Chute-ing for safety

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith

On a cold, quiet Saturday morning in February, Coast Guard crews from seven different units throughout Maine, descended on the Snow Bowl for a two-day, national competition where more than 1,000 people competed for the fastest time down a steep, narrow, icy chute.

The 19th annual U.S. National Toboggan Championship in Camden, Maine, is the only wooden toboggan race in America. This year, more than 300 teams from across the country launched themselves down the man-made chute that was originally constructed in 1936, and then re-built 18 years later with help from local Coast Guardsmen.

“Coast Guard crews in the area have worked to uphold that tradition by staying involved with the event each year,” said Chief Petty Officer John Anders, the officer in charge of Coast Guard Cutter Bridle from Rockland, Maine.

The wooden, ice covered chute drops 70-feet in elevation over a distance of 400-feet, propelling competitors to speeds nearing 40 miles per hour as they race toward the finish line in less than 10 seconds and slide across a frozen pond.

For some Coast Guardsmen this was the first time they experienced the rush of piling onto a tiny wooden toboggan, no wider than 18 inches, and hurling down the chute in hopes of beasting the fastest time.

Seaman Brittney Anderson, along with her three teammates on Coastie Express, from Coast Guard Station Jonesport, participated in the competition this year for the first time.

“(Waiting in line) was pretty nerve wracking, because of the way you’re launched down the chute,” said Anderson.

The toboggan crews lined up in droves at the launch platform at the top of the hill. One by one, the teams are pushed to the starting line by members of the chute crew.

After safety observers give the all clear, the toboggan team throws their weight forward, launching the sled and the team down the hill.

Most toboggan crews reach speeds close to 40 miles per hour, Anderson said.

“It feels a lot faster and longer than nine seconds,” she said. “It was a lot of fun.”

For other Coast Guardsmen, participation in the event has become an annual tradition.

Anders said he has attended the Toboggan Nationals since 2001. He said the event provides a chance for the crew to break up the monotony of winter.

Anders said the toboggan race is an opportunity for crews from different Coast Guard units in New England to build relationships and morale while taking an active role in a community event.

Coast Guard crews not only participated in the toboggan competition, but also served as safety observers for the event. Recognizing the need for an organized critical incident response system, event organizers looked to the Incident Command System.

ICS is a standardized, scalable command structure that is often used in multi-agency emergency response to streamline communication and operations.

“The Coast Guard is an integral safety complement to the event,” said Ray Sisk, the lead safety officer for the event and the Director of County Emergency Management for Knox County. “They are an outside organization that is tuned in to risk management.”

Following a few minor incidents at the event in 2007, the National Toboggan Committee decided that a formal emergency response structure needed to be implemented in case of a major incident.

It was a good thing that the committee decided to start using an organized response structure, because in 2008, the event encountered its first major mishap on the chute course.

Despite preparation and risk management assessments that year, a four-man toboggan was launched inadvertently from the top of the chute, resulting in a collision with another four-man team that sent several participants to the hospital, Sisk.

“Everything (the emergency response) went as well as can be expected,” Sisk said, reflecting on the first major mishap in the event in the event’s 19-year history.

While safety is always at the forefront of the minds of the event organizers and Coast Guard volunteers and participants, the Toboggan Nationals ultimately provides an opportunity for the community to come together for a weekend of high-speed fun in the snow.

“It’s more than just toboggans,” Anders said. “It’s camaraderie.”

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