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They Can’t Teach This in the Classroom

(Choosing the Coast Guard Academy, Class of 2014) Permanent link   All Posts
 Jessie Lukasik If you’re moderately up-to-date with Coast Guard cadet life and the class of 2014, the excitement of 3/c summer assignments has probably long-since reached you. If not, here’s the general summary version: for 12 weeks over the summer, rising 3/c cadets escape the strange, self-contained alternate reality that is the Academy and get out into the fleet. Where exactly you go is somewhat luck-of-the-draw, but it’s the same general formula for everyone – six weeks on Eagle with half of your classmates, and six weeks at a cutter or station with just a few other cadets. The idea is to get us “out there,” to let us see how the operational Coast Guard works outside of school, to get some practical qualifications and field experience, and to, for a few months, fulfill the role of “junior enlisted” members of the service and build our empathy and understanding as future officers.

That’s the long version – that’s what the Academy intends for us over the summer. Most cadets break that down into rather more basic goals:
  • Get out of the Academy
  • Get some “quals”
  • Have a ridiculously good time traveling all over the country and the world
For my part, I seemed to hit the jackpot. For the first half of the summer I was stationed on the USCGC Jarvis, a 378-foot cutter based out of Honolulu, Hawaii. And the sweetest deal with Jarvis: our two-week fisheries patrol started out in Majuro, so immediately after leaving the Academy my travel group hopped on a C-130 to fly out to the Marshall Islands to meet the cutter. Talk about starting the summer off with a bang!

Underway life on Jarvis was fairly typical of a high-endurance cutter – very interesting, but a lot of work. Endless hours of Helm and Lookout watch, DCPQS training, break-in engineering security watch, engineering drawings, two full weeks of TSTA drills – I can’t say all of it was wildly exciting, or anything that I know I’ll use directly in the future, and for the most part, I was chronically exhausted from the long days. However, the “lows” of underway time were certainly well worth they “ups” of our onboard (and ashore!) experiences. From driving a small boat, to participating in deck-gun drills, to interacting with some truly incredible crew members, to having some amazing liberty time in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, Jarvis more than repaid us for our efforts with copious amounts of adventure and fun.

Again, I summarize, but fast-forward a few weeks to mid-June, when summer second phase began. Everyone out in the fleet and everyone on Eagle did a quick switcheroo: first phase had sailed Eagle across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland, Germany, and finally to England, where second phase was to pick it up. So, after departing Hawaii, within 36 hours I’d flown from Honolulu, to Louisiana, to Washington D.C., back to the Academy, to Boston, all the way over to London with 120 of my classmates to pick up our famous tall ship. And that was only half a summer’s worth of travels…

Eagle took second phase from London, to Iceland, up across the Arctic Circle, to Nova Scotia, back home to Boston, from which point our class was granted leave. Of course that started with a bit of a hitch – the day before we were supposed to depart from London, our gyrocompass up and died, and while we can navigate without it, we can’t leave port without it. So, as chance would have it, instead of having a three-day London port call, we were gifted with an 11-day London port call. Oh darn that luck!

Eagle underway life ended up being distinctly different than real underway life – when people call it a “floating Academy,” they aren’t being entirely sarcastic. The workday functions much like the Academy routine does, with a few hectic little hitches thrown in throughout the day (“Sail stations, sail stations, all hands to sail stations!”) You stand watch. You go to trainings. Your uniforms and berthing areas get inspected. You go to muster. Often times cadets are much less enthused about Eagle life than about their cutter experience because you work very, very long, hard hours, and it often feels like you’re under constant scrutiny and supervision.

Still, I think that perspective can be chocked up more to young adults’ general tendency to be “jaded” than it is a good evaluation of Eagle life. Truly, sailing a tall ship (our “pirate ship,” as we lovingly called it) across the ocean is to die for. Some of the sights – the view of the sea from the top of the mast, the mountain-ringed bay of the port of Reykjavik, sea ice and the never-ending sun in the Arctic Circle – can’t be seen anywhere else, in any other way. The things you learn – how to handle lines, and climb the rigging, and navigate by celestial bodies – they don’t teach anywhere else. The experiences, good and bad – standing on bow lookout in rough seas late at night, with only another classmate to rely on; sitting on the mess deck at 0330 with your division, falling apart in giggle-fits because you just got off the midwatch; that kind of stuff – you can’t get anywhere else. You certainly don’t learn those sorts of things in the classroom.

When I look back on my summer, even in just a couple months’ worth of retrospect, all the not-so-fun times fade in comparison to all the amazing things I got to do and see. I ran through the Hawaiian mountains; I hiked an Icelandic mountain; I saw London and Halifax; I snorkeled and beach-basked in Waikiki; I learned the engine room of a 378 and Eagle, steered both through all sorts of crazy, gorgeous, and peaceful weather conditions alike; I climbed a mast, drove a small boat, bonded with my classmates, met new people, and challenged myself in incredible new ways.

I’d say that makes a pretty good summer.

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