Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay, fighting against the fog

Coast Guard District 11 NewsMCKINLEYVILLE, Calif – Capt. Salvatore Palmeri believes in training the way you fight, and constant training in challenging environments is exactly what the aviators and boat crews of Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay do on a regular basis.

In 2010, Air Station Humboldt Bay, racked up more than 1,300 training hours, accounting for more than half of their entire flight time, said Palmeri.

Palmeri has been in the Coast Guard for 36 years and is the commanding officer of Group/Air Station Humboldt Bay. He said the Northern California environment, which Coast Guard pilots, boat drivers, aids to navigation team, and pollution investigators operate in, is remote, rugged and plagued with heavy weather.

Dense fog blankets the coast during the summer months and winter brings strong winds and extreme seas. The result is a normal operating environment of reduced visibility and hazardous conditions, which according to Palmeri, breeds excellence.

“The conditions here force you to improve your proficiencies, and the more you train the more confident you become,” said Palmeri. “We have some of the finest boat drivers and pilots in the country stationed here.”

When aviators and boat drivers aren’t training, they’re rescuing. In 2010 the Group accumulated more than 290 search and rescue cases, saving 24 lives and helping more than 500 others in distress.

Palmeri recalled one particularly challenging rescue case he flew on a few years ago. The air crew was called on to save sailors from a stranded sailboat in 20-foot seas. A rescue swimmer had dove into the rough waters to coax the sailors out of the boat because it was too rough to hoist from the sailing vessel.

“It was safer to hoist from the sea because the rigging on the boat was ready to swat the helicopter out of the sky like a fly,” said Palmeri.

There is a memorial on the grounds of the Group/Air Station Humboldt Bay that serves is a tribute to Coast Guard aviators that have died responding to distress calls and is a reminder as just how unforgiving this area can be.

“You have to be on your A-Game when you operate around here,” said Palmeri.

Additionally, the crews of Group Humboldt Bay are often called on to help local agencies with inland rescues. Palmeri said that significant number the air station’s cases comes from plucking distressed hikers and loggers from steep, rocky cliffs.

Group Humboldt Bay is one of two remaining groups in the Coast Guard. It has an air station, two 87-foot coastal patrol boats – the Cutter Dorado, homeported in Crescent City, Calif., and the Cutter Barracuda, homeported in Eureka, Calif. The group also oversees two surf stations: Station Humboldt Bay, in Humboldt Bay, Calif., and Station Noyo River in Fort Bragg, Calif.

Working under the auspices of Sector San Francisco, Group Humboldt is also home to a small marine safety detachment staffed by two pollution responders. The MSD investigates maritime spills and is the first line of Coast Guard pollution response for Northern California. They were among the first responders on scene after the tsunami devastated Crescent City Harbor.

Humboldt, despite its dreary days, is beautiful. The county is home to snowcapped mountains and redwood forests. The remote location promotes outdoor sports and helps nurture crew camaraderie. Crews are welcomed by friendly locals who appreciate the Coast Guard’s work.

“Just today a man in a coffee shop bought one of my chiefs a cup of coffee. That kind of thing happens a lot around here,” said Palmeri.

Humboldt Bay is a place for Coast Guard operators to do what they do best: save lives. They are among the best because they train through the worst. They fly helicopters through dense fog, maneuver boats into rough, boiling seas, and respond to pollution threats in some of the most remote and dangerous spots in Northern California.

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