Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas McKenzie.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Victoria Taylor, a boatswain’s mate from Coast Guard Station Humboldt Bay, was recently designated a Coast Guard surfman, the highest qualification a coxswain can achieve in the Coast Guard.
Receiving the surfman designation puts Taylor in an elite group; she’s the Coast Guard’s 484th surfman, one of only six females to ever receive the designation in Coast Guard history and the very first from Station Humboldt Bay. Only five percent of Coast Guard coxswains receive the qualification, which typically takes years to earn. It took Taylor seven years.
“I knew coming into boot camp that this is what I wanted to do,” said Taylor, a native of Raymond, Wash. “The Coast Guard gives women so many great opportunities so I thought, ‘Why not shoot for the stars?’ Why not go for one of the hardest qualifications?”
While lifeboat coxswains are qualified to navigate their vessels into heavy seas, only surfmen are allowed to navigate into breaking waves. Surf stations are required in areas where surf conditions greater than eight feet occur approximately 36 days or more each year. Station Humboldt Bay, one of 21 surf stations in the Coast Guard, is located on one of the most treacherous bar entrances in California, an area famous for shipwrecks — and home to the Coast Guard in one form or another since 1856.
The station’s area of responsibility encompasses a large portion of the coastline of Humboldt County and a small portion of southern Del Norte County. In addition, the crew is responsible for protecting life in more than 5,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean.
The 47-foot Motor Life Boat, the platform on which Taylor is qualified, is the workhorse of the Coast Guard’s heavy weather fleet. It is primarily designed as a fast-response rescue craft, capable of conducting operations in high seas, surf and heavy weather environments. Self-righting, self-bailing, almost unsinkable and designed with an extended cruising range, these boats are built to withstand the most severe conditions at sea.
Taylor’s first ride in a lifeboat took place before she joined. She visited Coast Guard Station Bellingham, Wash., where her sister was stationed, and the station’s crew took her out for a ride.
“My first impression of the 47’ is that it looked like a tank,” said Taylor. “And if I’m going to be on the water, I’ll take a tank over a tin can any day.”
As a crewman, Taylor envied the more experienced coxswains who could maneuver the boat “like it was an art form.” Driving the boat in the surf “seemed like a dance.”
“The first time on the helm, you realize how different a boat is from a car. There are so many external forces that affect you, and usually not in a good way,” said Taylor. “Those forces will take any little mistake and multiply it by 10, pushing your bow off square or sucking you toward the rocks.”
For Taylor, learning how to take these external forces and use them in her favor was a big help. “Operating a boat is a lot like life,” she says. “Sometimes it’s easier to kick your bow over and let the current help you get where you need to go rather than try to ‘over drive’ and fight it the whole time.”
She was able to call upon her experience and training as a coxswain in May of this year when the station received a call from a good Samaritan. “There were two men in the water near our south jetty,” said Taylor. “The SAR alarm went off and we ran.”
The initial report stated that the two men were several hundred yards west of the jetty, and it was thought that they were well outside of the surf zone. But when Taylor and her crew came around the corner they realized that the men had taken their boat into an area where the surf was breaking. The vessel had capsized. The men were clinging to the hull and drifting quickly towards the rocks.
“My crew were already wearing heavy weather belts and helmets because we weren’t sure what we’d find when we arrived on scene,” said Taylor.
Something had to be done and there was no time to wait for a surfman to arrive at the station and launch a second boat. Taylor was only a heavy weather coxswain at the time and the conditions were above her limitations, but she had recently been to surf school and felt confident that she could get her crew in and out safely.
“My crew agreed with my plan so I radioed to the station, reviewed the risk analysis, got the command approval and entered the surf zone,” said Taylor.
The rescue crew couldn’t pick up the men directly because they were dangerously close to the rocks, so one of the crewmen threw a rescue bag toward them. One of the men was able to swim out to grab it. The second man was too hypothermic to move, so the first man grabbed hold of him and the crew pulled them alongside the rescue boat.
“We managed to complete the whole evolution on a lull, and we only took a couple breaks (waves) once we had them on the aft deck and tucked in behind the superstructure,” said Taylor. “On the next lull, we exited the surf zone and the crew took the two men below to treat them for hypothermia.”
It took approximately thirty minutes from the time the rescue crew launched to the time they returned the two men safely to the station and transferred them to waiting emergency medical technicians.
“It sounds cliché, but that was probably the longest half hour of my life!” said Taylor. “We all knew what would happen if we didn’t get in there and get them out, and I had the added concern of making sure I got my guys home safe. Our training kicked in though, and everyone was calm and efficient the entire time.”
This new designation ties Taylor to a long line of fellow surfmen.
“Our forefathers intentionally rowed small wooden boats into storms and surf, wearing cork life jackets and wool uniforms. It was cold, wet, physically demanding and dangerous,” said Taylor. “They didn’t do it for the paltry wages; they did it to save lives. We’re much better equipped to do our jobs now, but I think that many of us have a similar attitude today. We wait — some of us our whole careers — for that one good case where we can help someone get home to their families.”
“I am proud and honored to have been accepted into the community, and hope that I can live up to their legacy,” added Taylor.