Two times the tradition

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SEATTLE — There is an elite group of professionals within the Coast Guard who share an unbreakable bond.

Each one has a name, a number and a story of intense dedication to the communities they serve. In the most treacherous of seas, in the roughest of conditions, each battles the elements to save others.

They call themselves surfmen.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Kevin J. Ziegler, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Quillayute River in La Push, Wash., leads Petty Officer 2nd Class James P. Thrall (middle) and Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary T. Rowan (left) down the beach before awarding them their surfmen checks during a ceremony held in La Push, March 19, 2014. The beach walk is a surfman tradition originally started by the U.S. Life Saving Service. Senior Chief Petty Officer Kevin J. Ziegler, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Quillayute River in La Push, Wash., leads Petty Officer 2nd Class James P. Thrall (middle) and Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary T. Rowan (left) down the beach before awarding them their surfmen checks during a ceremony held in La Push, March 19, 2014.  The beach walk is a surfman tradition originally started by the U.S. Life Saving Service.  U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Station Quillayute River.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Kevin J. Ziegler, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Quillayute River in La Push, Wash., leads Petty Officer 2nd Class James P. Thrall (middle) and Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary T. Rowan (left) down the beach before awarding them their surfmen checks during a ceremony held in La Push, March 19, 2014.  U.S. Coast Guard photo

Last month, they welcomed two new members to the community with a traditional ceremony originally started by the U.S. Life Saving Service.

“Qualifying as a surfman means that the member has the certification and ability to drive in the most extreme conditions a Coast Guard small boat is allowed to operate in,” said Chief Petty Officer James N. Pond, Executive Petty Officer of Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat Station Quillayute River in La Push, Wash. “But one of the keys to certifying a surfman is that they also show the maturity to know their limitations and always make the call that will bring the crew home alive.”

After years of study and training, Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary T. Rowan and Petty Officer 2nd Class James P. Thrall, boatswain’s mates assigned to Station Quillayute River, were both recently awarded their surfman checks in a rare dual ceremony.

Before the days of radios and radar, duty surfmen from neighboring stations would walk the beach and exchange surfman checks with each other to guarantee full coverage of the area before relieving the watch. Surfmen checks are individually numbered metal badges awarded to each Surfman upon his qualification.

Members of Station Quillayute River recreated that tradition by gathering on the beach to celebrate Rowan and Thrall’s achievement. The two new surfmen walked along the coastline, ceremoniously patrolling the water for any signs of distress. They then met their fellow crewmembers, retired surfmen, family and friends to receive their surfman checks, the culmination of countless hours of hard work.

Rowan and Thrall had each been working on their surfman qualification for more than five years. The process is long and tedious. After reporting to Station Quillayute River, each had to qualify as a boatcrew member, coxswain and heavy weather coxswain before working on their surfman qualification.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Kevin J. Ziegler, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Quillayute River in La Push, Wash., pins Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary T. Rowan (left) and Petty Officer 2nd Class James P. Thrall (right) with their surfmen checks during a ceremony held in La Push, March 19, 2014. It is rare for two surfmen to earn their qualification at the same time because the process is long and rigorous. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Station Quillayute River.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Kevin J. Ziegler, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Quillayute River in La Push, Wash., pins Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary T. Rowan (left) and Petty Officer 2nd Class James P. Thrall (right) with their surfmen checks during a ceremony held in La Push, March 19, 2014. . U.S. Coast Guard photo.

For many, the title of surfman runs in the family.

Rowan’s father was stationed at Station Quillayute River as a surfman when Rowan was five years old. He didn’t always want to follow in his father’s footsteps, but was drawn to the Coast Guard and the surfman community after attending college.

Thrall didn’t have the same family history of service, but he was no stranger to the seas growing up in Gig Harbor, Wash.

“I grew up on the water driving boats as a little kid,” said Thrall. “I knew it’s always what I wanted to do.”

Years of hard work paid off for Rowan and Thrall, who both passed their final check rides and qualified as surfmen on March 17, 2014.

“It’s awesome to get qualified together,” said Rowan. “We’ve been breaking-in together, so it only fits. It builds comradery because we struggled with the same stuff.”

Rowan and Thrall were the first surfmen to be recognized in a dual ceremony at Station Quillayute River since 2011.

“They both have matured as individuals and come to form quite a team,” said Pond. “They’ve looked out for each other as part of this process by keeping each other in the loop on incoming weather, operational changes at the unit and lessons learned that each other will benefit from. In turn, by working together as a team they are better boatswain’s mates, duty section leaders and now surfmen.”

As the sun sets on Station Quillayute River, mariners can sail with peace of mind knowing that Surfman No. 494 and Surfman No. 495 are faithfully standing the watch.

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