Between the Lines: Seamanship and the art of storytelling

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson

Seaman Julia Harris, a crew member at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., learns to tie a bowline knot aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat during boat crew seamanship training, April 6, 2017. The training was part of a two-week program designed to create boat crew proficiency among newly reported members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

Seaman Julia Harris, a crew member at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., learns to tie a bowline knot aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat during boat crew seamanship training, April 6, 2017. The training was part of a two-week program designed to create boat crew proficiency among newly reported members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

Seaman Julia Harris follows her supervisor’s instructions carefully: the rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree and back down into the rabbit hole. With a furrowed brow, she repeats the mnemonic slowly as she twists and folds and wraps the line around itself and pulls the end tight. She shows off her masterpiece to the rest of the boat crew. As each one gives his nod of approval, she smiles.

If the fabric of seamanship were made of knots, perhaps it would be this knot, the iconic king of knots, the bowline. First crafted centuries ago by some ancient mariner, it was passed through generations of sailors and seagoers until it invariably reached the first Coast Guard revenue cutters in 1790. Early Coast Guard crews would have used it to make fast a line, secure a halyard to a sail or even weave a hammock for a makeshift rack. They would use it time and again when capturing a privateer near Antigua or rescuing schooner passengers near Pea Island, North Carolina. On and on the lessons would continue, instruction from practiced seaman to seasick greenhorn, until finally the bowline made its way to Harris, who is now holding it up and beaming with the same pride a parent might expect to see from a daughter bringing home a perfect report card.

Though this knot and countless others are documented the world around in books, biographies and even the Coast Guard Boat Crew Seamanship manual, arguably, oral tradition has best kept seamanship’s best practices alive. From the creaking wooden yawls of old to this self-righting, aluminum-hulled 47-foot Motor Lifeboat at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, California, the art of storytelling continues as a new generation learns how to save a life.

“The one line of the Surfman’s Creed that has always stood out to me is, ‘I will give of myself and my knowledge as those who gave to me; so as the line of Coast Guard surfmen will live forever,’” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Garrett Hamilton, a boatswain’s mate and surfman assigned to Station Bodega Bay. “Anyone can learn from a book, but to become great, you need hands-on learning outside of the classroom, passed down from generations before.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Garrett Hamilton, a boatswain's mate assigned to Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., demonstrates proper heaving line bag use to break-in boat crew members aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, April 6, 2017. The training scenario was part of a two-week Boat Crew College the station hosted for new members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Garrett Hamilton, a boatswain’s mate assigned to Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., demonstrates proper heaving line bag use to break-in boat crew members aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, April 6, 2017. The training scenario was part of a two-week Boat Crew College the station hosted for new members. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

As a qualified boat-crew member at Station Bodega Bay, Hamilton recently helped lead the station’s Boat Crew College, a two-week training event for six new personnel. The first week of the program consisted of classroom instruction where students reviewed written Coast Guard boat crew policy. The second week included additional classroom instruction and underway, scenario-based training.

It was during that underway training that instructors went beyond the textbook to share their personal boat crew knowledge. Among them, 44 combined years of experience – real-life rescues, losses, successes and failures – helped the new members understand the difference between theory and practice.

Seaman Apprentice Matthew Biera, a crew member at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., holds a heaving line during a dewatering pump transfer drill aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, April 6, 2017. Boat crew seamanship training is designed to teach the approved methods and procedures for Coast Guard boat operations. U.S. Coast Guard story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

Seaman Apprentice Matthew Biera, a crew member at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., holds a heaving line during a dewatering pump transfer drill aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, April 6, 2017. Boat crew seamanship training is designed to teach the approved methods and procedures for Coast Guard boat operations. U.S. Coast Guard story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

“Hearing those personal stories gave a different perspective than we got in the classroom,” said Seaman Apprentice Matthew Biera, a new crewmember at Station Bodega Bay. “Once we were on the boat, it became about more than paperwork. There’s a big difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it.”

That knowledge is especially important in summer months during recreational boating season. The bay’s rapidly changing tides, heavy surf and shoal water can be hazardous obstacles for boaters. Even with a local population of just over 1,000 people, the station crew responded to 96 cases in 2016. The majority of those were search and rescue.

Chief Petty Officer Alan Veach, the station’s executive petty officer, said the Boat Crew College was timed to ramp up new crewmembers before the 2017 boating season kicks off.

“We had several new members report around the same time, and it can be challenging for them to get certified without a unified effort,” said Veach. “This learning program allowed us to align and concentrate our resources to give everyone a head start on the busy summer search-and-rescue season.”

Biera, Harris and the four other break-in members all received credit toward their boat crew qualification for their participation. After completing the remainder of the required in-class and underway training, each person must satisfactorily complete an oral board with qualified crewmembers before receiving their certification.

Veach said he believes the station’s crew will work together to complete their goal of having a fully qualified, mission-ready team.

“The beauty of the Coast Guard certification process is that it standardizes the task, so everybody has the same baseline knowledge,” said Veach. “But like anything, once you get a little cold and wet, you have to know why you do what you do. Verbal passdowns help shade in the black and white of policy.”

Just as Coast Guard history is inconceivable without knots, seamanship is inconceivable without storytelling. In a world of constant innovation, the ancient practice of oral and interactive instruction preserves the human aspect of Coast Guard tradition. For the crew of Station Bodega Bay, storytelling is about more than salty sailors sharing sea stories. It’s about giving context to theory and keeping the Coast Guard legacy of lifesaving alive.

Seaman Julia Harris, a boat crew member at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., sounds off before throwing a heaving line to a partner crew during boat crew training aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, April 6, 2017. Sounding off is a critical part of communication during high-risk search-and-rescue missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

Seaman Julia Harris, a boat crew member at Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay, Calif., sounds off before throwing a heaving line to a partner crew during boat crew training aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, April 6, 2017. Sounding off is a critical part of communication during high-risk search-and-rescue missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sarah Wilson.

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