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How Coast Guard Surfmen Train For Massive Waves

USCG Surfmen training Columbia River Bar
Photo- USCG YouTube

The United States Coast Guard has released a video depicting their recruits training for massive waves.

It's also an excellent teaching tool for boaters about navigating in dangerous conditions.

We've discussed several aspects of bad weather navigation before, like how to boat in waves and how to analyze weather conditions, but the USCG 'Surfman' course gives viewers an inside look at what's involved in earning the classification of 'Surfman,' as well as excellent information for boaters of all types about how to approach big water boating. Surfmen receive their training at the National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, WA on the Columbia River Bar, an area so deadly it's known as the "graveyard of the Pacific."

The 4-week course takes full advantage of the treachery of the Columbia River Bar -- a massive inlet in the Pacific Northwest where outgoing currents from the Columbia River meet incoming tides from the Pacific ocean to create some of the most volatile water conditions on Earth.

According to Chief Eric Ceallaigh, an NLMBS Instructor, "you have two massive opposing forces hitting each other where it's creating an environment that you really can't create in any other area."

"The Columbia River bar is by far one of the most challenging bodies of water I've faced in my career."

Over 2000 ships are known to have gone down at the Bar, which makes learning the art of maneuvering a 47-foot self-righting cutter through 18-20 foot swells a challenging art.

The USCG refers to their rescue vessels as "motor lifeboats" and they're designed to not only withstand the swells, but also cut through 50 knot winds while maintaining enough control to perform rescue operations.

When the boats do flip under the power of the massive waves, Ceallaigh says: "(t)he boat does a full 360 degree rotation underwater and pops back up, ideally that takes about 12 seconds."

In order to be successful under such punishing conditions, recruits practice a maneuver known as "squaring up," in which they position the bow of the boat toward the incoming waves. But, in order to move through the surf zone, they must also move parallel to the surf, which requires them to navigate each set while still making progress towards a destination.

To master the technique, boaters are trained to look for three features in every wave-- a 'peak' in the center and two 'shoulders' on either side. Surfmen train to power their boat through shoulders whenever possible. To do this, they must identify the best possible line and then execute a particular line of travel within every set of incoming waves.

According to Chief Victoria Hansen, another NMLBS Instructor, "When you're running for the far side, you're trying to get to the farthest shoulder of the wave, the furthest area from you that's not going to break, before it breaks on top of you. It's probably one of the most fun things to do, but also one of the most dangerous because you never know if you're going to get there."

As fate would have it, on the final day of training the USCG received a mayday from a nearby boat that had lost its navigation power and was taking on water. That rescue mission went viral across the boating world and was also captured by the USCG's film crew for the Surfman documentary.

"I can teach anyone to drive in the surf," says Ceallaigh. "It's a matter of throttle maneuvers, helm movement, and having an understanding of wave symmetry and oceanography. But to really get to that level where someone wants to push themselves into the most challenging conditions, that's going to stem from within. That's not something any instructor or any school can really teach. I think that drives is what makes a surfman what (they are) today."

Check out the wild footage below:

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