Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill.
On the brisk spring morning, three petty officers got into a vehicle and only two of them knew where they were headed. The junior petty officer had confidence in his supervisors, but had no idea what was about to happen as they drove across the Oregon Inlet Bridge. About a mile south of the bridge, they pulled over onto the sandy shoulder of NC 12. As the junior petty officer got out of the car, he looked up at the surprisingly steep 30-foot sand dunes, which were about twice the height as they were the previous week, and began the ascent. It was like climbing a sandy ladder; their boots sank several inches deep with each step.
Atop the dunes, Petty Officer 1st Class Louis Keating Jr. realized what was about to happen and was handed a historic surf check – a brass tag surfman would carry during their beach patrols. He was then told to head north to complete a beach patrol walking in the footsteps of the heroes who came before him from the historic Pea Island Lifesaving Station.
“Back in the 1800s, surfmen along the Outer Banks and Pea Island would have to do beach patrols,” said Chief Petty Officer Brendan Canny, the executive petty officer of Station Oregon Inlet and a surfman. “The stations were six miles apart, so the guy from the north would meet a guy from the south and they would swap checks, which have the station’s number on it. That way, when they returned to their station, they could prove that they completed their beach patrol.”
The Coast Guard traces the surfman’s roots back to the U.S. Lifesaving Service, which was credited with saving more than 178,000 people from 1871 to 1915. In 1871, the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, also known as U.S. Life-Saving Station 17, was built on the beach nearly seven miles southeast of Oregon Inlet.
Keating’s love of boats began during his childhood growing up on the Jersey Shore when he would get underway on his father’s boat and watch Coast Guard boats conduct their patrols and transit in and out of the inlet. He later had the opportunity to visit the nearby Coast Guard station and to see the boats up close, which was one of the first things that drew him toward the service.
“When I joined the Coast Guard, boatswain’s mate was the only rate I wanted to go,” said Keating. “I had a great influence of a chief I knew from a station locally, who told me what being a boatswain’s mate was all about and what being in the Coast Guard was. I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do, so boatswain’s mate was the only rate for me.”
Keating joined the service in October 2000 and headed to basic training at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J., the service’s only enlisted accession point.
“My first duty station was actually my dream station – Coast Guard Station Ocean City, Md.,” said Keating. “We used to vacation there as a kid, and I was lucky enough to get it right out of boot camp.”
Keating arrived at the station at the rank of seaman and had the opportunity to get qualified as boatcrew member on a 21-foot boat, a 41-foot boat and a 47-foot boat.
“Master Chief Lou Fischer taught me how to drive a 47,” said Keating. “From there it was love at first ride.”
After a three-year tour aboard Coast Guard Cutter Legare, Keating faced the decision of where he would be stationed next. At this point in his career, he knew he wanted to drive motor lifeboats, so he chose Coast Guard Station Manasquan, N.J. The station was close to home, categorized as a heavy weather station and served as a place he could further his boat driving abilities.
In 2006, he began working to qualify as a motor lifeboat coxswain. “Being at the helm of a motor lifeboat is where I wanted to be,” said Keating.
After completing his coxswain qualifications, Keating took advantage of an opportunity to attend the National Motor Life Boat School in Ilwaco, Wash., where he completed the heavy weather coxswain course and eventually qualified as a heavy weather coxswain, the second-highest qualification a boatswain’s mate can achieve. This achievement recognizes his knowledge in weather, waves, heavy seas, surf and currents, mission planning, boat operations in heavy seas and emergency and casualty procedures.
In 2010, Keating received orders to Station Oregon Inlet, where he began his years-long journey toward achieving his surfman qualification.
“The hardest part about achieving a qualification of surfman was the wait. You have to have dedication and really want it,” said Keating. “Specifically if you’re breaking in surfman on the east coast, because the weather is so inconsistent.”
Ninety percent of the surfman qualification is on-the-job training and being able to prove to one’s peers and one’s command that they possess the skills necessary to operate a motor lifeboat safely in breaking surf conditions. Therefore, if surf conditions don’t exist for the unit’s personnel to train in, qualification times can be severely delayed. In most cases, the process can take four to six years.
Another important aspect is demonstrating one’s maturity and responsibility before being allowed to take three other people into harm’s way to rescue a person in distress.
Between 2010 and 2012, surf conditions were a rare occurrence, which didn’t allow much training time for Keating to demonstrate his proficiency.
Fortunately for Keating, he was given the opportunity to return to motor lifeboat school to complete the surfman course, which is comprised mostly of skill-based performance objectives, meaning the course consists mostly of underway training.
“The last step is a surfman check ride with the command aboard in 10-to-12-foot surf in our area of responsibility, and being able to negotiate the surf made them feel comfortable with me being able to take the boat out on my own,” said Keating.
After the check ride, the command discussed Keating’s performance in the surf and made the determination that he was ready to join the surfman community.
Keating’s beach patrol came to an end approximately a mile north of where he started walking alongside the Atlantic Ocean as a motor lifeboat followed. Walking toward the historic Pea Island Life-Saving Station, he was met by 24 Coast Guardsmen, comprised of surfmen from surrounding units and members of Station Oregon Inlet, to witness his official surfman ceremony.
In the company of friends, family and fellow shipmates, Keating was presented with his surfman pin, and was welcomed to the ranks of the most highly trained boat drivers in the Coast Guard.
“This is the best experience I’ve had so far in the Coast Guard, nothing beats the tradition of the surfman program and what it is to be a surfman,” said Keating. “Being a surfman is about being the best boat driver you can be, and being humble about it, making sure that if someone needs you, you can go out there and save their life.”
Keating is now one of the few surfmen charged with responding to people in distress in breaking surf. Due to his qualification, Keating will likely be able to remain at the station for another two years, where he’ll be able to put his skills to use in serving the local community.
“To be the one who they rely on to go out on surf cases is great,” said Keating. “I feel honored that they’ve allowed me to be the one that does answer that call.”