As we continue our Boat Forces Tour, we’ll be taking you to a variety of units that showcase the many mission areas supported by Boat Forces, the program that encompasses all Coast Guard vessels under 65 feet in length.
Following our first post in this series where we highlighted the training of the Coast Guard’s newest boat crewmen, today we take a look at a surf station that embodies some of the service’s oldest traditions.
As a surf station, Barnegat Light, N.J., is one of 20 Coast Guard stations known to have highly unpredictable and treacherous conditions. The surfmen who serve as coxswains at these stations are the service’s most talented and highly-trained boat drivers. Less than 5 percent of boatswain’s mates ever qualify as surfmen.
“More than anything it’s a leadership qualification,” said BMC Paul Ashley, Executive Petty Officer at the station. “The command has to trust that person to lead his crew through some hellacious stuff.”
The tradition of the surfman began in the U.S. Life Saving Service, which was incorporated into the service in 1915 when the U.S. Coast Guard was formed. Back then surfmen used row boats to perform daring and often amazing rescues.
“I look at it as an honor to be linked to that heritage,” said Ashley who’s been a surfman for 5 years. “I think of all of the incredible equipment we have today and imagine them with nothing but canvas oil slicks and cork life vests.”
While the life-saving mission remains unchanged the equipment has definitely improved. For surfmen the 47-foot motor life boat is their ride of choice. These 870-horsepower beasts can tow 100 tons, have a top speed of 25 knots and can perform in 20-foot breaking seas and 60-knot winds.
The MLB’s capabilities are absolutely essential in a place like Barnegat where it’s so dangerous there were once nearly 200 shipwrecks during a single 10-year stretch.
“It’s an amazing craft,” said Ashley. “The properly trained operator can do amazing things with it.”
He’s not kidding. I rode with Ashley during a training mission just outside Barnegat Inlet in 10-foot breaking surf—that’s roughly eye-level with the crew—and nobody aboard got a drop of water on them the whole day. Amazing.
Check the Coast Guard Compass regularly as posts in the Boat Forces Tour series will be added each week through November. You can also follow the series at this link.