36-foot Motor Lifeboat (TRS-type)

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Sitting placidly moored at the pier, this classic wooden boat displays the sleek and graceful lines of its 1920s and 1930s design heritage. The seemingly anemic gasoline (later diesel) engine turns one screw which propels the boat ahead at a leisurely 8 knots. It doesn’t look particularly robust and it doesn’t even have an enclosed cockpit for the crew. To the uninformed, it might be hard to imagine that this 36-foot boat, and others in the same class, were used in some of the most harrowing rescues in U.S. Coast Guard history. This is a short examination of the 36′ Motor Lifeboat (MLB).

Design History

The first 36′ MLBs were conceived by Henry Greathead in 1790 in South Shields, England. His idea was born out of the grounding of the ship Adventure in 1789 on Herd Sands off Tynemouth, England. Despite being visible from shore, all aboard the Adventure were lost due to no suitable boats being available to navigate the surf. Following the disaster, British officials offered a reward for the best lifeboat design. Greathead’s first design had six pairs of oars requiring twelve rowers. Lacking a rudder, it used a steering oar instead. It won the competition. One hundred years later, the standard lifeboat was the 35′ Ryder with a 3-man crew and 10 rowers. Lifeboats began appearing in the U.S. by 1851 where volunteers used 26′ – 30′ boats for rescues.1

The man responsible for several lifeboat designs in the United States was Charles H. McLellan of the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS). In addition to McLellan’s work, in 1899, the men at Station Marquette in Michigan would be the first to create a usable motorized lifeboat in the U.S. when they fitted a 12 hp, two-cylinder Superior gasoline engine to a 34′ lifeboat. Despite the engine’s 1,500-pound weight, the experiment was a success.2

In 1906, McLellan took an 1873 British lifeboat design for the 35′ boat and modified it to be one foot longer and with a wider beam. It was the first self-righting and self-bailing lifeboat to be designed as such from the start. The earliest production models of this new 36′ boat had a 25 hp engine and were built by Electric Boat Company in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1907. The success of the design saw increased production and 68 of the boats were being used throughout the USLSS by 1912. In addition to starting the “footer” terminology, where boats were designated by their length, the 36′ MLB was the first to incorporate an automatic engine cutoff mercury switch which triggered in the event of a capsize. Such features are still used on modern MLBs. By the time of the amalgamation of the USLSS into the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, more than half of the 200+ lifeboats in service were motorized.3

Eventually, all 36′ MLBs were built at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland. The design went through a number of changes before the introduction of the T-type which was designed in 1928. Subsequent modified versions included the TR-type built from 1931 – 1937 and the TRS-type built from 1937 – 1956. These lifeboats were stationed across the U.S. and kept moored unless shore conditions permitted the launching of boats, whereupon shelters and launching carriages were provided.4 By 1952, the design was further improved with the latest H-series boats having a double-hull and an enclosed engine compartment amidships. Known as the Model T.5

All 138 of the U.S. Coast Guard’s TRS-type 36′ motor lifeboats were built at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland. The boats are of wooden construction and feature a 1-ton bronze keel to help impart their self-righting capabilities.6

Post-WWII, the majority of the MLBs in service with the Coast Guard were the TRS-type.

Specifications*

The 36′ TRS-type motor lifeboat had the following characteristics:

Length:36’8″ (overall)
Beam:10’9″ max
Draft:3’4″
Powerplant:1x Sterling “Petrel” 90 hp @ 1,000 rpm gasoline engine.
1x 75 – 100 hp diesel engine (1968).
Single screw.
Displacement:20,170 lbs. (operational) (1968)
Max Speed:9 kts (sustained)
Endurance:280 mi @ 8 kts. 202 mi @ 9 kts. (1968)
Complement:Crew: 3 Passengers: 20 – 30
Cost:$18,912 per boat (1945)

*Oddly, Robert Scheina notes some (slightly) different dimensions and specifications in his WWII versus post-WWII books. Some of these differences could be explained that the 36′ boats had their original gasoline engines replaced with diesel engines in the 1960s. He also notes that it can accommodate up to 30 passengers, whereas his post-WWII book notes that it can carry up to 20.7 Of course, Bernie Webber’s rescue of the Pendleton stern demonstrated that these MLBs can hold up to 32 survivors and 4 crew, albeit with difficulty. It may also be a typographical error on Scheina’s part.

CG36500 – Bernie Webber’s Boat

To go over the history of every single 36′ boat would be unrealistic, but at least one deserves some mention.

CG36500. Probably the most famous of the 36′ TRS-type MLBs. This boat, coxswained by Bernie Webber, made history for rescuing 32 survivors from the stern of the SS Pendleton that had broken in half during a storm in February 1952.

CG36500 was built in 1946 at the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, MD.8

Here’s a video giving a tour of the CG36500:

On 18 February 1952, two T2 tankers, the SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer split in half during a storm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts within hours and miles of each other. While other Coast Guard assets focused on rescuing the crew from the two halves of the Fort Mercer, Coast Guard Station Chatham, with its 36′ motor lifeboats was mobilized to undertake the rescue of the Pendleton. Bernard “Bernie” Webber (coxswain), Richard Livesey, Ervin Maske, and Andrew Fitzgerald took the CG36500 out across the treacherous Chatham Bar and out to the Pendleton wreck; all the while fighting freezing temperatures and waves up to 45 feet high. Stumbling upon the stern section of the Pendleton in the darkness, Webber skillfully maneuvered the boat to make multiple passes alongside the wreck as survivors climbed down a ladder and jumped onto the boat or into the water to be rescued. In total, Webber and crew successfully rescued 32 survivors and managed to transport them back to Chatham pier. For their heroism, all four of the Coast Guardsmen received the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Preserving the CG36500

The 36′ MLBs were retired in 1968; to be replaced by the newer, faster, and more rugged 44′ MLBs. With no further use for them, the 36-footers at Chatham were hauled up onto the beach and burned, whereupon their brass fittings and bronze keel were salvaged. However, for some reason, possibly owing to its fame as a “gold medal” boat, CG36500 was spared this fate and instead was handed over to the Cape Cod National Seashore where she sat on the dunes slowly wasting away due to exposure to the elements for thirteen years.9

In 1981, while attending a used vehicles auction, Bill Quinn spotted the lifeboat on the shore and began a mission to save the vessel. Initially approaching the Chatham Historical Society for funding, he was turned down for fear it would become a money sink. Eventually, a deal was worked up where Quinn would receive legal ownership of the boat if the Cape Cod National Seashore gave up the vessel. Quinn then gave the deed to the Orleans Historical Society to begin preservation work. In November 1981, CG36500 was placed on a truck and transported to Hershey Clutch garage for volunteers to begin restoration work.10

Restoration work included removing and reconditioning the still-working GM-471 diesel engine, chipping the paint, sanding the hull down, and replacing all of the screws. After six months of labor and tens of thousands of dollars, the boat was restored to working order.11 Additionally, the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans details further restoration efforts to the boat which began in 2006.12

Below is a video about the further restoration and preservation of the CG36500 in 2009. Among other things, the video notes that the “TRS” stands for “T Model, Revised, Simplified.” The CG36500 spent her entire career at Station Chatham and is the only surviving 36′ MLB that can still get underway. It’s designed to self-right within 11 seconds.

In May 2002, Bernard Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Ervin Maske, and Richard Livesey were reunited with the CG36500 and took her out across Chatham Bar once more; this time in much calmer conditions.13

Bernard Webber (wearing the hat) in 2002 at the helm of CG36500 some 50 years after his famous rescue of the SS Pendleton in 1952 with the exact same boat.

While the 36′ MLBs were officially retired in the late-1960s, the last 36′ MLB was retired from service in 1986 at Station Depoe Bay, Oregon. It’s on display at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia.14

Conclusion

The 36′ motor lifeboats have come and gone, but with their retirement, they left behind a legacy of a different era and a different U.S. Coast Guard. With few comforts, these wooden lifeboats with their gasoline engines were called upon to perform tough jobs and crewed by equally tough men. Rugged and reliable, the purpose of a motor lifeboat is simple; rescue survivors at sea and in the surf. While they have no armament and don’t prominently feature in naval battles, they’re the difference between life and death for many shipwrecked sailors over the years along the many miles of coastlines.

Notes

1. Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 67 – 68.

2. Clayton Evans, “Into the Surf,” in The Coast Guard, ed. Tom Beard (Fairfield, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates Inc., 2004), 186.

3. Clayton Evans, “Into the Surf,” in The Coast Guard, ed. Tom Beard (Fairfield, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates Inc., 2004), 187.

4. Robert Scheina, U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 257 – 58. Hereafter referred to as “Scheina, WWII.”

5. Tougias and Sherman, 68.

6. Tougias and Sherman, 66.

7. Robert Scheina, U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft 1946-1990 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 196. Hereafter referred to as “Scheina, 1990”; Scheina, WWII, 257.

8. Tougias and Sherman, 66.

9. Tougias and Sherman, 270.

10. Tougias and Sherman, 270 – 73.

11. Tougias and Sherman, 274 – 275.

12. “CG 36500 Restoration,” The Centers for Culture and History in Orleans, accessed December 31, 2022, https://www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org/restoration.

13. Robert Frump, Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small-Boat Rescue in U.S. Coast Guard History, (The Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2008), 162 – 163.

14. Evans, 187.

Bibliography

“CG 36500 Restoration.” The Centers for Culture and History in Orleans. Accessed December 31, 2022. https://www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org/restoration.

Evans, Clayton. “Into the Surf.” In The Coast Guard, edited by Tom Beard, 166 – 199. Fairfield, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates Inc., 2004.

Frump, Robert. Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small-Boat Rescue in U.S. Coast Guard History. The Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2008.

Scheina, Robert. U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft 1946-1990. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Scheina, Robert. U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.

Tougias, Michael J. and Casey Sherman. The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

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