USCG in Morro Bay

About the Coast Guard

The United States Coast Guard is the oldest continuously-active maritime service in the United States. It was founded as the Revenue-Marine under Alexander Hamilton’s Treasury Department on 4 August 1790 with the purpose of collecting customs duties at U.S. ports.  It was referred to as the Revenue Cutter Service by the middle of the 19th century and became the Coast Guard through the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service in January 1915. The Coast Guard also absorbed the Lighthouse Service and the Steamship Inspection Service.  [image of the revenue cutter]

The Coast Guard was moved to the Department of Transportation in 1967 and since shortly after 9/11 has been within the Department of Homeland Security.

The Many Missions of the Coast Guard

Although the Coast Guard played a significant role in every U.S. military conflict since its founding, its core mission is to ensure the safety and security of the navigable waters of the United States, both coastal and interior. The USCG is our maritime first responder as well as the regulatory agency for many maritime activities. This unique branch of the military is responsible for an array of maritime duties, including eleven official missions:

            -Ports, Waterways & Coastal Security

            -Drug Interdiction

            -Search and Rescue

            -Aids to Navigation

            -Living Marine Resources

            -Marine Safety

            -Defense Readiness

            -Migrant Interdiction

            -Marine Environmental Protection

            -Law Enforcement

            -Ice Operations

During times of war and as assigned by the President, the USCG operates as part of the US Navy.

Early Years of the Coast Guard in Morro Bay

Before WWII, war planners understood that the western U.S. oceanfront could be vulnerable to Japanese assault. That was confirmed just 16 days after Pearl Harbor when the Japanese submarine I-21 sunk the Union Oil tanker SS Montebello offshore of San Simeon in the early morning of December 23rd. 

To counter this threat, the Coast Guard began beach patrols in 1942 all along the Central Coast, with San Luis Obispo County units from Oceano to Cambria. The Telegram-Tribune reported on June 10, 1944, that “The Coast Guard’s main function at Morro Bay is Beach Patrol duty, working with horse-mounted patrol personnel and war-trained dogs.”  The patrols would have reached the sandspit via the wooden trestle bridge built by the U.S. Navy as part of the massive project that created the harbor and the waterfront (the trestle bridge was demolished in 1947).

The Coast Guard operated out of the newly built Amphibious Training Base during 1944 and 1945. After the war, the Navy transferred the base to the temporary control of the Coast Guard, before it was sold to the County in 1948 as surplus property.

During the early postwar years, SLO County residents in Avila Beach and Morro Bay sought to have a permanent Coast Guard station. As an article in the Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder put it on October 17, 1947, “…there is no station between Monterey and Point Conception, a distance of well over 100 miles of dangerous coastline.”

Eventually, Morro Bay succeeded. The Coast Guard decided to change the permanent homeport of the cutter USCGC Alert (WSC-127) to Morro Bay in June 1949, and the County Board of Supervisors approved the permit for the cutter to dock at Morro Bay on July 15, 1949. There has been a Coast Guard station in Morro Bay ever since. 

There have been many boats assigned the Station Morro Bay over the years. A few of these include the United States Coast Guard cutters:

USCGC Commanche

USCGC Porpoise

USCGC Cape Hedges and USCGC Cape Wash

USCGC Point Heyer and USCGC Point Winslow

Coast Guard Station Morro Bay

According to a Change of Command ceremony handout (2001), the Morro Bay station performed Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement, and Marine Environmental Protection missions. Today, it is commonly referred to as Station Morro Bay, or Motor Lifeboat Station Morro Bay, reflecting its main mission of search and rescue. The station has launched hundreds of searches for mariners and boats in difficulty, compiling an outstanding record of saving lives.

Since about the year 2000, two 47-foot Motor Lifeboats have been stationed in Morro Bay, with a third boat occasionally in the region.  These aluminum boats were designed to handle missions in very rough conditions, including close-in maneuvering in heavy surf. They carry a crew of 4, with room to rescue up to five people. Crucially, the boats are self-righting!

Station Morro Bay works in coordination with the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol to provide essential services to mariners on a 24-hour basis. Both organizations are an important source of information about weather and conditions at sea.

A Sometimes Dangerous Harbor

The entrance to Morro Bay harbor can at times be too dangerous to cross.  Before crossing it is wise tocontact the Coast Guard orHarbor Patrol to get current info. 

The manmade harbor entrance disrupts the “natural” coastwise flow of sand, anda sandbar or “bar” can form at the harbor entrance creating at times large breaking waves and very turbulent waves and currents in the navigation channel.  Crossing the “bar” without proper planning, knowledge and experience can be deadly risky.

Thanks to wave rider weather buoys, modern forecasting systems, and experience of the men and women in Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol uniforms, the information and resources mariners need to be safe exist.

The Capsize of M/V San Mateo

The morning of February 16, 1983, 23 middle school students from Paso Robles were excited to begin a day of whale watching aboard the 46-foot M/V San Mateo. Despite a radio warning from the Harbor Patrol that the harbor entrance was dangerous at the time, the San Mateo tried to leave port.  [image of capsized boat by Tom Lurie]

Just 300 yards west of the entrance, the San Mateo was capsized by a set of 3 waves estimated by a deckhand as 15 to 20 feet.  The boat was damaged by the second wave, and broached to port. It was rolled by the third wave that broke over the boat broadside.  In just moments, all 23 students and 9 adults were put into the cold water—no one wore a life jacket.

The Harbor Patrol and the Coast Guard were watching closely, and rescue boats were on the scene immediately. The Telegram-Tribune (February 19, 1983) quoted the Coast Guard saying “Due to the instant response and competency of the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol and the Coast Guard everyone was rescued within 20 minutes of capsizing.” All 32 lives were saved, and only the captain died later of serious injuries. An important lesson from the accident was the need to have child-sized life jackets on board in sufficient number.

The San Mateo was pounded apart in the surf. 

On the Rocks at San Simeon

BM1 John Rose, the duty surfman, got the 911 call about 6 a.m. January 7, 2005 that there was a sailing vessel in trouble near San Simeon. At that moment the waves were 11 to 15 feet with wind gusting to 50 knots. By the time Rose and his 3 crew aboard Motor Lifeboat 47280 reached the sailboat with a husband and wife aboard, the waves were 20 feet and the wind was blowing the disabled boat toward the rocks.

As he maneuvered to reach the sailboat, Rose realized he had lost one of his engines. With reduced power, he was able to get along side the sailboat, but just as the crew was about to snatch the woman, she put her legs between the two boats, forcing Rose to separate. Neither of the couple would jump in the water so the rescuers could retrieve them. Rose called his crew into the MLB, not wanting one of his own to go into the water as well, and tried to shelter the sailboat from a large rock. 

The MLB hit the rock and Rose had to withdraw. The uncontrolled sailboat overturned, putting the couple in the surf. At that moment, a wave knocked the MLB over approximately 80 degrees — it took 20 eternal seconds to right itself.  When the MLB came up, Rose tried again to approach the woman but failed as the waves took her away.  Her husband was further away.

Rose had to power his own boat through the beach break, past the rocks, to open seas. He was escorted back to the station by the second MLB.

The husband was eventually rescued from the surf by the North Coast Ocean Rescue team. His wife did not survive.

For their efforts to save the couple under extreme conditions—and to manage to save themselves and their boat—Coxswain John Rose and his crew were decorated.