By Clay Evans, maritime historian and retired Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat coxswain

At the ninth International Lifeboat Conference (ILC) held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1963, Lieutenant Commander Robert Witter of the US Coast Guard (USCG) presented a paper entitled ‘Design and Construction of the USCG 44-Foot Motor Life-Boat’, which was accompanied by a film showing the sea trials of the original prototype of this vessel: the CG-44300.

The audience of representatives from 17 nations was captivated by the film showing the new steel-hulled lifeboat operating with ease in heavy surf, which according to Witter “…is considered by this command to be the most remarkable piece of equipment to bolster the operational capabilities of the Coast Guard since the development of the 52-foot MLB.”[i]

Many of those attending the conference agreed. Never had so many features of what might constitute the best coastal motor lifeboat been combined within one hull. In the words of American lifeboat historian William D. Wilkinson:

In the development of the 44-footer we see a prime example of a vessel being designed for very specific conditions, translating design concepts of seaworthiness, ease of handling, speed, weight, draft, strength and capacity into a much-loved boat that Coast Guard crews speak of in almost reverent tones.[ii]

The standard design of the prototype 44’ MLB – Close to 200 of this type would be constructed around the World. Credit: USCG.

Add to these features a high degree of stability, rapid self-righting and self-bailing, increased reserve buoyancy, a hull bottom reinforced against damage, as well as semi-protected propellors and rudders and you had a rescue craft that was revolutionary for its time given its compactness and versatility.

The 1960s were pivotal years in the history of lifesaving at sea and witnessed an increasing demand for search and rescue services by coastal states around the globe as the post-war improvements in standards of living led to greater leisure time. This resulted in an increase in the use and numbers of pleasure craft and therefore a need for safe, reliable, proven and last but not least, fast lifeboats.

This higher service demand led the USCG to begin experimenting with designs of faster, self-righting (SR) lifeboats – ones that might combine the best features of the old wooden SR 36-foot MLBs with the service’s much faster utility boats (UTBs) – which resulted in two boats being required at many stations.

To this end, the USCG design team began by canvasing the opinions of existing coxswains of the 36-foot MLBs regarding what they felt would be improvements from the older design and what might be the best features of a new MLB. Aside from the aging out of the older lifeboats, the USCG lifeboatmen advised that the three primary issues with the old boats were poor towing control due to the far aft location of the tow bit, a lack of speed and poor steering station visibility.

As a result of this input, as well as a recognition of more recent technical developments in both steel construction and lighter, more powerful diesel engines, a statement of requirements for the new MLB was published in July 1960. This included an electronics suite complete with radar, integration of the steering and control console, utilisation of high-capacity alternator generators, twin screw propulsion with increased speed – beyond the traditional 9 knots - and a range of 150 nautical miles. In addition, the vessel was to have improved rescue and towing capacity, better survivor and crew spaces and facilities, as well as an engine-driven fire pump and bilge suction. The vessel would also be inherently self-righting with a low center of gravity and a segmented water-tight structural design. Hull construction was to be of high-strength welded steel combined with a more lightweight superstructure.[iii]

Similar to the German Lifeboat Service in their development of their new rescue cruisers, the USCG design team constructed a 1/12 scale hull model that was tank tested for all weather conditions. Constructed at the USCG’s own boatyard at Curtis Bay, Maryland the CG 44-300 was launched in early 1962 and by April that year had been stationed at Chatham Lifeboat Station in Massachusetts for operational trials. By October 1962 the vessel had been transported to Yaquinna Bay, Oregon for testing in heavy breaking surf conditions where it excelled and became a strong favourite of the lifeboat crews for its seaworthiness, agility and reserve power. By 1963 and the Edinburgh conference, the USCG was already building a further 25 boats for service around the country.

As a result of the 44 Footer’s introduction at the conference, officials from the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – who were also experiencing similar increasing service demands - sent representatives to the United States to trial the vessel and view the building program. In the best interests of international cooperation in lifesaving at sea, the USCG allowed the RNLI to procure a prototype 44-Foot MLB from the Curtis Bay Yard, which was trialed all over Great Britain and Ireland, as well as in the Netherlands by the KNRM, where after general acceptance, it became the first of the British institution’s Waveney Class lifeboats. Twenty-one more of this type, with RNLI modifications would be built in the UK, continuing in service until the 1990s. In 1966, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) also procured a USCG-built prototype, which became the first of 16 of the class with enclosed wheelhouses.

Caption: An excellent profile of the Waveney type, showing the unique semi-planing hull design and relatively protected propellors and rudders. Credit: Eric Fry, RNLI.

Other organizations that adopted derivations of this design over time included the Norwegian Society for the Rescue of the Shipwrecked (NSSR), which constructed two – with enclosed wheelhouses similar to the Canadian version - as well as the coast guard services in Italy and Portugal. In addition, 10 44 Footers were constructed in the mid-1970s in the UK for the Iranian Navy.[iv]

To put the seaworthiness and capabilities of this design into perspective, lifeboat historian Nicholas Leach, in his book The Waveney Lifeboats, described the service of the 22 British boats as follows:

During the more than three decades of service, the Waveney answered more than 7,000 calls and saved over 2,800 lives. The coxswains and crews who served on the boat performed many fine rescues, and this reflected in the number of bravery medals awarded to Coxswains and crews who operated the boats…[v]

Given these numbers, one wonders what the statistics were for the more than 100 44-foot MLBs that served over the same time period in US waters, let alone the others that were spread all over the globe, some of which continue to this day.

New life for a Waveney with the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol in Australia. Credit: RVCP.

Even more impressive from this writer’s perspective is what happened with these venerable craft after completing their many years of stoic service with their original owners. Many of the 44-foot MLBs, in particular the ones from the RNLI, found new lives all around the globe through the organization’s shepherding of the International Lifeboat Federation (ILF) and its lifeboat exchange programme. Twelve of the Waveney class found new lives down under with both the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol in Australia and the New Zealand Volunteer Coast Guard, while others went on to continue to serve in Canada, Uruguay and Namibia.

A 44-Foot MLB living a new life with the Uruguayan Association for Rescue at Sea. Credit: ADES.

The USCG 44-Foot MLB was a true international success story, spearheaded by the members of the international maritime SAR community who designed and built these venerable craft and, through the auspices of the international lifeboat conferences, willingly shared the design – and actual boats – with other maritime rescue organizations around the globe.

[i] Lt-Cdr Robert W. Witter, Design and Construction of the USCG 44-Foot Motor Life-Boat, Report of the Ninth International Lifeboat Conference, Edinburgh (1963).

[ii] William D. Wilkinson, 44-Foot Motor Lifeboat; An Important Chapter in the History of Worldwide SAR Craft, The Quarterdeck Magazine, Vol.24, No.1 (Winter, 1998), p.6.

[iii] Witter, p.52

[iv]Nicholas Leach, The Waveney Lifeboats; An Illustrated History of the RNLI 44ft Waveney Lifeboats 1967-1999, (Bristol: Bernard McColl, 2001), p.19

[v] Leach, p. 27