Whether they are driving a cutter’s small boat, at the wheel of a station’s utility boat or taking the helm of a marine safety and security team’s response boat, coxswains are at the pointed end of the spear of Coast Guard missions. They undergo a tremendous amount of training to be the best, but there is also a certain kind of intuition, a sixth sense if you will, that the finest coxswains have. One of these coxswains is Petty Officer 1st Class James Ballard.
As a boatswain’s mate at Station Cape Charles, Va., Ballard has mastered the skills necessary to become a boat driver and added to his proficiency by training at the Joint Maritime Training Center at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Students who attend this training are immersed in all things coxswain, including pursuit tactics, setting up safety and security zones and performing an escort.
Ballard was the first member of his station to graduate from the center, making him the unit’s first tactically trained coxswain. He has become a leader amongst his peers and executed more than 120 missions in the last year, logging nearly 300 hours underway.
While Ballard excels at daily operations, his proficiency was put to the test on the night of December 5, 2010, when the 75-foot fishing vessel Mandy Lee began taking on water. The 41502 launched from Station Cape Charles with Ballard as coxswain, but due to deteriorating weather conditions, the 41-foot utility boat had reached its limitations; Ballard and his crew were to escort the fishing vessel towards shore until an 87-foot patrol boat could take over.
“We were about two miles away from the vessel and, real faintly over the radio, we heard the captain say they had lost their engines and their pumps had stopped working,” recalls Ballard.
Arriving on scene, the 41502 found only one of the two fishermen aboard had a survival suit and neither had a lifejacket. Ballard displayed exceptional boat handling skills as he maintained position for several minutes while his crew passed survival suits and lifejackets to those aboard Mandy Lee.
With Mandy Lee’s dewatering pump unable to keep up, Ballard knew it would be only a matter of minutes before the fishing vessel sank. An alongside approach was out of the question with the boat and its rigging bobbing in the eight-foot seas, so Ballard instructed the fishermen to deploy a life raft. The men were hesitant, and one clung to the side of the fishing boat before he crumpled onto the life raft.
“As soon as they got on the life raft we pulled in and threw them a heaving line,” recalls Ballard. “My crew was able to pull them in despite the sea state and I was relieved they were safely aboard.”
The 41502 soon found that rescuing the fishermen proved to be the easy part of their mission, as their transit back to Cape Charles presented them with even more challenges. The waves off Virginia’s Eastern Shore are notorious for being complex to navigate, and the night of the rescue was no exception.
“When you are in that kind of sea state you have to throttle jockey,” explained Ballard. “You have to constantly adjust the throttles to the sea state so the vessel stays in the water instead of the bow launching over the wave.”
As water crashed across the deck, the utility boat’s high water alarm went off and Ballard soon found the port engine had lost its oil pressure with the starboard engine struggling at half throttle. Ballard was forced to shut that engine down, and hoped for good news from the boat’s engineer. The engineer found no oil leaks and after troubleshooting, was able to turn the engines back on.
In due course, the 41502 made it back to the Eastern Shore, and Mandy Lee’s crew was safely out of harm’s way. Each member of the crew played an important part in the rescue, but they all found leadership from their coxswain – and his instincts.
“What was supposed to be an escort became a seven-hour search and rescue mission,” said Ballard. “But that’s what a lot of being a boat driver comes down to. You have to make a common sense decision at the spur of the moment and stick with it. But you also have to think three steps ahead of what you are going to do so, you are set up for the next step.”