The only thing louder than the small boat’s engine is the ocean roaring ahead of you, bucking so hard you have to brace for the incoming wave with your whole body. Sea spray peppers your helmet and the first of a horizon full of waves crests directly over you. It’s not a ride; this is a Tuesday as a Coast Guard surfman.
“There’s no secret, surfman is a challenging but rewarding position. If you get seasick, are scared of the dark, have an allergic reaction to risk or fear, or hate being wet or cold, do not apply,” said Chief Warrant Officer Tom Molloy, commanding officer of the National Motor Lifeboat School (NMLS), “Also if you like to fish, hunt, surf, dive, mountain bike, hike, or snowboard, this may be your calling.”
|Petty Officer 1st Class Raymond Aguilar (surfman #557), a boatswain's mate at Station Yaquina Bay trains in surf conditions near Newport, Oregon, Feb. 15, 2019. Coast Guard surfman are qualified to operate a 47-foot motor lifeboat in 20-foot breaking surf, 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds. (U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 1st Class Raymond Aguilar)
Operating rescue boats in surf and heavy breaking seas remains one of the most challenging and dangerous tasks Coast Guard boat crews perform. The predominate need for surfmen and consistent training conditions exist in the Coast Guard’s Thirteenth District. Located on the Columbia River Bar in Astoria, Oregon, the NMLS trains students in one of the most consistent surf zones in the country. The Coast Guard is working to increase the number of surfmen and heavy weather coxswains and actively seeking candidates to join the Prospective Surfman Program (PSP).
The surfmen prepare for waves over the bow, as well as waves of training.
“We only certify on average about ten surfmen per year,” Molloy said about the training pathway. “The process of certifying the person who will back you up no matter the conditions cannot be rushed. We need surfmen who are willing to do this for the rest of their careers.”
The surfman qualification process is extensive and extremely demanding. This program is intended to attract, guide and develop surfmen trainees. Interested members should expect an average of four years of training to become a qualified surfman.
The Coast Guard's National Motor Lifeboat School. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Santos.)
NMLBS helps screen candidates for the eight feeder ports for the Prospective Surfman Program, the majority of which are located along the Oregon and Washington Coast.
The work of the surfman is as challenging as it is rewarding. “Returning to port with someone you saved from heavy weather or surf is an incredible feeling. Although it's like the Super Bowl of boat operations, being at a surf station can be hard and sometimes terrifying. The 47-foot Motor Lifeboat (MLB) with a surfman is expected to respond in surf up to 20 feet,” Molloy said. “There is a lot of force behind a 20-foot wall of white water. It can humble anyone in an instant. It's intimidating for a lot of folks to ride in, let alone protect your crew and render assistance. Running inbound on a bar at night under parachute flares while glancing back at black walls of water and hearing the crack of giant surf chasing you is daunting. It strengthens your resolve to train your crew. It reminds you that safe outcomes are earned and rescues are special but neither are guaranteed. It makes our legacy as lifesavers feel close to home.”
Senior surfman are experiencing a limited candidate pool with in the Boatswain’s Mate rating at the master chief petty officer and senior chief petty officer paygrade, as well as at the chief warrant officer bosun specialty. It has become increasingly difficult to fill the officer in charge (OIC), and commanding officer positions at the small boat stations.
Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Brown emphasized the commitment required to succeed as a surf man. “We need dedicated members who are willing and also possess the ability to endure the training, environmental conditions, and isolated locations of these units for a career.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class August Lowry holds up his newly-acquired surfman pin at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., Feb. 28, 2014. Lowry's surfman certification designates him as an elite boat operator qualified to operate motor lifeboats in breaking surf, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn)
Members who are interested in the surman program should talk with their commands and visit the National Motor Lifeboat School website, and read the prospective surfman program message.
- National Motor Lifeboat School website
- National Motor Lifeboat School Training link (CAC required):
- Boatswain’s mate assignment portal link:
- AY21 Messages General BM message
- XPO/OIC Screening link
- Prospective Surfman Program link
- Special Assignments link
Stay tuned for another look at the Surfman Program.