Boat Driving Gets Tactical in New London

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Annie R. Berlin

NEW LONDON, Conn.–The sounds of an M240 machine gun shook the walls of the small cabin of a Coast Guard 25-foot response boat before being absorbed by the choppy waters outside.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Elis, a coxswain-in-training, hugs a sharp turn in the boat.

“There he goes, now he’s got it,” said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Keith Basilici as he watches from out of the window while being sprayed by boat’s wash. Basilici is an instructor from the Special Missions Training Command (SMTC) in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

As the boat hugs another sharp 180 degree turn, the sounds of bullets ring out across the water. For these Coast Guardsmen, this scene, reminiscent of a Hollywood action movie, is training for the worst case scenario, such as a waterborne terrorist attack.

Elis, from Coast Guard Station New Haven, is one of 16 Coast Guardsmen from Stations New London, New Haven, Eaton’s Neck and Montauk gathered together on the Thames River to learn tactical boat maneuvering from six expert coxswains from the only military tactical coxswain training school in the country.

The six instructors from the SMTC visited Station New London on Nov. 14-16, 2007, to make sure that these 16 coxswains are ready for the dangerous missions that they are asked to do out on the water. The four units involved in the training routinely conduct high risk ferry and submarine escorts in Long Island Sound. Although search and rescue remains each stations’ primary mission, roughly 60 percent of their work is dedicated to Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security operations.

“Its high speed and high risk maneuvering, that’s what we’re bringing to the table,” said Lt. John Kidwell, the SMTC training officer.

During the intense three day training in New London, the group spent time in the classroom learning how to maneuver a boat safely with a hostile vessel on the water, as well as how to communicate effectively and handle a machine gun while being tossed and turned in a boat.

Once they mastered the situation in the classroom, they headed out on the water to test their skills. In a three-vessel drill, the coxswains took turns practicing boat handling, acting as a boat crewman and firing blanks from the M240 on the bow of the boat while in a hairpin turn.

Among other things, boat handling consists of maintaining control of the boat in relation to wind, seas and current, and knowing how your boat reacts to those dynamic forces. A boat crew member is responsible for line handling, towing operations and is considered the eyes and ears of the vessel, as the coxswain takes the helm.

“Repetition is what it’s all about,” said Basilici, who has been instructing at the SMTC for five years. “We try to base as much of the course on reality as we can.”

The resident training course for tactical coxswains at Camp Lejeune, which normally spans two weeks, is expected to educate an estimated 234 coxswains per year. The course is only able to accommodate 176 students, however, the condensed exportable version allows the instructors to educate many more coxswains across the country, and spend each day of the course out on the water practicing the difficult maneuvers.

“It gives us the opportunity to reach out and touch more people with the training,” said Kidwell.

Aside from learning to handle a machine gun while in a high speed turn, the instructors want to instill in their students the importance of correct decision making in a difficult situation.

“You’ve got to walk before you can sprint,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Tim Abrams, another SMTC instructor. “Doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time is what we’re all about.”

After the intense course in New London, the students are confident. The training was successful.

“The benefit from doing this exportable training was that instead of working in the school’s operational training area, the students were challenged with the restricted maritime environments here, such as bridges and restricted waterways,” said Lt. Andrew Ely, commanding officer of Station New London.

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