Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Ouellette was fresh out of boot camp in July 2007 when he was assigned to Station Grays Harbor. He arrived at his first Coast Guard unit ready to learn. Fast forward to today and Ouellette has more than just learned; he has mastered. Ouellette has earned the title of Coast Guard surfman No. 473. Along with his title of surfman, he has also earned the unofficial title of “seaman to surfman” at Grays Harbor – meaning he arrived at the unit a seaman and will be leaving a surfman. Station Grays Harbor in Westport, Wash., guards the Grays Harbor bar, one of the most treacherous bars in the Pacific Northwest. Perilous surf and uncertain seas are a way of life at the station. These tumultuous waters represent both the history and future of the Coast Guard as surfmen of today continue saving lives in the finest of traditions.
Throughout their 44-year history, the U.S. Life-Saving Service is credited with saving more than 178,000 people, and the mainstay of the service was the surfman – boat handlers who crewed lifeboats and performed daring and often amazing rescues. The U.S. Life-Saving Service passed on its legacy of lifesaving – and it’s surfmen – to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. Today, surfmen are the Coast Guard’s elite boat coxswains. When a member earns the privilege of wearing the surfman’s insignia, it represents the highest level of boat operations experience and immense responsibility surfmen undertake in the performance of their duties. Surfmen are the only coxswains qualified to operate rescue boats in breaking surf conditions. Surf – specifically in the Pacific Northwest – is both unpredictable and treacherous and requires the utmost boat driving skill and mastery. Of the 188 boat stations currently in the Coast Guard, 20 stations are located in areas with surf conditions requiring surfmen. With the enormous amount of skill and responsibility required, training for the surfman qualification is demanding and can take years. In fact, only one out of every 25 boatswain’s mates will achieve the qualification. The last surfman certified at Station Grays Harbor was in March 2011, joining five total at the station.
While Ouellette knows this is a remarkable achievement, he is also humbled, alongside others in the surf community, by their predecessor lifesavers. As an ode to their past, surfmen receive “checks.” Ouellette was assigned surfman “check” 437, a symbolic gesture dating back to beach patrols of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Each surfman with the service was assigned a period of time, usually 2 to 4 hours long, and a direction to walk up the beach. They were required to go halfway between their station and the next – stations were generally seven miles apart – where they turned a time-clock with a special key or exchanged a “patrol check” with a surfman from the other station. The check was then shown to the keeper as proof that they had completed their patrol. There won’t be a keeper to follow up on Ouellette’s patrols. But he won’t need one. He knows every day he sets out in Grays Harbor he enters the unknown. The waters of the Pacific Northwest will challenge his leadership, skill and tenacity. Throughout their careers, surfmen often prove to be among the service’s most outstanding leaders. Ouellette’s achievement – from seaman to surfman at his very first unit – epitomizes devotion to duty and is in keeping with the finest traditions of his life-saving craft.