterans have a connection that other people may not feel. We might even enjoy our lives and our freedoms a little more.”

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