By PA1 Nate Littlejohn
Coast Guard damage controlmen fix stuff.
They’re jacks of all trades.
These understatements and generalizations typically serve as insults to every salty damage control sailor in the Coast Guard fleet. Damage controlmen are experts in shipboard emergency systems and procedure. They are professional plumbers, welders, fire fighters and first responders to a host of potential shipboard crisis. DCs call upon a precision skill set and concoct crafty solutions to difficult problems and are disciplined, with the ability to think quickly and outside the box.
Petty Officer 2ndClass Stefan Toren, a damage controlman aboard Coast Guard Cutter Stratton, came to recognize these facts during his first patrol aboard Stratton in 2016.
“A few patrols back, the engine bay doors on the cutter’s small boat got smashed in after a swell crashed over our stern,” said Toren. “We had to pry the doors open, remove them, and cut them in a few spots. Next, we bent them back into shape as close as possible to their original form, then welded everything back into place. This required bending the frame of the boat back into shape as much as possible so we could put the doors back on.”
Without this fix, Stratton’s small boat would not be useable. Chasing down and stopping drug runners on the open ocean doesn’t happen without a small boat.
“Four or five times, I’ve rewelded spool pipes for the air conditioning systems which are notorious for corrosion, using Tungsten and inert gas welding on copper nickel,” said Toren.
That air conditioning comes in handy when the crew is working counter drug operations off the Pacific Coast of Central America and battling temperatures in the mid 90s.
Now on his seventh patrol aboard Stratton, Toren has developed a creative and improvisational mindset grounded in fundamental damage control concepts. As a petty officer 2nd class, he’s helped resolve a host of potentially mission-halting problems aboard the cutter. He’s part of a damage control team that keeps Stratton operating, using whatever appropriate resources they have aboard.
Stratton’s crew left on a 6-month deployment to the Indo-Pacific in June 2019. As Stratton steamed toward Honolulu last June, just a few days after departing their homeport in Alameda, California, the salt water cooling system for the ship’s reduction gear failed. The reduction gear slows the ship’s propeller, similar to the transmission in a car, and it was not a problem that could wait.
“Once the problem was brought to my attention, I recognized this would be an excellent opportunity for Toren,” said Chief Petty Officer Sean Stone, Toren’s supervisor aboard Stratton.
Stone isolated the problem and had the reduction gear salt water piping sitting on a table in the DC shop before waking Toren at 1:30 a.m. to address it.
After cleaning the pipe and testing the surrounding area for weaknesses and thin spots, Toren decided on the size of patch he’d have to make to fix the problem. After fabricating the patch out of another piece of scrap pipe, he hammered it to shape, fitted it to the pipe and prepared his welding machine. Within an hour, he plug-welded the inside of the pipe to prevent turbulence and welded the perimeter of the patch to secure it and to prevent further leaking.
Aside from shipboard problems, DCs are also called upon to solve problems on a more personal level.
“At the end of the day when my worklist is complete and official duties are done, sometimes there are things I can do to make the quality of life for one of my shipmates a little more comfortable,” said Toren. “Often it’s something as simple as fixing somebody’s cabinet or locker that gives me the most satisfaction on a given day. I like to be able to help people directly. When I can see how happy it makes them, that’s what I like most about my job.”
If Stratton’s damage control members are “jacks of all damage control trades,” they’ve certainly mastered one that stands out.
They’re enthusiastic educators. Patiently and passionately sharing their expertise about the ship’s emergency systems, they are elite teachers of survival and damage control at sea.
Toren recently seized an especially unique opportunity to educate members of the Philippine Navy aboard their ship BRP Andres Bonifacio (FF-17), formerly known as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell (WHEC-719). Over the course of four days during training exercise Sama Sama in Puerto Princesa, Philippines, Toren and a team of his peers worked with crew members on the Bonifacio, demonstrating proper maintenance techniques for several shipboard systems.
“When we showed up on the first day, none of their pumps were running,” said Toren. “By the end of the fourth day, we had all the pumps running. The Philippine Navy members had a better understanding of how to maintain and fix their equipment, and we had a lot of new friends.”