The bond that holds them together

Coast Guard District 11 NewsPetty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Merel has been surfing for 23 years. Many of those years he was surfing competitively near his hometown in Oceanside, Calif.

From the ages of nine to 18, Merel was competing in surfing competitions every weekend. He felt a lot of pressure from family, friends and many others to the point of becoming burnt out. He was tired of competing and just wanted to surf.

“I learned how to surf when I was five years old,” said Merel. “When I rode my first wave it was the coolest and most pure feeling in the world. I knew right then, even as a five-year-old, that I was hooked for the rest of my life.”

Merel is a machinery technician at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay. He joined the Coast Guard in part as an outlet to get away from competitive surfing. He needed and wanted to try something new, so he decided to mix two of his interests, mechanical work and water, into one new experience. Now in Bodega Bay he surfs in a whole new way, as a crewmember and engineer at the surf station.

But even here, stress and burnout still comes with the job. With search and rescue being the station’s predominant mission, stress becomes an important factor for Merel and his fellow crewmembers.

Every case is different in Bodega Bay. Every decision made could mean the difference between life and death. This huge responsibility can weigh heavily on crew members, which creates a tremendous amount of stress.

“Being a rescuer is inherently dangerous and therefore very stressful both physically and mentally,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Aaron Bretz, officer in-charge Station Bodega Bay. “The most important job I have as an OINC is to take care of the crew I am entrusted with.”

“Commands can always find a reason to keep somebody around the unit, but we have to balance the needs of our unit with the needs of our people,” said Bretz. “By me granting liberty on time and granting leave as much as possible I show respect to my shipmates.”

Whether on duty, liberty or leave Coast Guardsmen know they represent the Coast Guard in and out of uniform. This is especially true in small communities like Bodega Bay where the population totals less than 1,000 people. So when liberty or leave is granted to the 30 crewmembers stationed in Bodega Bay, it’s easy to be noticed for the good and bad.

According to Bretz, many of Coast Guardsmen’s troubles occur off duty, so it becomes important how each crewmember spend their off-duty time wisely and trouble-free.

Just like Merel’s surfing. Which is about all he does when not at work.

“As soon as liberty is granted, I am off looking at the waves,” said Merel.

For Merel, just getting out in the water makes for a better day.

“Surfing is always the one thing I want to be doing,” said Merel. “Even if you go out and the waves are a mess and they aren’t breaking like you want them to – catching that one wave makes it all worth it.”

“It would be one thing for him to be out there de-stressing by himself, but he shows his leadership as a petty officer by inviting the younger members of the crew to go surfing with him,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Zachary Adams, engineering officer, Station Bodega Bay.

“The younger crewmembers come in, usually from boot camp, looking to fit in and prove themselves to the more established crewmembers,” said Adams. “Sometimes they try to do this by the wrong means, which makes it all that more important for the petty officers to take the younger guys under their wings on and off duty.”

“Many of our crewmembers at this unit are not married, so their fellow crewmembers become the closest thing to family as they get,” said Bretz. “My family is the most important thing to me, and I try to spend as much time with them outside of work as I can. Not everybody has that release of immediate family nearby, so the crew becomes just that.”

Merel isn’t the only one at Bodega Bay that takes extra-curricular activities seriously. Adams, Merel’s supervisor, is an award winning bass fisherman. The awards and trophies he has won are proudly displayed in his office.

Petty Officer 2nd Class James Brady is always neck deep into motorcycle talk on his off hours. He is a California state qualified motorcycle safety instructor and is a member of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. He spends some of his off duty time teaching safety classes at Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma.

Wesley Sedlacek, a 2nd class petty officer, takes to the woods and hills in nearby Santa Rosa as often as time permits, so he can spin his new mountain bike up and down the various trails. He plans and organizes several bike trips with his fellow crewmembers, so they can enjoy their time off as well.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Ross Ellis finds his joy organizing community service projects. He recently organized a flag football charity event to benefit the “Wounded Warriors Foundation.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew dabble in martial arts, golf and bowling. All the crewmembers strive to share all their different hobbies and interests with one another. Adams jokingly claims that Brady has started the Bodega Bay Biker Gang and has even almost convinced Bretz to purchase a motorcycle, so he can join in on the bike rides along the windy roads of coastal California.

Bretz points out that the most rewarding part is seeing his crew become successful at what they enjoy doing best. It helps achieve the work-life balance they need to effectively handle the stresses of their primary job in the Coast Guard. .

Most recently, Merel’s supervisors granted permissive orders for him to compete in the Point Mugu surf competition the last three years. Merel rewarded his command’s graciousness by proudly representing the station and the Coast Guard by winning the military division three years in a row. This year he even competed outside the military division and finished fifth in the men’s open division.

“I have only occasionally competed in the last 10 years,” said Merel. “I competed once on the East Coast in 2007 and for the last three years at Point Mugu.”

Prior to the 2009 Point Mugu competition, Merel hadn’t surfed at all for more than a year. His command knew and took note of his surfing prowess through word of mouth.

“I didn’t and don’t talk about surfing very often, but they took notice and encouraged me to compete that first time in 2009 and have continued to support my hobby,” said Merel. “It is amazing to me how supportive they are of my and the rest of the crews extra-curricular activities. I know I wouldn’t be as happy here as I am without their support.”

The variety of extra-curricular activities taken on by Station Bodega Bay’s crew to keep themselves mentally engaged and to achieve a work-life balance exemplifies 11th District Commander Rear Adm. Joseph “Pepe” Castillo’s tenet of “have fun, stay safe and get the job done.” This is a prime example where a supportive command cares for the best interests of their crew and that translates into a healthy and safe environment.

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