Graveyard shift - Issue 163 - Magazine | Monocle
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Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité,” says a member of the US Coast Guard in Ilwaco, Washington, as he leans into the microphone in front of him to read a weather forecast on the Columbia River Bar. “This is Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment…”

Mariners tune in to this broadcast every day as they navigate what is known as “the Graveyard of the Pacific”, a perilous stretch of water at the mouth of the Columbia river on which there have been about 2,000 shipwrecks since 1792. Crossing the passage is always risky but it is often necessary. Draining a watershed that is about the size of France, the Columbia generates billions of dollars in trade, making it the largest, most commercially significant river in the Americas to reach the Pacific. 

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Suited up
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Training with the US Coast Guard
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Sharp compass skills

Yet its size and convenient location are also what make it so dangerous. “The energy created when [the ocean meets the river] is deadly,” boatswain’s mate Petty Officer First Class William True tells monocle. US Coast Guard rescuers stationed nearby must be prepared to respond within minutes if a mariner radios mayday.

True is a surfman, the Coast Guard’s highest qualification for boat drivers, operating 14-metre-long lifeboats that can handle gale-force winds and six-metre-high breaking waves. If they capsize, they can self-right in less than 10 seconds. Fortunately, that outcome seems unlikely as I stuff myself into anti-exposure coveralls for a training mission. 

In a sheltered bay, two grey boats are waiting for us. True heads out on the first, where he will instruct a coxswain-in-training. I board the second, which will play the role of a vessel in distress. “One hand for yourself and one on the boat at all times,” says boatswain’s mate Petty Officer Second Class Derek Samuelson.

“Though the conditions are mild out here today, you have to train as though there’s a 20ft wave waiting to take you out”

Today rain is falling steadily from a cloudy sky. The temperature is 5c but the wind-chill is below freezing. Samuelson compares the sensation of rain, wind and sea spray on his skin to acupuncture. “Though the conditions are mild out here today, you have to train as though there’s a 20ft [6-metre] wave waiting to take you out,” he says. When our companion boat manoeuvres into position, I station myself on the bow and catch a heaving line thrown by our rescuers. Despite all the ginger chews that I’ve consumed, I retreat to the co-pilot’s chair in a queasy heap after a short spell on the bow.

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Roping in experience
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Boatswain's Mate Second Class Derek Samuelson

As we head back to base, Samuelson lets me take the helm and I steer the boat towards the port. “The design of this boat revolutionised the way that the US Coast Guard drives in the surf,” he says of our vessel, built by New Orleans-based Textron Marine. “The coxswain has to be athletic on the helm and throttle.” Samuelson compares this skill to ballet. As in dance, co-ordination and the ability to predict what’s coming next are crucial. 

My navigation back to port is decidedly choppy but boatswain’s mate Petty Officer First Class Brian Fuller assures me that it all comes with practice. In his time working for the US Coast Guard, he says, he has never shied away from difficulty. “We’re following in the footsteps of the US Lifesaving Service, one of our predecessors. This is a field where you are expected to challenge yourself.”

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