March is Women’s History Month and in honor of the many contributions women have made to the history of our service, we bring you the story of the female surfmen of today’s Coast Guard. Joy Delgado, a Coast Guard fan and supporter, visited the National Motor Lifeboat School and interviewed female surfmen on their exciting careers.
Written by Joy Delgado.
“Coast Guard! This is fishing vessel RebekhaAnn. We’re taking on water, our bilges are full and the pump isn’t keeping up. Can you send help? Over.”
“Fishing vessel RebekhaAnn, this is Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment. We have your location and are sending a boat out right now. Over.”
“Roger that. RebekhaAnn standing by. Thank you.”
Radio calls like this are a frequent occurrence for stations operating along the Columbia River, or “The Graveyard of the Pacific” as the area has come to be known. The graveyard is so named due to more than 200 ships that have sailed their last voyage and met their ultimate fate at the Columbia River bar.
Leading the crews of rescue boats to respond in truly treacherous seas, and to respond to fishing boats like the RebekhaAnn, are the Coast Guard’s surfmen. The title ‘surfman’ is given to the best of the best Coast Guard boat operators. Becoming a surfman is a long, hard process that includes classroom work and a lot of hands on training. By name alone it may appear the title of surfman is only given to male members of the service, but that is far from the truth.
Just like any position in the U.S. Coast Guard, women can serve – and surf – as surfmen.
As the nation reflects on the role women have played in forming our great nation this month, I traveled to the National Motor Life Boat School in Ilwaco, Wash., to hear from women surfman on how they came to be elite boat drivers.
First, why did you want to become a surfman?
My first duty assignment following basic training was to the National Motor Life Boat School. When I arrived in December, there was a larger than average storm creating consistent seas upwards of 20 to 30 feet with waves breaking all across the bar. As part of the indoctrination process I went up to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and watched a surf boat do its job. They were just doing a check on the weather at the time, but I was hooked. – Jessica Shafer, Surfman No. 390
What was the best part of training?
The best part of the training was learning how to work ‘the series’ (set of waves) and maneuver the vessel in and out of hazardous conditions. There is nothing like being underway with rain and wind spray beating you in the face and maneuvering your way through 10-20 breaking swells. – Jessica Paxton, Surfman No. 414
What was the hardest part of training?
For me, it was learning to be patient and have thick skin. This is not something that just happens in a few months of training. To gain the confidence of your crew, supervisors and Command, you have to be willing to take constructive criticism, it is not personal. – Beth Slade, Surfman No. 321
Would you do it over?
Absolutely… I LOVE my job and have stayed with the surf community for the last 12 years. – Beth Slade, Surfman No. 321
Of course I would! I can’t imagine not having that experience. – Jessica Paxton, Surfman No. 414
Simply stated, “Yes, I would do it again.” – Jessica Shafer, Surfman No. 390
Any pearls of wisdom for women who think this might be the career for them?
My father used to say to me every morning ‘Strive, struggle and make things happen,’ and ‘Success is consistency of purpose.’ I routinely remind myself of these things when I enter any challenge, it’s not if I can do it, but when I do it. – Beth Slade, Surfman No. 321
Dedication, perseverance and patience, you will need a LOT of all three. It is a long hard road that will take many years of dedication and will try your patience. It will be frustrating, heart-breaking and probably painful, but, earning your ‘surfman check’ is probably the most rewarding accomplishment ever. – Jessica Paxton, Surfman No. 414
No matter what career path a girl decides to take, remember it is not the job that defines her as a person. She defines herself as a person first; a job is just something she does, hopefully well. – Jessica Shafer, Surfman No. 390
So, who’s going to be the next female surfman? How about you?