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Third Class Summer Station Search and Rescue Case

(The Cadet Experience, Class of 2024) Permanent link
Junna Castel

My experience at Station South Portland this summer was life changing. Not only did I meet some of the amazing, enlisted members who are at the core of the Coast Guard, but I also learned what it means to be part of this organization. I will never forget what it was like going on a Search and Rescue mission summer of 2021 and contributing to the life-saving mission of the Coast Guard.

One evening, us cadets, and the crew were preparing to go underway on a “Sunset cruise” in honor of a Boatswain’s Mate being transferred this summer, but as we were boarding the 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, the radio crackled to life and called for Coast Guard stations to be on the lookout for a Kayaker in the local area. Moments later, the Watch office called and confirmed that the Kayaker was in Station South Portland’s area of responsibility, and the lighthearted mood turned serious as we motored out of the boathouse.

As we surged out of the harbor that evening, the waves were between 4-6 feet, and as we crossed a strip of reef, the waves swelled up and became choppier. Water splashed against the metal of the hull spraying sea water all over the open bridge where the crew was clustered holding tight against the bucking of the boat. At the same time, the wind blew into our faces sending the droplets of water all over our mustangs, orange heavy weather body suits we wore to protect ourselves from the cold and the water. We cut through one wave, then rocked down the next; some waves were gentle swells while others towered next to the boat. One moment we rode up a wave and then the next moment we smacked back down sending shock waves through the metal of the boat and threatening to loosen our grip from the now wet metal railings we clung to dearly. Water sprayed, and soaked us, leaving salt crystals on our faces as we braced for each impending wave. At the same time, the intense rocking made some crew members nauseous and one of them descended the ladder to the bridge to hang over the side of the boat and vomit. After a particularly tooth-jarring wave, one of the crew members went below deck and retrieved the heavy-weather belts that we strapped on and clipped into the rings scattered throughout the boat.

Thoughts raced through my head this entire time. Up until this moment, I had not truly realized what the oath of service meant until I was clinging to wet railings barreling through rough seas on a SAR (Search and Rescue) case. I realized how real the Coast Guard’s mission really is, witnessing Coast Guardsmen run through movements that they trained years for to save lives of people caught in the jaws of the unpredictable seas.

After receiving more information from the watch office back at station, one of the Boatswain’s Mates hollered over the deafening winds and rumbling motor, “We are looking for a white guy, wearing a white shirt and life jacket in a blue kayak. Keep your eyes peeled as we get closer to his last known position.” We signaled that we understood and began scanning the expansive waves before us for anything that might resemble the description given. It was difficult as the sun was beginning to set, and the waves remained wild and choppy. We scanned the water in different directions, eye briskly scanning our surroundings finding nothing so far.

Then, the other Boatswain’s Mate slowed the boat down to quiet the motor because we were being connected to the individual in the kayak’s phone number to help in the rescue effort. The kayaker was miraculously able to hold onto his phone while battling harsh waves and able to get enough cell service to call the dispatcher who then transferred the call to the Coast Guard. The kayaker said that we had shot right past him, and that he was at 3 o’clock from the boat. The driver whipped the boat around and headed in that direction and finally after 45 minutes of battling through waves, he yelled, “I have a visual!”

Some distance from us was the blue kayak with the individual frantically paddling for control of his kayak among the large waves as we shot towards him. At this moment, 2 crew members descended from the bridge, and while being violently flung around, made their way to the recess of the boat, positioning themselves to retrieve the guy from the water. We approached the kayaker and among the undulating waves, the two crew members reached out to the kayaker’s trembling paddle, grasping the tip, and pulled him towards the boat. They then grasped the individual tightly and pulled him into the vessel accidentally bumping the kayaker’s head on the boat to bring him on safely. At that moment, the guy bear-hugged the crew member who had brought him onboard and started sobbing into his arms as he was finally out of the water, safe from the surging waves.

We moved quickly after that, one of the cadets going into the boat to grab blankets and pillows for the guy while the crew members moved him to the survivor’s compartment where they checked his vitals and monitored him for shock. Also, another crew member, the other cadet and I retrieved the paddle and the kayak from the churning water securing everything onboard the vessel. Afterwards, we met up with a smaller vessel with Maine Marine patrol headed to the EMS on shore and transferred the kayaker.

Before the individual left however, he said something like, “You guys genuinely saved my life. If you had not been there, I might not have made it out alive.” We went into rough seas with one purpose in mind, rescuing this individual who got swept out to sea, getting to him before the elements did. From this crazy experience, I learned that despite the many times I have been told that the Coast Guard is a life-saving service, or despite the many times people have expressed pride for the many humbling deeds of the Coast Guard, this SAR case made it real for me. The Coast Guard saves lives, other vessels, protects the environment, and trade. People live for this -- being a Coastie is for life. Whether members of this service serve 4 or 5 years and decide that they have served their time, or they decide to make a life-long career out of it, people I have talked to say they would do it all again in a heartbeat. That is the power of the camaraderie of the Coast Guard, the power of their mission.

Shout out to all the enlisted members at Station South Portland! This summer was a valuable training experience and one of the most memorable summer experiences of my life! To all, Fair Winds and Following Seas (cheesy, sorry 😊)!