Restoration of Wooden Lifeboat Is One Man’s Dream
The Port of Astoria’s haul-out yard may not sound like a great place to find a boating story, but there is always a variety of working boats and yachts on the hard–and the chance there might be a story worth re-telling. For the 15 years I have lived in the area, the most unusual and interesting craft I have ever encountered there is a wooden 36-foot US Coast Guard motor lifeboat I came across in the summer of 2013 It appeared to be completely authentic and in perfect working condition as if it had been stored in a barn for 50 years.
Luckily there was someone on board, so I expressed my admiration for such a fine piece of historic preservation. Glen Cathers, the owner of “MLB 36391,” introduced himself and was happy to talk about the project. The boat was indeed originally built in 1934, he explained, but when he found it in 2006 it had been subjected to such a complete conversion into a cabin cruiser that it was barely recognizable.
Glen generously invited me up on deck for a tour, and briefly recounted the historical connections that he had with the Coast Guard in general and this class of boat in particular.He had gutted it a second time with the goal of accurately re-creating its original identity. It took him six years of intense effort to rebuild the bare hull and fully restore it! This was clearly an enormous job for one man to undertake, and I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about a time and a boat that were rapidly fading into the past.
Standing in the small cockpit, I asked him how this amazing project took shape. “I had fallen in love with the motor lifeboat when I was ten years old,” he recalled. “That was when my father, John L. Cathers, was officer in charge at the Point Adams Station (downriver from Astoria) during the 1940s and 1950s, retiring as a master Chief Boatswain’s Mate in 1962. He often took me out in the station’s MLB and I can still remember riding in the ‘glory hole’ (foreward well deck) up in the bow. When they stuck the boat into a wave and the spray broke clean over me, I was smitten from that day on!”
Glen served in the Coast Guard on the East Coast in 1959-63, so he never crewed a MLB on the Pacific Coast where the boat had done such vital work. But he moved back to the Northwest when he retired from a career working on the ferries in New York harbor and soon started looking for a retirement project—preferably a historic boat of some kind. When his wife Naomi Fisher asked him what he would choose if he could have anything, he replied without hesitation: “I want a motor lifeboat.”
“Let’s do it,” she said.
Starting from Scratch
The first break came when a friend happened to be driving through Seattle and glimpsed an old MLB 36 on Lake Union. “I drove straight up to see it, and found it was really rotten, but had some parts and a GM 4-71 engine I could salvage,” said Glen. He trucked it back to his home in Goldendale, Washington overlooking the Columbia gorge, and began salvaging whatever he thought was worth saving from this near-derelict hull.
But a month later, they found a second MLB 36 in Astoria. “I could see that bronze bull nose on it. I knew right then it was the real deal, even though the interior had been completely gutted and replaced with one big cabin,” Glen told me. That boat was built in 1934 and was hardly recognizable as an MLB. It was also in a very poor state, but they purchased it anyway and began the restoration that would fill most of his time for the next six/seven years.
So you can imagine the surprise and the thrill that he experienced when he was stripping off all the old layers of paint and discovered the original boat number was 36391. “I researched where the boat with that number came from and lo and behold I discovered it had spent its career at Point Adams in at the mouth of the Columbia. It was the very boat I had been on as a boy, and was used on numerous rescue missions for 22 years. To further my amazement, my aunt gave me two pictures of my father and my uncle on the very same boat.”
After the 60-odd years that had passed since his first ride, Glen finally began learning the details of the history and construction of this class. Sadly, the remaining hulls had all been relegated to the status of nautical sculptures at the entrance to some CG stations on the Northwest coast (there is also one inside the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria). There was only one MLB 36 remaining in operating condition–the famous 36500 maintained by the Orleans Historical Society in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Working alone, Glen re-planked the hull above the waterline with 1¼” yellow Alaskan cedar, and doubled all the frames with steamed oak timbers. Then he and Naomi riveted over 5,000 nails and roves to make the hull as strong and tight as it has ever been. Next, he carefully re-established the original layout by building the six wooden water-tight bulkheads from planks, and recreated the original layout with three separate compartments: the foc’sle (called the survivor’s cabin) with two side benches (which they use now as bunks), the center house over the engine room, and the helm station.
“It’s all new from the waterline up,” Glen declared. But with most of the bronze hardware that was an essential and distinctive part of the boat missing, he had to scour the country looking for parts. Piece by piece, like a nautical jig-saw puzzle, they came into his possession. He had a story about every single item and its function when it was the pride of the Coast Guard crew.
Crossing the Bar Again
With the thousands of hours spent on the rebuild, I expected Glen would want to keep the boat on the calm waters of the Columbia River and well away from the notorious bar, but I had completely underestimated his passion for this classic. He was intent on running the boat south down the Oregon coast to visit all the CG stations that depended on this class of lifeboat for surf and offshore rescues for 60 years.
With the MLB back in the water with a new coat of anti-fouling paint, Glen was intent on giving it a good trial before setting out. It wasn’t long before a retired Coast Guardsman who had served on the same class of MLB heard about the project and caught up with him. When they went out for a ride, Glen invited me to come on board. We headed upriver and spent the next two hours exploring behind Tongue Point around the WW II piers as the Jimmy diesel chugged contentedly away at 1100 rpm.
It was a rare opportunity for me to experience this iconic vessel underway, and I soon became another member of the MLB 36 fan club! In August 2013, I saw the boat again moored at the downtown dock in Astoria. I found Glen and Naomi on board and relaxing after achieving their goal of visiting the Coast Guard stations in Garibaldi, Depoe Bay, Newport, and Florence.
“We were given a great reception by the Coast Guard and local people and were the center of attention when we moored at the station or the public dock,” they told me. They estimated about 500 people got a close look at the boat, and over 100 came on board. “We were in big 8- to 12-foot seas off Cape Meares on our way back, so I decided to open the motor out and give her a chance to run with the weather,” Glen recalled. “I increased the speed to 8 knots and we were soon flying over the waves with no hesitation.
The motion is quick but not harsh, and we always felt very secure. The boat has performed perfectly in some tough conditions,” he said with pride. “They were designed to be self-righting when rolled upside down and self-bailing as well. Plenty of crews were ejected from them, and the boats would roll onto the beach with the engine still running,” he pointed out. It’s worth noting that the crewmen did not have safety straps, in contrast to modern rescue boats.
After a couple of years cruising the Columbia, Glen crossed the bar again in 2016 for a second trip along the Oregon coast as far as Bandon. But this time he continued north to Neah Bay on the northwest tip of Washington, visiting more Coast Guard stations. “We visited 14 or 15 stations over the summer and the crews were good hosts,” he recalled. This historic vessel was always well received wherever they stopped in marinas and public docks.
It was only appropriate that Glen and his boat should be the main attraction at the Veteran Lifeboatmen’s Reunion, hosted by Cape Disappointment Station on the first weekend in August 2013 After an ambitious four-month cruise, they returned upriver through the locks at the Bonneville dam to a marina in The Dalles, Oregon. Later, they moved the boat to the marina at Arlington, Oregon.
They came downriver again in 2017, and I met up with Glen at the Cathlamet Wooden Boat Festival on the Washington shore east of Astoria early in August 2017. He reckoned the boat now had almost 2,000 nautical miles under her keel in her third incarnation. “This boat was built for 20-year-olds. It’s hard on you physically and I’m now 75,” he admitted. I noticed it now had a name Point Adams. That is because you need a name, not just a number for a boat in Washington, Glen told me. “We chose that name to commemorate the boat’s service history at the Point Adams lifeboat station in Hammond.