Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, for 13 years and currently serves as chapter director for Blue Star Families in Miami, Fla.
Written by Shelley Kimball.
As a boat capsized in the Columbia River, a split-second decision proved lifesaving. One member of the crew caught a hand-held VHF radio as it toppled off a table as the boat churned. In the chaos, the four got separated, with two going one way, and two going another as the ebb tide took hold. The VHF was the only lifeline, while the minutes ticked and the survivors treaded 40-degree water.
The call for help reached the Coast Guard, and the survivors were pulled to safety. For series producer Cork Friedman, watching that rescue as a member of the crew of The Weather Channel’s Coast Guard Cape Disappointment was one of the most dramatic experiences he has seen. Knowing that those four lives were suspended on the reflex to grab the radio and hold onto it was unforgettable, he said.
“If he hadn’t done that, those people would have been dead,” Friedman said.
The producers and crew for the shows Coast Guard Florida, Coast Guard Alaska and Coast Guard Cape Disappointment provide viewers with front-row seats to situations like these. They have unprecedented access to members of the Coast Guard to film their daily lives, whether in the adrenaline rush of search and rescue or law enforcement response, or in the quiet moments at home. For Friedman, the experience has been the best of his professional life.
“It’s a camaraderie, and a family like none I have ever seen. That was special to watch, and that was special to see. Because we were accepted as part of the family. All of us,” Friedman said. “It’s not often when you leave a project, and you get the best hugs of your life when you leave the station. And that says a lot.”
The seas provided some of the shows’ greatest filming challenges. Foremost, the equipment just isn’t meant for saltwater. And neither are some of the cameramen.
“Shooting on the water is very challenging. Cameras and salt water don’t mix very well, so we break a lot of stuff,” Friedman said. “Sometimes it’s unavoidable.”
Everything they used had to be waterproof, and the equipment was not manufactured that way. The film crew had to find ways to rig and modify their recording equipment to make it work, Friedman said. And while filming rescues in rough seas, cameramen regularly had one hand on the boat and one hand on the camera, and the cameras went overboard.
The risk of cameras and cameramen falling overboard was not the only occupational hazard – seasickness took its toll. On every ad he ran looking for cameramen, Friedman said, he required that applicants don’t get seasick often or are able to work through it. He said people wanted the work so badly, they would agree to the terms. However, few had experienced such rough seas.
“It’s certainly not for everybody. It’s a very tempting job description, but when they got out there, it was just too much for them,” Friedman said. “Eight-foot breaking waves? Forget it. No way.”
As a result, Friedman had to fire more than his fair share of cameramen who couldn’t work through the conditions. It became such a challenge, like the saltwater ruining the equipment, that he had to find a way to rig it. He found his solution around seasickness by contacting those whose lives are on the sea. He put out an ad for Alaskan crab fishermen, and taught them how to film. It worked like a charm.
“They are great – you know what? The rougher it got, the bigger the smiles they got because that’s what they are used to,” Friedman said.
The fishermen/cameramen also developed great bonds with the Coasties they filmed because they got to see how much training and dedication went into their missions, Friedman said.
Cultivating those relationships has become another part of the job description, Friedman said. He had to ensure that his film crew could bond personally with the Coast Guardsmen, and those who couldn’t were fired.
“One of the biggest things for me and my crew is to make sure they are not just with these crews shooting, but to be best friends with the crew,” Friedman said. “Without that, we won’t get the access to the good stuff, the real stuff.”
Those bonds can’t help but develop over months of close quarters, Friedman said. The Coast Guard helped the film crew remain nearby so that they make it to the rescues in minutes with the response crews.
“The biggest challenge, for all the shows we’ve done, we can’t miss getting on that helicopter, or we can’t miss getting on that boat,” Friedman said. “The worst thing that could happen for us is we miss the case.”
Being able to follow the Coast Guard in different geographic locations has also given Friedman and Russ Muth, the co-executive producer of Coast Guard Florida and executive producer of Coast Guard Alaska, unique perspectives on the differences between the missions in each area.
Both described Alaska and Cape Disappointment as more high-stakes search and rescue response. South Florida had more law enforcement response, more drug busts, and dealing more often with a higher recreation population on the water. The Northwest is marked with cold, heavy seas, rugged weather and survival that hinges on minutes, while Florida is open-water chases, shooting engines out and MH-65s following overhead.
Through the hundreds of hours of programming they have produced about the Coast Guard, Muth said, they have had all had to give up parts of their personal lives to tell the stories. But with that sacrifice, came rewards, he said. Some highlights for Muth were living in a trailer on Marathon Key, Fla. and being able to watch the Barque Eagle sail. But more than anything, Muth said, it was the stories.
“There is a lot of things as a crew and post-production where you come into contact with very sensitive stuff,” Muth said. “It can be very tragic things we see up close. It is very rewarding.”
For Friedman, the show was a chance to give back to the Coast Guard. He grew up on sailboats and has a master captain’s license. He spends much of his free time on the water, and before production had experienced the benefits of Coast Guard assistance. What he didn’t count on, though, was the camaraderie.
He said watched families’ bonds to each other become displaced when they had to move away. He felt something similar moving from filming Coast Guard Florida to Coast Guard Cape Disappointment, where he left friends, met new ones, and even transferred with Coasties from one place to the other.
“Coast Guard life, from my perspective, is not a real easy life,” Friedman said. “It even happened to me. I gained some of the best friendships of my life, and it will be lifelong.”
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.