Service in surf and to others: BM1 Nathan Burns

Over the next week, Compass will be featuring men and women who operate in the Pacific Northwest. From Lt. Adriana Knies, an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilot, and Chief Petty Officer Joel Sayers, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, to Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Burns, a boatswain’s mate and surfman, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Rashad Gipson, an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crewman and aviation maintenance technician. Each will be highlighted, along with their shipmates, in the upcoming season of The Weather Channel’s new series Coast Guard Cape Disappointment Pacific Northwest.

Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Burns, a boatswain's mate and surfman assigned to Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener.

Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Burns, a boatswain’s mate and surfman assigned to Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener.

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class George Degener.

With sure hands on the throttle and helm, and an eye toward the sea and an on their crew, Coast Guard surfmen are considered the service’s most skilled coxswains and members of an elite community. They are boatswain’s mates – each individually numbered – that undertake immense responsibility in training others to operate safely in some of the most dangerous conditions imaginable.

Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Burns, currently assigned to Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash., is surfman number 395. Growing up in the Puget Sound area, Burns said that being around water and driving boats while growing up led to a natural progression of joining the Coast Guard and entering the surf community.

Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Burns stands on the stern of a 47-foot motor lifeboat at Station Cape Disappointment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Littlejohn.

Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Burns stands on the stern of a 47-foot motor lifeboat at Station Cape Disappointment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Littlejohn.

“Being able to drive in surf, in the limitations these boats are designed for, you’re the expert,” said Burns. “You’re the teacher. I really enjoy that side of it the most; being able to teach. By no means does getting your surfman pin mean you know everything about surf. You never know everything about surf.”

Carrying on the tradition and honoring the legacy of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, Burns qualified as a surfman on the 47-foot motor lifeboat in 2007 while assigned to Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., and on the 52-foot motor lifeboat in 2011 while assigned to Station Grays Harbor, in Westport, Wash. Among the already small surfman community, the number of qualified surfman aboard the 52-foot motor lifeboat is even smaller.

“We have eight surfman here,” said Lt. Scott McGrew, commanding officer of Station Cape Disappointment. “Of those eight, only four are certified as surfman aboard the 52. Reading the Surfman’s Creed, it says ‘I will ensure that my supervisors rest easy with the knowledge that I am at the helm,’ and that’s certainly the case when BM1Burns is on duty.”

More than 2,000 ships and 700 lives have been lost along the stretch of coastline from Tillamook Bay, Ore., to Vancouver Island, Canada, known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. In the heart of the windswept, rocky terrain lies the mouth of the Columbia River, with Astoria, Ore., to the south and Ilwaco, to the north. The men and women assigned to Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment keep a watchful eye on the Columbia River bar and surrounding waters.

In addition to his duties as the senior duty-standing surfman, Burns is also Station Cape Disappointment’s training petty officer, a collateral duty that requires attention to detail and the ability to multitask.

“Training is a huge, huge beast to manage the intricacies of,” said McGrew. “We have three boat types, and you have crewman, engineer, coxswain, heavy-weather coxswain, surfman, tactical coxswain, small-arms qualifications, communications and tower watchstander qualifications, officer of the day, engineer of the watch-upwards of 22 different qualifications and certifications that need to be managed.”

In December, members of the Coast Guard Boat Forces Standardization Team visited Station Cape Disappointment. Their assessment of Cape Disappointment’s training and administration program yielded zero discrepancies.

A Cape Disappointment crew in the surf. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A Cape Disappointment crew in the surf. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“It’s like golf; you want to have the lowest score,” said McGrew. “We had zeros across the board when it came to training and admin, largely due to the efforts of BM1 Burns.”

While Burns says that the best experiences of his career have been meeting his wife while assigned to Station Bodega Bay and the birth of his daughter Callie Ann in Astoria, Ore., during halftime of a Seattle Seahawks game on Oct. 28, 2013, the most memorable case of his career came not during the biggest surf, but the opportunity to see someone he trained passing on the knowledge to someone else.

“Right before I left Grays Harbor, one of the persons I had trained was the surfman on another boat when we went out to help de-water a boat on the bar,” said Burns. “I got to see a guy doing the job that I had trained him to do, and be out there alongside him knowing that he’s got another guy that he’s training.”

Burns, alongside other crewmembers from Station Cape Disappointment, will be featured on The Weather Channel’s newest show, Coast Guard Cape Disappointment Pacific Northwest. His dedication to both his craft and the proficiency of others is evident on screen as the Ilwaco-based crews protect lives, property and the environment in one of the most treacherous places the Coast Guard operates.

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