Catching Waves

Coast Guard Surfman BadgePetty Officer 1st Class James Corbisiero, a boatswain’s mate aboard Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light, N.J., was relaxing after work when his cell phone rang.

Unexpectedly, on the other line was Rear Adm. William “Dean” Lee, commander of the Coast Guard’s 5th District. He was calling to congratulate and thank the petty officer for his pride in service, calling him the functional equivalent to a top gun for the boat forces community.

Earlier in the day, in a ceremony lasting only minutes, Corbisiero achieved one of the highest honors for a Coast Guard boatswain’s mate, the designation of Coast Guard surfman. He stood proudly while the station’s executive petty officer pinned the insignia, a life ring crossed with two oars, to his uniform. It was the culmination of years of training.

There are now six qualified surfmen standing the watch on the Long Beach Island, N.J., coast who all share the same goal, to save lives.

Within this goal, boatswain’s mates have a special tie to the Coast Guard’s life-saving heritage, and the surfman legacy at Station Barnegat Light lies deep in the roots of the Coast Guard’s family tree.

It was in the mid-1800s when Long Beach Island, N.J., became notorious for the dangers associated with crossing into Barnegat Bay, the most northern tip of Long Beach Island. The inlet and the bay’s rough water conditions were responsible for the wreckage of 122 vessels in only two years.

To try and minimize offshore causalities, the U.S. Life Saving Service was founded in 1872 and comprised of gallant men who would launch their boats from the beach into the surf and save people from troubled vessels; this is where life-savers became valued surfmen.

“I wanted to become a surfman to keep the tradition alive,” said Corbisiero. “I knew it would be hard work, but I was determined and being a surfman is a great honor.”

To hold this honor requires drudgery. Driving a boat and leading a crew into the surf is a hard job requiring patience, humility and a strong sense of personal leadership and followership skills, said Chief Petty Officer Paul Ashley, the station’s executive petty officer and surfman.

Like a well-kept secret, the responsibilities demanded of surfmen are mostly unknown.

“We do not bask in the glory rescue swimmers have rightfully earned over the years. There is no marketing and advertisement with flashy helicopters or motion pictures,” said Ashley. “Our work is simply more humble; people just do not know what we do.”

So what do they do? While others find shelter during stormy weather, a surfman and his crew are readying their life boat and donning their life jackets. When violent waves leave people stranded on disabled boats, a surfman and his crew are launching to rescue them.

Despite peril of the ocean’s waves, Ashley said he is never scared. He is always cautious with an intense gut intuition reminding him anything can happen at any time, in any condition.

“I’ll be scared for myself the day that feeling subsides,” he said.

Though, it seems unlikely the feeling will subside. People who drive boats in heavy surf have a different mentality than most people do: their actions prove them to be selflessly brave.

Bravery is not the only attribute required to become a surfman. Only the most qualified small boat drivers can work to earn the responsibility of being a surfman and of those only about 1 in 25 will achieve the honor. The job requires the 47-foot Motor Life Boat driver and his crew to get underway in the most treacherous weather and get though the breaking surf.

“It’s called wave avoidance,” said Corbisiero, “but really it is a lot of science. We have to anticipate how and when a wave will break, and know how we are going to get over it. My life revolves around the weather.”

When the weather is bad, surfmen have no choice but to be at their best. Barnegat Light faces significant challenges because of dramatic variability in the weather. For a unit to be recognized as a surf station the breaking surf must average waves higher than eight feet, for a minimum of 36 days a year.

“Some years we have 50 trainable days, others it may only be 15. Elsewhere, each of the Coast Guard surf stations has a different bar, with different environmental conditions. A unit’s challenge is to train, qualify and certify their prospective surfmen,” said Ashley.

There are 20 surf stations scattered within the Coast Guard’s nearly 200 small boat stations. Of the 20, only five are located on the country’s East Coast.

Because of the scarcity of surfmen in the Coast Guard, there are about 160 surfman among the more than 42,000 active duty Coast Guardsmen, and the remote locations of the surf stations, the six surfmen at Station Barnegat Light are a rare commodity for the people who live and vacation in the area. Their bravery, leadership and commitment to service help ensure the well-being of everyone.

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