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Weathering the Storm

Stefanie Senkow
March 4, 2021

NCAANEW LONDON, Conn. – It was December 28, 2012, and little did LTJG Zach Ballard know what he was in for. As the Officer of the Deck aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter ALEX HALEY, he didn’t realize that his next mission would result in 18 lives saved in the midst of fierce hurricane force weather as the crew aided in the rescue of oil rig KULLUK off the Alaskan coast.

What was your initial reaction when you saw this mission?

I was nervous and excited. Nervous because this was the heaviest weather I’d been out underway in (started as 25 foot seas and 30 knot winds). Excited because a mission like this was what we’d all signed up for and sacrificed so much to do. I’d also only been out of the Academy for about a year and a half, so it was great getting to be a part of something with such a positive impact, so quickly after graduating.

What was the biggest pressure you faced and how did you deal with it?

Probably just standing the watch in such heavy seas and keeping us on track to get on scene as soon as possible. Every time our bow came down into the seas, the entire forecastle (the raised deck at the bow of a ship) was covered with green water and we looked like a submarine. You had to be really careful as the Officer of the Deck with the Helmsman to ensure we didn’t get turned beam to the seas or we would heel significantly (and dangerously) to one side or the other. We had the weather decks secured and no one was allowed to go outside for fear of getting washed overboard.

What did you learn about teamwork from this mission?

How important every member of the team is and how vital it is to have “bench strength” at a unit for extended high stress operations such as these. After standing a watch on the bridge in the conditions we were in, you were completely exhausted. You would barely stumble back down below and strap yourself down in your rack to get some sleep until your next watch. Without the team working together and sacrificing for each other, we never would have made it through the duration of the storm like we did.

What did you learn about yourself as an officer through this mission?

What I’m really capable of. Until situations like these where you’re pushed to extremes, you aren’t really sure how far you could go or what you could withstand. But after coming out on the other side relatively unscathed, you have much more confidence in what you can do should another very challenging situation arise.

LT Zach Ballard, P.E. is now Commanding Officer of USCGC NEAH BAY.

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