A Swim in the Park | United States Coast Guard

Words and Photos, by David Pu’u

One of the great aspects of this country, and crux of many of our existences, is the freedom to engage in whatever sort of adventure we can conjure up. For those of us interested in water, we develop our skills and if all goes well, we generally make it home reasonably intact at the end of the day from wherever we range.

But when something goes wrong, our Govt has made provision for someone to be watching, waiting, who will come find us, no matter where we are, no matter how severe ocean or air. In fact, their motto is Semper Paratus. It basically means: “always ready”.  That entity is the United States Coast Guard.

Coast Guard On Duty

I found myself in a wary mindset as the Air Alaska jet lifted off an Arizona runway. Shawn Alladio and I watched the desert recede below us. We are both speed junkies, so found ourselves smiling as we accelerated into the blue morning sky on the last leg of our flight to Portland Oregon.

Astoria

We were enroute to Astoria and our ultimate destination, the USCG Station at Tongue Point. Shawn sometimes invites me along as she engages her job as head of K38 Rescue, a global ocean safety and training organization, which is an internationally recognized specialist in PWC (personal watercraft, aka jet ski) operations.

This week, Shawn was on assignment to work with the USCG STAN Team, which consisted of Five Advanced Rescue Swimmers who were building a course for the USCG on PWC operations, a new direction for the Coast Guard.

I was wary, because I knew we would be working in the Colombia River foul area off Cape Disappointment which is a series of sand bars in open ocean. I also had seen the film The Guardian, which was shot where we were going, and which documented the life and death of one of the best Advanced Rescue Swimmers ever.  Then there are the countless videos of Rescue Boat training I have watched, which were filmed there.

The Bar is an infamous and legendary training ground for the CG. It would be cold,  have weather,  and the conditions would be whatever the Northern Pacific decided. Knowing the ocean. I was thinking about this. The proverbial running into the pit, with the best watermen and operators in the world as they acquired new skills.

Shawn has mentored me well over the years. My deep understanding of the ocean and skill in it were morphing as age is want to do to one.  And here I was, seated alongside a woman who would be supervising the elite of our country’s rescue personnel. I guess that is why I would call this an adventure: some unknowns existed, and conditions could be anything.

As the leaden grey sky dropped a persistent light rain on us, I nosed our Dodge Caliber rental into the parking lot of our home for the week, a cozy little hotel which lay in the shadow of the Astoria-Megler Bridge. We organized our gear, Shawn made some calls and we readied ourselves for the week ahead.  Days end saw us seated in a restaurant at waters edge experiencing some of the hospitality and seafood Astoria is known for. Pretty nice, comforting thing to do, as one gets set, for who knows what.

The next day, rolling out early, we had a quick breakfast adjacent to our place and rolled over to Tongue Point Station where the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School (Formerly known as Advanced Rescue Swimmer School) was located. Air temp was 49 degrees. Water temp was 49 degrees. Partly cloudy skies. Light intermittent rain. It was actually a nice day for Astoria in the Winter. 

The way K38 structures it’s courses, is in a basic paramilitary manner. Day one is classroom, then in the ensuing days, skills and tests are layered on till at the end, you are done, having examined the limits of your newly acquired and existing skills. This would be interesting because all of these men, tenured officers and operatives, had extreme skill levels and were instructors.

The Stan team consisted of supervising Chief, Ensign Beaudry and team members Scott Rady, Eric Bednorz, Matt High, Dustin Skarra, and Blain Elkins. They were selected for this specifically, due to their skills and personal aptitude.

That first day, in the Rescue Swimmers classroom, I scoured the walls, which were covered with images and notes from the graduates of the school.  A couple things I noticed in a lot of the images: rescue swimmers wear an orange dry suit, and they dislike sharks. Many of the images had humorous references to the Great Whites, which were known to ply the waters of the Bar. I get gallows humor. I also understand sharks. The good natured humor of our guys, made the long day of study pass rapidly. I have been in a lot of courses taught by Shawn. I always enjoy seeing her get a grip on the psychology and physical ability of each participant and watch her subtly begin the team formation process.

USCG K 38 Rescue boat operator class

She and I had recently done some work together with the 1st Recon Division of the USMC. Those guys reminded me of tough, high horsepower trucks. By the end of the day, and hearing what each of our team had been trained in, I recognized the massive investment the Govt had made in these men. They reminded me of Stealth fighter jets.

As the week proceeded, I watched the men acclimate to their boats, two Seadoos.  Each day involved briefing in class, drills and debriefing. By the end of day two, Dustin Skarra was endeavoring to do a deck running drill in his fins and full kit. Shawn let him. To his credit, the guy did it. The deck of a PWC is incredibly narrow and a little tricky to get used to. But afterwards, Shawn explained foot entrapment and injury. 

K 38 training is all about developing an efficient goal oriented mindset and boat skills. When you pass a certification course you become a Rescue Boat Operator. It is your baseline. The degree to which you become skilled, allows for safer and better flow in whatever activity you will utilize a PWC in.

So in spite of the high degree of other training, these five were basically starting from scratch. They were impressive. At dinner that night we all began the big share. Teams are like that. You want to know how everyone ticks.

Day three culminated in beach launch and surf operations on a remote sandbar S of the Jetty. Once again I watched each person do pretty much as they were told (not so easy to do) and the day went smoothly.

Then day four dawned. We launched from the docks of Ilwaco, which is on the Washington side of the river, adjacent to the MLB station, which houses the famed Rescue 48’s the USCG favors. After some pick up drills and practices, an RHIB arrived to tend us. We loaded up.  The Seadoos  and inflatable headed out onto the Bar.

Current on the tide change was approx 8 knots, the buoy we passed on the way out was nearly diagonal to the water at times from the pressure of the flush, and the occasional 8 foot plus wave would break outside of us. Into it we went. Since we had only two PWC’s, we ran three people per boat and worked the drift, motoring back up current and endeavoring to stay in the foul area as best we could.

Shawn was cracking me up, role playing as victim, being the sixth “man” in the 49 degree water, 20 knot offshore wind and breaking seas. I on the other hand, was warm in an overcoat and in fact had not even needed to bring my water gear out, though I think I did have my fins and a wetsuit stashed somewhere.

I would simply grab a hand hold (and a towel) and pay attention, keeping myself and bare camera, dry as possible. At one point Dustin and I were quipping back and forth about the shark thing, as he was next to me on the RHIB, and I mentioned how on point Shawn was. Dustin was getting ready to push off on the PWC, and I think it was his turn to do some tea bagging in the zone, relieving Shawn. “Hey Dustin. It gets better.” “Huh, what?” “That time of the month man”. And with a slight apparent blanch, he was off.

A few moments later I spied him through the lens in the water. A shout from the helmsman to hang on, and I was holding the camera laughing as we bugged out, dodging a breaking set. He was a good operator, our helmsman. I was laughing pretty hard. From his look, I think he doubted my sanity.

The way the USCG always has multiple eyes on you. I knew Chief Beaudry was in the  Cape Disappointment Light Station on the Cliff and that we probably even had a Jayhawk ready to come get us should we require it, in addition to the MLBs.

To me it felt like being in the middle of the safest place one could be. Most people begin their careers in the Guard in their late teens. The guys you meet should you have that fortune, they are seasoned.

As our drill time on the Bar ended, we beat up current and into a vicious wind, back to the docks, and drilled till Sundown. Today was the official last day for the guys. It was pretty late by the time we finished debriefing and cleaning the boats, back at Tongue Point. But it had been a good day.

Day five dawned grey and stormy and the Stan Team had a treat for us. Back to Ilwaco we went, and got to do close observation of cliff rescue drills with Eric and Scott, in the Jayhawk, Matt, Blain and a female operator, were on the cliff with Shawn and I and a rescue dummy.

Below us, Peacock Spit was a mass of 10-12 foot seas breaking everywhere in a roar that was impressive. It was North Coast in all it’s splendor, as the Storm rolled through. We had climbed down the cliff and nestled into a vantage point some 25 yards away from where the Rescue dummy was perched.

Unfortunately we only got to do one pass with Rady on the cable, as the Jayhawk was called away by an EPERB signal. They motored off to investigate. But getting to see what the USCG can do up close, was a gift from our team to Shawn and I.

Scott Rady on the line

That night Chief took us all out to dinner in Astoria. We had a big table.  Our excellent dinner was followed by a tour of the notoriously haunted Elliot hotel, which the CG uses for transient staff.  One word about the basement bar late at night: creepy.

This seemed to be quite an adventure. But when the team motto is Semper Paratus, well, you have a Guardian. And yea, the guys like that film. (I asked.) They said it was pretty accurate. The Rescue Swimmer dies in it. He sacrificed himself for his team.  It is like that. You earn your life, and sometimes maybe, your death. It is why they train.

David Pu’u is an internationally recognized Photographer, Cinematographer and Writer, with experience ranging from news and magazine editorial work, fashion and brand development, to television and feature film production.
 
He holds certification as a Rescue Boat Operator and First Responder via K38 Maritime and AWA, and is trained in Risk Assessment  and Mitigation, in marine environments.
 
He has worked as a creative and advisor in think tank project environments at ARUP, the Sea-Space Initiative, the ongoing Neuroscience Project: Blue Mind, and the Seth Godin based marketing group: Triiibes.

You can contact Mr. Pu’u at:

http://davidpuu.com/blog

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CEO: Oceanohana Inc.  http://www.bettybelts.com
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