The Lifeboat Crewman

By Petty Officer Jeff Pollinger

If you’re a regular boater on the Great Lakes or along the nation’s coasts, you’ve probably seen Coast Guard crews plying through the waters on a 47-foot motor lifeboat. The aluminum, gray-hulled lifeboat has been the primary vessel for search and rescue operations for more than 10 years.

The 1.2 million-dollar self-righting boats can travel faster than 25 knots and endure 30-foot seas.

Becoming a coxswain or surfman aboard one of these reliable lifeboats can take years of training and experience. But before you can be a coxswain or surfman, you have to qualify as a crewman.

Many people often refer to crewman as deck hands or line handlers, but crewmen have more responsibilities than just handling lines.

The 47 normally has four Coast Guardsmen aboard – the coxswain, engineer and two crew members. The coxswain and engineer are usually at the control station on the open bridge operating the boat and monitoring the boat’s systems. The crewman are responsible for everything else.

At most small boat stations, the crewmen are the most junior personnel. Most report to the station immediately after graduating boot camp, so they have little experience – but they will quickly learn the tools of the trade.

The break-ins will spend months training before becoming a qualified crewman.

“It takes about four to six months to become boat-crew qualified” said Master Chief Fred Bowman, officer in charge at Station Siuslaw River, Ore.

In addition to basic seamanship, members must become certified in CPR and basic first-aid, know how to navigate the boat, make a recovery of a person in the water, operate the boat, fire-fighting procedures and know how the vessel’s electrical and mechanical systems work. Some of those skills can be studied away from the boat, but most will be learned while underway.

While underway, crewmen, whether they’re qualified or not, face many hazards on the boat.

“There’s a number of hazards aboard the forty-seven. One of the biggest is getting your hands caught in the lines or in a bit,” Bowman said

Lines under tension can cause serious injuries when not tended properly by the crewman. This is especially true during towing exercises.

Other dangers include operating in heavy surf. While every member of the crew is tethered to the boat during rough seas, crewmen have been thrown against bulkheads or rigging, resulting in broken bones or serious bruising.

In addition to the dangers of the job, crewmen working the decks during rough seas or weather quickly learn that they won’t stay dry.

“If they are out there in heavy seas or weather, they’re going to be dreanched,” Bowman said.

“They earn their pay for that,” he added.

The qualification process can seem to take forever for some break-ins.

After months of training and countless hours underway, the break-in crewman must take a check-ride before becoming qualified. While underway during the check-ride, the break-in must demonstrate that they can proficiently perform the duties expected of qualified crewmembers.

Once the candidate passes the check-ride, they must appear before a board of their qualified peers to demonstrate that they have the knowledge required to become a qualified crewman. Members of the board ask the candidate a number of questions ranging from the technical specifications of the boat to the locations of navigational aids in the unit’s area of responsibility, just to name a few.

The day that a break-in becomes a fully qualified crewman is a day most members at small boat stations will remember for the rest of their careers. It also marks the day that the crewman will be able to concentrate on the mission – helping people in need.

Seaman Daniel Naylor, a qualified crewman at Station Yaquina Bay, Ore., agrees.

“It was a good day when I became qualified because then I knew I could go out on a search-and-rescue case,” he said.

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