Guest Column

My dad’s story

By Gabe Leighton
Posted 11/18/21

My dad joined the Coast Guard in February 1996,and he went to Cape May, New Jersey, for boot camp. Eventually he was positioned in Cape Disappointment, which is located at the mouth of the Columbia …

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Guest Column

My dad’s story


My dad joined the Coast Guard in February 1996,and he went to Cape May, New Jersey, for boot camp. Eventually he was positioned in Cape Disappointment, which is located at the mouth of the Columbia River in southwestern Washington.

In the winter of 1999, my dad was a boatswain’s mate petty officer third class, enjoying pizza on a Friday night, when the emergency rescue alarm went off (it’s like a firefighter’s alarm). My dad and three other crew members raced down to the docks where they got underway on the 52-foot motor lifeboat “Triumph.”

The winds were going at 50 miles an hour, it was pitch black out, raining and sleeting sideways with zero visibility. In addition, it was max ebb out; therefore, the channel from the motor lifeboat station to the Columbia River was very shallow. In fact, the coxswain ran the Triumph into the ground briefly.

My dad worked the radar and radio, and helped the coxswain get out of the channel. At that time, the Cape Disappointment station informed the boat crew that the fishing vessel “Miss Renae” was dead in the water and they didn’t know where they were — lost at sea. The radioed message from base said three people were on the boat: the captain, a friend and the captain’s boy.

My dad radioed the Miss Renae and asked if they saw any buoys, also known as aids to navigation.They replied that they saw a green channel marker and that the waves were large and they were afraid they would roll with the waves. At that point my dad asked if they could shine a flashlight in the air and at the same time asked them to count from one to 10, then back to one. When the captain of the Miss Renae was counting to 10, my dad used the radio frequency directional finder on the Triumph to find the fishing vessel. The Triumph proceeded to make way to the Miss Renae, which the tide had pulled into Clapsop Spit — which was the worst possible place to be on the Columbia River bar. Once the coxswain realized the Miss Renae was in estimated 14-to-16-foot breaking surf, he turned around because he wasn’t qualified to enter the dangerous waters.

At that point, my dad radioed the Coast Guard air station in Astoria, Oregon, to launch the helicopter. He also radioed the motor lifeboat station to launch the surfmen who were on call.When my dad got back the base, he hopped onto 47207, which had the surfmanon board and was ready to launch. Captain Johnsen, the officer of Cape Disappointment, called all the surfmen to the base to help with the search and rescue.

My dad was the lead crew member on 47207 as it approached the Miss Renae, breaking surf on the Columbia River bar. As they approached the vessel, they realized it had flipped over,with a grown man on the back of the hull. My dad, with his surf recue belt, went to the side of the boat that had access to the water and tied himself to the boat, to stay with it if it flipped. He tried to throw a rope to the man on the boat.

At that moment, my dad’s crew member yelled “SURF” as a 16-foot breaker crashed onto the motor lifeboat. When they popped back up, my dad made a second attempt to throw the life rope to the man on the boat — at which point another 16-foot wave came crashing down on the lifeboat. When the lifeboat came back up, my dad yelled to the man to jump into the water, then my dad pulled the man onto the boat, just as another 16-foot wave hit the boat.

My dad volunteered to jump into the water to save the 13-year-old boy who was trapped under the boat. The surfman said it was too dangerous to go into the water because of water temperature, breaking waves and a fishing net in the water.

The Coast Guard used to have a saying: “You have to go out but you don’t have to come back.” My dad lived by that motto. The crashing waves finally took the Miss Renae to the bottom of the river. Two days later, the fishing vessel was found 2 miles upstream on a sand bar with the boy, deceased, in the cabin. My father was willing to die to save the boy’s life.


(Gabe Leighton is a fifth grader in Lexi Kalberer’s class at Westside Elementary School. This piece was the runner-up in the American Legion Post 26’s fifth grade essay contest.)

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