Book Review: Life and Death at Cape Disappointment by Christopher D’Amelio

Topic & Content

This 2021 memoir chronicles U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher D’Amelio’s time as a surfman at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment (colloquially known as “Cape D”). D’Amelio recalls several of his most prominent rescue cases and his changing mindset in light of the traumatic events he witnessed. The book is organized as follows:

  • Ch. 1: Red Shoes
  • Ch. 2: Imperium Neptuni Regis: Crossing the Line
  • Ch. 3: Welcome to Cape Disappointment
  • Ch. 4: Reacting to the Conditions
  • Ch. 5: Short Tow, Long Tow
  • Ch. 6: The Graveyard of the Pacific
  • Ch. 7: Worst-Case Scenrios: The Linnea
  • Ch. 8: Helmets on Dead Men
  • Ch. 9: “Always Ready”
  • Ch. 10: The Peacock Spit Case
  • Ch. 11: The Association for Rescue at Sea
  • Ch. 12: Last Tow
  • Ch. 13: Farewell

Thesis

Since this is more or less a personal narrative of the author’s time serving at Station Cape Disappointment, there isn’t a defined thesis to this book.

Author’s Background

Christopher D’Amelio grew up around the ocean in Aptos, California. He joined the Coast Guard to fulfill a sense of self-worth and to make something of himself. D’Amelio served aboard several cutters, such as the high-endurance cutter Sherman, before transferring to Station Cape Disappointment where he served from 1998 to 2005 and qualified as a surfman. Following that assignment, he went on to serve at other Coast Guard units, like Station Suislaw River and New Orleans, before retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer. During his career, he accumulated over 2,200 hours of time underway and supervised more than 430 search-and-rescue cases.

Critical Observations

Positives

The writing itself is clear and reads fast. A caveat is warranted since most military personnel aren’t journalists or professional writers; therefore, as with most memoirs, the reader shouldn’t expect wordsmithing on par with Hemingway or Shakespeare. Personal accounts usually read along the lines of, “I did this, that, and the other.” (One of the exceptions to this is Robert Leckie who was a writer before joining the Marines and fighting in WWII. His wordsmithing is far more eloquent.) Still, the writing in this book is easy enough for the layperson to understand and isn’t filled with lots of jargon. As well, the writing probably benefitted from co-author Reid Maruyama.

D’Amelio’s reasons for being in the Coast Guard could probably be described as very pure-hearted. He didn’t join out of a sense of patriotism or to kill people, rather, he joined to make something of himself and to do search-and-rescue. He occasionally describes his displeasure with being forced to carry out law enforcement duties and the severe strain that being deployed aboard a cutter took on his marriage and family. His experiences also highlight a shift in Coast Guard operations following 9/11 and the transfer of the service from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.

One interesting aspect of the book was D’Amelio’s thoughts on struggling with survivor’s guilt and PTSD. One particular search-and-rescue case involving a little girl with red shoes haunted him for a while and he recalls how he felt helpless at being unable to rescue her because she was stranded in the water at the bottom of a cliff and he couldn’t risk getting the boat any closer at the risk of grounding on the rocks. D’Amelio, with humility, ultimately chalks his failures up to his own pride. Then again, when you’re young, you pretty much consider yourself invincible until proven otherwise. Still, given D’Amelio’s training and vocation, his guilt and personal struggles are understandable. It’s always about the people you couldn’t save.

D’Amelio’s description of some of his notable search-and-rescue cases does a fairly good job of putting the reader at the helm of a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat. Negotiating the brutal surf of the Columbia River Bar and the Pacific is no cakewalk. Even when he’s not pulling survivors (or dead bodies) out of the water, he often dealt with cases where he had to spend hours upon hours at the helm towing a disabled vessel back to port. One can only imagine how exhausted he and his crew became.

It may seem like an exaggeration, but the Columbia River Bar is one of the most dangerous areas of water in the world and is rightfully known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” due to the many shipwrecks and lives lost over the years. (Similar to how Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks of North Carolina are known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”) I’ve seen the bar myself from shore, but thankfully have never been on it. I can personally attest that conditions can rapidly change from relatively calm at one moment to dangerous the next. This is due to a combination of the river’s current colliding directly with the Pacific, the shifting sandbars, sea states, wind, and other factors. To be fair, it’s not a perpetual roiling maelstrom of doom and many vessels cross the bar without incident with the assistance of the bar pilots. That said, a lot of maritime traffic transits the bar, and mother nature is unpredictable.

Negatives

Much is mentioned of the geography of the Columbia River Bar and the surrounding area, but the book lacks any maps to help the reader out. While the layout of the Columbia River Bar is familiar to anyone who lives in Ilwaco, Washington, or Astoria, Oregon, others may be lost at sea when D’Amelio refers to certain landmarks. So have a map (or chart) handy.

D’Amelio has a fairly negative recollection of his time out in the fleet aboard Coast Guard cutters (the long months spent away from home notwithstanding). Unfortunately, he doesn’t go into much detail about his experiences, apart from the time he got his foot crushed under the landing gear of a helicopter. He writes off several of the officers as people who were more concerned with their careers than with their crews. D’Amelio also has a lukewarm opinion of Coast Guard aviators and rescue swimmers (Aviation Survival Technicians) that he interacted with as a surfman. He generally perceives them as glory hounds or hotshots who safely hover over the raging waters in their helicopters and have little perspective of the reality of the actual surf conditions. In contrast, surfmen are always in the thick of it and have to skillfully maneuver a boat through the pounding waves. Of course, D’Amelio’s qualifications and background make his biases understandable.

What this really points to is the difference in communities within the Coast Guard. Surfmen and lifeboats have a long history in the Coast Guard that stretches back to the U.S. Life-Saving Service in the 19th century (if not earlier). In contrast, the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program (not the rating, mind you) is very modern, having officially started in 1984 (although unofficial programs existed in the Coast Guard before then).

It would’ve been nice to have a chapter or two dedicated to the history of surfmen in the Coast Guard. This would’ve given the reader more perspective on why D’Amelio holds his qualification in such high regard. Furthermore, while D’Amelio does mention some other surfmen, it would’ve been nice to learn more about the other people he worked with apart from the fact that they simply were there at the time. Sometimes the book reads like D’Amelio was the only surfman at Cape D who ever did anything of note. Also, the narrative occasionally jumps around chronologically. D’Amelio will discuss one rescue he did one year, then jump back in time to discuss another, and then jump forward to discuss a different one. Thankfully it’s not too confusing, but it does seem strange.

My final criticism is that the book ends abruptly after D’Amelio is transferred from Cape D to other assignments and then retires. He doesn’t give many details about the other stations he was assigned to, any specific cases he did, or notable people he served with. The narrative just ends with a few final thoughts about his life and family.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

All in all, this book covers a topic (surfmen) that doesn’t get much coverage and offers a modern perspective on it. While memoirs have their pros and cons, Christopher D’Amelio’s recollections of his career in the Coast Guard as a surfman are very enlightening and worth a read for anyone interested in small boat search-and-rescue operations.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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