This story was originally released as a U.S. Coast Guard feature story and was written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler.
The crew of Station Quillayute River gathered on a beach at La Push, Wash., for a ceremonial reenactment of an old practice. They were there to honor Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Harris who achieved surfman status and earned “check” number 465.
The “check,” while no longer functional, symbolizes decades of tradition. During the first and second World War, personnel at life-saving stations were tasked with patrolling the shore in search of foreign threats. Upon completion of one leg of a coastal patrol, a metal token called a “check” would be passed from one individual to another, who would then carry it for their leg. Checks were collected at stations each day to demonstrate all patrols were complete.
Beach patrols eventually became a thing of the past, but the check evolved into a symbolic item presented to an individual achieving the Coast Guard’s highest level of coxswain search and rescue qualification and is now called a surfman’s check.
Harris’ journey to surfman started roughly 10 years ago, when he joined the Coast Guard at 19. He was assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Cushing, a 110-foot patrol boat homeported in San Juan, Puerto Rico. While he didn’t know what a surfman was at the time, he knew he wanted to save lives.
“When a boatswain’s mate aboard Cushing began telling me about surf stations, it sounded awesome,” said Harris. “I grew up with a search-and-rescue mentality. My dad has been a firefighter in California for 26 years.”
After two-and-a-half years aboard Cushing, Harris put in for the busiest rescue station he had heard of, and it wasn’t long before he received orders to Station Golden Gate, Calif.
Once at the station, his biggest challenge in getting qualified was the number of people trying to gain experience. “Getting time driving the boat was very competitive,” said Harris. “There were times that I was getting extremely frustrated. I had to force myself to keep at it.”
Qualifying as a surfman is an extensive process, taking eight years or more, and is the most advanced of several tiers of coxswain qualifications. A coxswain will often be the only hope for a person in distress and is responsible for the safety of their crew in an absolutely unforgiving environment.
“The first time I got to drive a motor lifeboat in surf conditions I was a little scared, but I had a blast,” said Harris. “It was intimidating. I had seen it done a lot of times, but it is a lot different being the one at the wheel. There are so many variables, and you have to get it done perfectly every time.”
Having achieved an eight-year goal at the top tier of experience in his field some would believe things would be slowing down for Harris, but as any military veteran would expect, the achievement brings only more responsibility.
“I am still learning constantly and also trying to teach all of that experience to newer people, teaching them how to do things the right way,” said Harris. “Judgment and maturity is a big part of it and you need to be able to have a crew that can trust you.”
Harris now serves at Coast Guard Station Quillayute River, and outside of the station stands a reminder of surfmen who have gone before him. It is a statue of a 44-foot motor lifeboat, hull number 44363. The boat wrecked on the Quillayute River entrance Feb. 12, 1997, killing three of its four-person crew.
“These events are always in the back of my mind when crossing the river entrance,” said Harris. “It reminds me to never get complacent, that the conditions are always changing.”
“Having a hand in saving lives is an awesome feeling,” added Harris. “You can’t describe it, you just feel great afterwards. All of your training and everything you have done has paid off. We’re carrying on a tradition of lifesaving, carrying on the traditions of the surfmen before us.”
And carry on the tradition he does. Upon the monument of the lost motor lifeboat crew is engraved an inscription close to his heart as a surfman and recepient of “check” number 465:
These poor plain men, dwellers upon the lonely shores, took their lives in their hands, and at the most imminent risk, crossed the most turbulent sea… and for what? So that others might live to see home and friends.