Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles where cuttermen discuss why they go to sea.
Name: Petty Officer 1st Class Britney Cabrales
Rating: Electrician’s Mate (EM)
Hometown: Griffith, Indiana
Personal: Married husband Anthony on July 14, 2013
Joined Coast Guard: June 18, 2013 -- Boot camp company November-188
Sea time to date: 4 years, 1 month
Previous units: USCGC Hickory (WLB 212) homeported in Homer, Alaska; Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Woods Hole, Massachusetts; and Coast Guard Station Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Current assignment: Coast Guard Cutter William Tate (WLM 560), homeported in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Why did you join the Coast Guard?
My sister was in the Navy. When I decided that I wanted to serve, she was like, “don’t go Navy! Go to the Coast Guard. I see them all the time, and they just look like they’re having a good time.” So, I looked it up online. I’m like, ‘ohh OK, this looks cool.’
Did you know you wanted to be an EM?
No, I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought I was going to go ME (Maritime Enforcement specialist) because I was going to college for criminal justice.
Then at my first small boat station I saw the EMs just like running around doing their thing, and I thought that looked cool, so I followed them for a little bit. They were just busy-- always fixing stuff on our building and on our small boat. So, because I like to stay busy and I wanted to kind of learn something new, I went to EM A-school.
What encouraged you to get underway?
I’m in a rate that you have to get underway. So, that’s kind of helped.
I was one of those people afraid to get underway. I had thought ‘ohh I’ll never get underway.’ But now when I think about that mentality, it’s just I find it crazy that I even thought that.
Do you remember why you felt that way?
I thought it was kind of intimidating, you know, to think about a boat and everything that goes with it.
When I was in EM3 at the ANT, my EM2 and EM1 were just constantly telling me their underway stories and you know, it didn’t seem that appetizing at the time.
But when leaving ANT Woods Hole, the detailer emailed me saying that they were trying to turn the Hickory back into a mixed gender crew. And I thought that would be cool to flip a boat with females on it. So I raised my hand and was like let’s do this.
I got there and felt intimidated, but I got through it by just kind of embracing it.
You immediately get thrown into this qualification process that I had never had to go through. It’s difficult and rewarding at the same time. You have to learn all this stuff on the boat. You are standing 1-in-3 (a watch rotation where you have one watch—typically four hours—on, and two watches off).
I found it so fun to learn all this new stuff because it felt like I was actually in the Coast Guard. I mean, I joined a seagoing service and I’m finally on a boat. It made me feel kind of proud that I was able to serve on a boat finally…. although I had been avoiding it.
Once you get aboard, you’re just submerged in everything that you have to do.
I was an ATON technician and a rescue climber, so I was immediately thrown into doing aids. And then I had to rebuild the whole heater in the galley.
So immediately I was like ‘this is it.’ I like being busy. I like learning. It was just something I didn’t know I really needed in my career, but I really, really enjoyed how much I learned in those first couple months.
When I came to the Tate, it felt like home. I just felt like, ‘here I am again-- different boat but same concepts.’ And it felt good.
I wish I would have been those people excited to get underway. But no. I had to go kicking and screaming. If you would have told me, I would do back-to-back cutters, I would have been like, ‘oh, no way!’ A permanent cutter pin was like not on my radar.
The opportunity to break down the barriers was just too great.
You know it.
That’s what’s fun about this job: you see yourself one way, but maybe the Coast Guard will help you see another way.
And I think people really enjoy getting out of their element. Because that’s why we all joined. I mean, this whole thing is kind of out of everyone’s element.
Your time on the Hickory, your first underway tour, was during COVID times, right? How did that impact your experience?
So, like, you’re already isolated up there, right? Especially in our small town of Homer. In a sense, I didn’t feel such an impact because we already weren’t doing the things that I would normally do, like go to concerts, go to movies, you know, because we just didn’t really have those kinds of amenities anyway.
At a certain point it did get to everybody. Like, you can’t go out to eat, can’t do this.
But I was happy I was there and nowhere else. We still had all the hiking and the camping. It was just the most beautiful place and I truly miss Alaska.
What’s next for you?
I think I probably will have to go to land (a shoreside assignment) after this.
I love that you’re disappointed by that.
You know, I will have to embrace whatever comes. I haven’t thought too much of it. Just kind of living in the now. Obviously, I’m trying to make Chief. Also, maybe I would try to go to Cape May to be a company commander. We’ll see. I’m not closing any doors.
How has your husband enjoyed the Coast Guard as your spouse?
My husband, Anthony, and I met before I joined and married right before I went to A- school. He’s in a very high demand job as a clinical social worker, so it’s honestly been very easy for him to find jobs. I mean, he found a job in Homer, Alaska, in no time at all.
Alaska was probably a little bit hard for him just because I was gone a lot. And usually, it’s the other way around so there were a lot of wives…and then my husband. But thankfully the other woman on the boat was married. So our husbands were able to be friends.
He’s very supportive. I couldn’t do it without him.
Is the social worker a state credential?
It is state by state. So yeah, he’s had to renew his credentials in Massachusetts, Alaska, and Pennsylvania.
It’s like a couple hundred dollars and there is a program where the Coast Guard will reimburse your spouse. It’s not too bad and he’s good at it now.
What would you consider your biggest challenge in the Coast Guard?
My biggest challenge was on the Hickory. 100%. The last year on that cutter was extremely difficult for a lot of us. It was just very high op tempo for a buoy tender. I felt burnt out, which is the first time I’d actually felt burned out.
We were standing a lot of duty because of transfer season. It was just a lot on me and I was just kind of, you know, just trying to get through it. I don’t like that term, but sometimes it happens in jobs where there’s so much going on and you just feel like you can’t catch a break. That’s how the last year was.
It was a challenge to keep my attitude good and my work ethic the same. I just kept thinking that no matter how tough things are getting right now, everything kinda is temporary in the Coast Guard because we moved so much.
I just kind of kept that in mind. But yeah, that last year was tough for sure.
Obviously, your husband was a strong supporter. Was there anything else that helped you get through that?
The biggest thing: you lean on your shipmates, right? Because we’re all kind of going through the same thing together. We’re all coming from different places, but here we are spending this time together for a while and you never really feel alone in a sense. When you talk to your shipmates, they feel the same. You’re just like ‘OK, I’m not the only one. We can get through this.’
Have you considered an EPO (engineering petty officer) job in the black hull fleet?
I have a EMCM EPO now. It’s awesome working for him. I’ve always had really good bosses, who have just pushed me. I never thought about going EPO, but maybe I could because I have him and he’s showing me the way.
You don’t really know what you want until you see it. He’s a great mentor. My favorite thing in the Coast Guard is being an EM. I always tell people that I love being an EM.
What advice do you have for others who may be intimidated about getting underway?
I don’t think I could say anything that would help. Like, anything you would have told me, six years ago, I probably wouldn’t have really heard it.
Only thing I can do is just share my experiences.
The number one reason why I’m still in is because of the people that I’ve met. It’s hard to forget about some of these friendships you’ve made. And it’s just not the same on land because you go home every night, and they’re just work friends. But when you’re on a cutter they’re like a second family.
I mean, these guys here know everything that’s going on in my life. You just build these relationships. I’ve so many memories, so many laughs that you’re just not gonna get anywhere else.
A lot of ratings thrive underway. You’re not gonna learn this stuff at a land unit.
Don’t be intimidated and just go for it and hop on a cutter and learn your rating. As an EM3, I was working on lighthouses, which was really cool. But when I got to the cutter I was like, ‘ohh my goodness. I have so much to learn.’
Sure, it can be difficult, but don’t let it build like I did and be intimidated for no reason.
When I got to my first cutter, I actually got sailor of the quarter in the first six months I was there.
Yeah, I feel like I thrived. Like this is where I belong.
Do you have a sea story, either from the Tate or the Hickory, you’d care to share?
We would do a talent show underway on the Hickory. An EM3 and I would do slam poetry about the patrol. I think we were literally the only people in the talent show, but everyone would come watch us.
It was a thing that people look forward to. If we had a long patrol, they know that every day we’re listening to what’s happening and writing down ideas for our slam poetry.
It was like an opportunity to just cut loose and have some fun with each other.
Then there’s the fishing. I caught my first Alaskan halibut. I do not fish, but they’re like ‘just get your license and you never know.’ So I did. I went out there and I had a blast with the EM shop. Our Chief was showing all of us how to fish and then I caught my big halibut, and we processed it on the buoy deck.
Then I come home to my husband and we ate halibut tacos from what I caught. It was incredible.