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My Coast Guard
Commentary | March 8, 2022

From working on cruise ships to a Coast Guard commission

By Ensign Alexander Mastel, USCGC Stratton

Love of the sea has inspired great novels by Hemingway, Melville, and Steinbeck, and driven countless maritime adventures throughout the ages. The ocean calls many of those who serve within the Coast Guard, and each one of us has a unique tale that brought us to military service.

For Ensign Spencer King of Coast Guard Cutter Stratton, his journey veered off the traditional course, navigated him through the Sea Cadets, a maritime academy, and a cruise line, and was nearly fouled due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

His simple decision to join the Sea Cadets 10 years ago plunged him into a rigorous maritime adventure like few others. King attended the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and said he enjoyed going to school there even though the academic demand was arduous. His time at the academy bolstered his desire to work upon the sea; he took three sea terms in the academy Training Ship Kennedy and plied the ocean aboard the Matson container ship Kodiak, where he helped deliver supplies between Kodiak, Alaska, and the remote island port of Dutch Harbor.  

“When you’re a young mate on the bridge, it’s nothing but adrenaline,” said King, recounting his opportunity to conn the Matson Kodiak out of Dutch Harbor.

Following his graduation from the maritime academy, King pursued employment aboard America Cruise lines cruise ships. As a junior mate, he sailed the East Coast, Mississippi River, and coastal Alaskan waters. His time on the bridge of those vessels improved his judgement, skills, and confidence at the helm and included a promotion to full mate.  

King developed more than just his capabilities there. He developed comradery and friendship with his shipmates. Though he didn’t realize it until much later, two vessel masters who were former Coast Guard members, one a captain and one a chief, were instrumental in King’s future transformation. Their time on the bridge together, sharing stories of the sea and Coast Guard missions, inspired King to reconsider pursuing a career in the military.

In March of 2020, COVID-19 swept across the globe and brought mask mandates and shelter in place orders that crippled the cruise line industry. King was laid off from work, and what seemed like a promising young career upon the sea abruptly halted.  

“Losing my job and financial stability created stress in my life as I worried about providing for my family,” said King.  

But King thought about his time on the bridge with his former shipmates and their Coast Guard stories.  He decided his future was on the sea and in the Coast Guard as it was the perfect way to combine love of going to sea as well as providing for his family. He applied to Coast Guard Officer Candidate School and two direct commission officer programs. King was waitlisted for only MARGRAD, a program only for graduates of maritime academies. This young man had committed to serving his country and nothing was going to stand in his way. He shifted his trackline, enlisted in the Coast Guard, completed boot camp at Cape May, N.J., and was assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Stratton as a fireman.

The day before King was to graduate boot camp, he was informed he would receive a commission through the MARGRAD program.  

“I was elated and couldn’t believe this was happening,” said King.

He graduated boot camp the next day and began his cross country journey to report aboard Stratton as Fireman King. For his first month, King performed the normal duties of a fireman: working in the engine room and supporting the cutter’s machinery technicians. 

Spencer King took his oath of office on the flight deck of cutter Statton, Nov. 16, 2021, becoming Ensign King. He thought about the decade-long journey he had traveled from Sea Cadet, to student, to full mate for American Cruise Line, to U.S. Coast Guard fireman and finally to ensign.  

“I thought about the example I’ve made for my son,” said King.  “If you want to do something, make it happen by putting in the effort and hard work regardless of the road block. I wanted to be an officer in the Coast Guard and I wanted to be on the bridge of a ship for my career and I made that happen.”  

King will stay aboard Stratton and start breaking in as a deck watch officer. The cutter is scheduled to head west into Oceania soon in support of Operation Blue Pacific. Here King’s love of the sea will serve as the building blocks to his own Coast Guard adventure.