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Thursday, February 13, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tough But Aging Coast Guard Boats Being Phased Out -- New Vessels Bigger, Faster, More Stable

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Tough and dependable, but aging and in line for replacement - that's how Coast Guard officials characterize the 44-foot motor lifeboat that capsized off La Push yesterday, resulting in the deaths of three crew members.

Although this was thought to be the first fatal capsizing in the 35 years that Coast Guard crews have used this type of vessel, construction is under way on a fleet of bigger, faster boats designed to be more stable.

"It's getting to the point now where it's real difficult to take care of these things, taking more and more money," Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Clark, an instructor at the Coast Guard's National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, said about the challenges of maintaining the boats.

Yesterday's accident hit particularly hard at the school, which trains coxswains or skippers for all 76 of the 44-foot steel-hulled rescue boats still in operation around the country.

"Most of us here were kind of dumbfounded," Clark said. "These boats have been around a long time and done a lot of good."

The boats operate with a crew of three or four and can carry up to 21 passengers in a rescue.

One other 44-foot boat was lost in a capsizing in Alaska in 1975; its crew members were rescued.

Next month, the Coast Guard is to begin taking delivery of one hundred 47-foot aluminum lifeboats. Six of the boats are already in service.

The new boats are stronger, more stable and - with a top speed of 25 knots - twice as fast as the old boats. They also offer greater crew comfort, with a covered area in which crew members or the people they are transporting can be warm and dry. During a rescue, however, crew members are likely to be on deck exposed to the weather.

The newer boats are intended to be more stable but have not been in service long enough to know for certain if they will be less likely to capsize, Clark said.

In both vessels, the ability to turn upright after a capsizing comes from the basic design, which features nine watertight compartments in the hull and lead weights along the keel.

The placement of the weights and the vessels' heavy engines mean the boats are inclined to roll back to an upright position quickly.

In both boats, crew members typically are strapped into place to reduce the chance of injury. Whether the four crewmen in yesterday's accident were strapped in was not yet known.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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