Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn.
Within the U.S. Coast Guard is an elite community of boat operators who make up less than one tenth of one percent of the agency’s entire workforce. Called ‘surfmen,’ these men and women operate boats in the most dangerous conditions allowed by the Coast Guard.
Of the Coast Guard’s approximate 4,800 boatswain’s mates, only about 200 are currently surfmen. There have only ever been roughly 500 surfmen in the service’s history. The path to qualification is wrought with discomfort, danger and dedication beyond the scope of normal human tolerance.
On a rare, sunny, late-winter day at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., a pinning ceremony was held welcoming the newest surfman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Augusta Lowry, a boatswain’s mate stationed at Yaquina Bay. Augusta Lowry’s new certification, like any surfman certification, is remarkable in and of itself. However, marking his accomplishment truly special, Augusta’s surfman pinning made him a third generation surfman, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
“As a teenager in high school I looked up to my father and had respect for what he did as a profession,” said Augusta. “I made the choice when I was about 16 that I wanted to follow that path and join the Coast Guard. I knew that saving lives is a job I could enjoy doing.”
Augusta’s father, Master Chief Petty Officer Scott Lowry, executive petty officer at the National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, Wash., has been a qualified surfman since 1997. He proudly pinned his son with the surfman qualification insignia during the ceremony.
Scott credits his own father, a surfman before him, with influencing his career path.
“I never knew a lot about my dad’s Coast Guard time until after I enlisted, but hearing his sea stories of being at Station Grays Harbor, Wash., as a young boatswain’s mate seemed a whole lot more exciting to me than what I was doing aboard ship,” said Scott.
From 1964 to 1965, Scott’s father, Mark Lowry, was stationed aboard Coast Guard Cutter Northwind, a Wind-class icebreaker homeported in Seattle. Later, he gained experience driving boats in the surf at Station Grays Harbor where he eventually earned certification as a surfman.
While Coast Guard coxswains are qualified to operate vessels in heavy seas, only surfmen are allowed to navigate in breaking waves. The process of becoming a surfman requires years of training in the surf, learning from experienced boat operators. Many seasoned motor lifeboat coxswains in the Coast Guard never attempt to become surfmen.
“I think the most difficult thing about becoming a surfman is the time it takes to qualify,” said Scott. “It’s not just about being able to drive a boat in the surf. A surfman must also be an expert manager of all possible at sea search and rescue scenarios; a practiced risk management professional. A surfman has to be the one person who is always thinking ahead, remaining calm even when anxious about the imminent dangers of the mission. A surfman is a leader while underway and moored, an expert trainer and should always be confident but never arrogant. These skills take time to develop. Some people never develop these qualities.”
For Augusta, his newly acquired position in the surfmen community came after the arduous process of learning to trust his own judgment in the dangerous surf.
“Gaining confidence in myself was probably the hardest thing for me,” said Augusta. “The environment that we operate in is very dynamic and you need to have a good amount of experience to operate in it. You need to have the ability to see even the smallest change in the weather. All of this comes with experience. I have learned from surfman that have been operating boats since I was in diapers. The amount of experience and knowledge many of them have was intimidating and it took a long time for me to accept that I can’t know or learn everything. Once I accepted that, I learned to relax and just drive the boat.”
Augusta’s supervisors at Yaquina Bay certainly have confidence in him.
“Many boatswain’s mates are excited by the thought of becoming a surfman, but it takes a tremendous amount of dedication and perseverance,” said Chief Petty Officer Shawn Crahen, boatswain’s mate and surfman trainer at the station. “Petty Officer Lowry has grown a lot throughout the training process and through diligence and determination he has earned his place in a long line of expert seaman.”
“I am very proud of Petty Officer Lowry, it has been a long road and I’m glad he stuck with it,” said Chief Warrant Officer Robert Ornelas, commanding officer at the station. “He is a natural, as a third generation surfman, you can say it is in his blood; he just had to see his full potential.”
Now raising a family of his own with his wife Melinda, Augusta admits finding the balance between family life and the challenges of becoming a surfman was no easy task.
“In the short time since we were married in 2008, my wife and I have been blessed with three children, one son, Hunter, and two daughters Parker and Audrey,” said Augusta. “I love my family more than anything and they do come first, but we had to find that balance.”
“Petty Officer Lowry’s hard work and determination has paid off, not only for him but for his family as well,” said Chief Petty Officer Scott Slade, executive petty officer at Station Yaquina Bay. “His wife Melinda has had a big part in his surfman certification. He has spent countless hours training in heavy weather and surf conditions, keeping him away from home on much of his liberty time. With Melinda’s unwavering support he can now say he’s a surfman.”
Beneath Augusta’s humble demeanor there’s a quiet sense of pride that he hopes to instill in his children.
“I am very proud to be the third surfman in my family and I only hope that my son or either of my daughters might continue the legacy,” said Augusta. “I’ve always felt that, being a third generation Coast Guardsman, I have had a legacy to uphold.”
Scott stood proudly beside his son overlooking Yaquina Bay moments after the ceremony. Unfortunately, Mark could not be there with them. He passed away Nov. 21, 2007, after a battle with brain cancer.
“My father’s last request was to be buried at sea, outside the Coquille River entrance,” said Scott. “Dad grew up in Coquille, Ore., and spent a lot of time in that river as a kid. Dad was put to final rest from aboard a 47-foot motor lifeboat just across the Coquille River bar in the summer of 2008. Both my son and I were aboard that day. It was blowing hard out of the northwest and the conditions were sloppy, so Dad’s final crossing of the bar was as he’d have liked it.”
Scott hopes to retire in 2015 after 30 years of service. As for Augusta, he hopes to continue crossing the bar for years to come.