A Legacy of Surf Continues

Surfman past and present from throughout Sector North Bend gather in front of Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay for a ceremony in Newport, Ore, Jan. 12, 2017. The ceremony honored the newest Coast Guard surfman Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson.

Surfman past and present from throughout Sector North Bend gather in front of Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay for a ceremony in Newport, Ore, Jan. 12, 2017. The ceremony honored the newest Coast Guard surfman Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson.

Photos and story by Seaman Johanna Strickland.

Driving by Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Oregon, and noticing the group of men posed in front of the 36-foot Motor Life Boat on Jan. 12, 2017, one would probably not realize this gathering is representative of some of the most skilled boat handlers the Coast Guard has to offer. These men and women have assembled for a ceremony to induct the newest surfman into their ranks, Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson, a boatswain’s mate stationed at Yaquina Bay.

Thomas McAdams, retired Coast Guard master chief petty officer and surfman number 83, pins Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson, surfman number 516 and a boatswain's mate at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay, in a ceremony held at the station in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017. McAdams is a legend within the Coast Guard with over 25 years of experience and multiple medals.

Thomas McAdams, retired Coast Guard master chief petty officer and surfman number 83, pins Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson, surfman number 516 and a boatswain’s mate at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay, in a ceremony held at the station in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017. McAdams is a legend within the Coast Guard with over 25 years of experience and multiple medals.

The surfman legacy goes back almost 200 years into the U.S. Life-Saving Service, one of the forerunners of today’s Coast Guard. These highly trained men and women are able to operate Motor Life Boats in the most extreme conditions authorized and are credited with assisting in some of the Coast Guard’s greatest rescues. The title of surfman is earned after years of study and hands-on training with only 5 percent of Coast Guard coxswains ever achieving the honor. Today, there are approximately 250 people in the service who hold this qualification.

Nelson grew up in a military family in St. Robert, Missouri. He joined the Coast Guard in 2008.

“Growing up, I had seen the ocean twice in my entire life,” shared Nelson. “One day I saw this poster of an icebreaker and I remember thinking how amazing it would be to see the Arctic, so I joined the Coast Guard to be a part of something new and different.”

Nelson very quickly got to experience the Arctic firsthand when after graduating boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey; he was stationed on Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea, a 399-foot Heavy Icebreaker currently in inactive commission in Seattle. Nelson enjoyed his time on the Polar Sea so much that he eventually decided to pursue the rate of boatswain’s mate.

After receiving specialized training, he was stationed at Coast Guard Station Gray’s Harbor, a surf unit in Westport, Washington. There are only 20 surf stations in the Coast Guard. These stations experience surf greater than eight feet regularly throughout the year. The conditions prove to be the most challenging and dangerous environments for boat handlers and crewman to operate in. It was here that Nelson’s journey to surfman began.

For Nelson it was the challenge.

“The picture of a surfman is not just a skilled boat driver, it’s leadership, work ethic and mentorship,” he said. “All of these qualities drove me toward my goal. Plus the allure of having the faith of your service and your crew to operate a boat in the worst conditions allowable.”

A surfman check is passed through the hands of each surfman in attendance as they announce their certification number and station during a ceremony held on the messdeck at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017.

A surfman check is passed through the hands of each surfman in attendance as they announce their certification number and station during a ceremony held on the messdeck at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017. The surfman check is an engraved golden badge, with roots tracing back to the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

During his time at Grays Harbor, Nelson’s supervisors were able to help him establish the foundation of his skillset. He attained coxswain and heavy weather qualifications while at the unit. He was then transferred to Yaquina Bay where he continued to work toward his goal of surfman. The transfer meant Nelson would not only have to learn the ins and outs of a new station but a new bar, a shallow entrance into a harbor which can be treacherous to cross in poor conditions.

“Transferring in the middle of my qualification process was one of the hardest things I faced during this process,” said Nelson. “I had to adapt to new instructors, different environments, and a new command vision for my progress. It was incredibly humbling, but overall helped to make me a better surfman.”

“There’s a different timeline for everyone as they work toward surfman, and while there may be a definite advantage to having continuity at a particular unit, ultimately I think multiple perspectives and a variety of leadership can produce a more well-rounded boat handler,” said Chief Petty Officer Shawn Crahen, boatswain’s mate and surf trainer at Yaquina Bay. “Luke has grown a lot by being here and is still able to also draw on all the things that he learned at his previous unit.”

The process of becoming surfman takes years to achieve due in large part to its dependency on the weather. Almost all of the requirements for surfman are learned while underway operating in surf conditions. Nelson explained that this is typically one of the biggest challenges for everyone.

“You live by the weather,” said Nelson. “There is no way to set a schedule or a timeline. If the opportunity to train in the surf arises you take it.”

Exceptional boat driving is just one of the qualities needed during the surfman certification process.

“Lucas is very open to criticism and is able to process and respond to constructive feedback,” said Chief Petty Officer Jason McCommons, executive petty officer of Yaquina Bay. Being humble and level headed is invaluable to the certification process.

“He has also earned the respect of the crew, which is very important. This achievement does not happen all that often, so to have been a part of the certification process with him and for him has been honor.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson, a boatswain's mate at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay, stands with his wife, Dominique Nelson, mother, Naomi Nelson, and two daughters, Emma and Autumn, in front of the 36-Foot Motor Life Boat on the front lawn of the station in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017. Nelson credits a large part of his success in achieving surfman certification to the support of his family.

Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson, a boatswain’s mate at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay, stands with his wife, Dominique Nelson, mother, Naomi Nelson, and two daughters, Emma and Autumn, in front of the 36-Foot Motor Life Boat on the front lawn of the station in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017. Nelson credits a large part of his success in achieving surfman certification to the support of his family.

Nelson didn’t complete the journey alone. He credits his wife and two daughters as well as the crew and the command of Station Yaquina Bay for their unwavering support.

“My wife grew up in a military family like me, so I think she has a better understanding than most the adaptability that is required to pursue something like this,” shared Nelson. “She has handled everything like a champ and been my number one supporter throughout all of it.”

Every time he got underway for training it required a minimum of 10 people which is why Nelson is so grateful for the crews who were always willing to get underway as well as the instructors who shared their knowledge and experience.

Capt. Michael Trimpert, commanding officer, Coast Guard Sector North Bend, welcomes crew members, family and guests as he opens a ceremony honoring Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson’s surfman certification at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017. Trimpert discussed the commitment and dedication required by Nelson and his family to achieve this goal.

Capt. Michael Trimpert, commanding officer, Coast Guard Sector North Bend, welcomes crew members, family and guests as he opens a ceremony honoring Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Nelson’s surfman certification at Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore., Jan. 12, 2017. Trimpert discussed the commitment and dedication required by Nelson and his family to achieve this goal.

For Nelson the biggest reward in achieving this honor is in the trust the command has given him.

“That trust is earned over time,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ryan O’Meara, commanding officer of Yaquina Bay “Every day that he came to work it was an audition, we watched him grow and develop the tools needed make the right decisions in some of the worst conditions possible.”

Nelson, surfman number 516, is in no way done with his achievements in the Coast Guard. His next step is pursuing advancement to Chief Petty Officer.

“The Coast Guard has a thousand doors you can open, you just have to want to open them,” said Nelson. “Those who excel and succeed in this service have really worked to get there. I can’t stop. I have to keep going.”

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