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Workhorse Coast Guard Cutter Gets a Fond, Final Sendoff

March 31, 1995|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CORONA DEL MAR — It had endured natural disasters and pounding surf, lifesaving missions and rescues of disabled vessels.

But on Thursday, the time came for veteran crew members and officers to bid an emotional farewell to the 32-year-old U.S. Coast Guard cutter Point Divide as it was decommissioned and prepared to leave on a final voyage.

"She's a rugged, unglamorous workhorse with a tough job," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Jackson, the patrol boat's last commanding officer.

Symbiosis was the word he used to describe the close relationship between the 82-foot ship and the thousands of sailors who served on it over the decades, including the last crew of 26 sailors.

Lt. Cmdr. John Zantek, who commanded the Point Divide from 1982 to 1984, recalled how intimately crew members got to know their craft.

"You have to know every sound, creak and part of this cutter when you're out there running like the police and fire departments," he said.

"You get very tight with the steel and the water," he added, holding back tears. "Losing her now is like losing a friend."

The Point Divide was built in Maryland in late 1962, and was transferred to Newport Beach the following year, where it went on missions involving law enforcement, recreational boating safety, military preparedness and environmental problems.

The 70-ton craft, one of about 15 patrol boats operating off California, bears a service ribbon denoting six commendations.

For 15 years, it took top place in annual competitions that graded cutters in everything from number of search-and-rescues to boat drills.

Of the dozen vessels Zantek has operated, he said the Point Divide ranks as No. 1. Hanging from its masts were two unit citation flags, one of which Zantek and his crew earned during his command.

Zantek, 43, vividly remembers that day in 1982. He and the crew were playing volleyball on a summer Sunday afternoon at Newport Beach when a fishing vessel carrying 58 people exploded at Channel Island, sending the passengers into the water.

The crew and boat responded immediately to extinguish the fire, rescue the victims and tow the disabled boat. One life, however, was lost, Zantek recalled.

His two years on Point Divide were the best of his life, Zantek said.

But, like sailors, ships get old and can no longer go to sea.

The 30-minute decommissioning ceremony drew about 100 of the vessel's past crew members and prompted an exchange of stories.

For Pat Swope, 65, the only female member of the vessel's final crew, the fondest memory was from last August, when she stood on the Point Divide's deck and spread her deceased husband's ashes into the sea. The craft, she said, "is like home. It's a part of you."

Jackson said the Point Divide will be moored at a maritime academy in Seattle, where it will serve as a training vessel.

Through the support of the city of Newport Beach, another boat, the Point Stuart, will arrive to replace the decommissioned boat next week.

The ceremony ended with the clanging of eight bells, which marks the last watch of a daily run. Jackson walked away saying, "So many went out to sea to save lives on this cutter. And all that is coming to a close today. It's sad to see her go."

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