Tyler Bartel chats casually with one hand on the wheel as he steers a 47-foot boat over swells peaking two to four feet high on a Friday morning.
The waters at the mouth of the Columbia River appear calm now, but they're known as some of the most dangerous in the nation, earning the area its moniker: "Graveyard of the Pacific." Over the past three centuries, thousands of vessels have been destroyed and hundreds of lives lost at the river's entrance.
Starting in October and continuing through spring, the ocean's small swells become 10- to 30-foot waves. Then Bartel, a surfman at U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, may find himself maneuvering the motor lifeboat through surf and heavy breaking seas that only the most experienced boat drivers are allowed to handle.
According to a 2003 Coast Guard instruction to commandants, operating rescue boats in these conditions is "one of the most challenging and dangerous tasks Coast Guard boat crews perform."
These experienced coxswains train for years to become qualified surfmen in the U.S. Coast Guard, which has faced a long-standing shortage of the highly skilled boat drivers. The deficit will likely continue for several more years because of obstacles to training and high requirements for experience, according to officers in the program.
With 97 qualified surfmen, the Coast Guard is about 40 percent shy of its 161-person goal, said Lt. Matt Buckingham, who manages the surfman program.
"The shortage hasn't gone down," he said. "Since we established an actual requirement, we've seen a gradual increase in the number of surfmen in the Coast Guard. But it's just a matter of getting the numbers to where we want them."
He said a limited number of locations where surfmen can be trained - there are about 20 surf stations nationwide - the difficulty in training surfmen at those locations and the lengthy certification process factor into the shortage.
"The surfman program is a very intense program," Buckingham said. "It can require up to six years of training before a member attains that qualification."
Step in the right directionSeveral years ago, the Coast Guard addressed the chronic shortage by establishing the National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, where coxswain from across the country come in hopes of speeding up the qualification process to obtain heavy weather or surfman certification.
The school offers a 12-person surfman class twice each year. But taking the four-week class to become the person "they call when things go bad and it's storming," doesn't guarantee a coxswain surfman status, said Chief Warrant Officer Rick Spencer, the school's commanding officer.
"That's up to the unit they go to," Spencer said. "We just try to help increase the speed for them to get surfman qualified."
Before the school was created, it took an average four years for a boat driver to become a surfman by training with his or her unit. The school has cut that to about three and a half years, but it isn't just trying to increase Coast Guard numbers, Spencer said.
"Our model here is that we want a quality surfman, versus just knocking out quantity," he said.
The school is located next to the Coast Guard station Cape Disappointment, where the Columbia River mouth's treacherous conditions provide prime grounds for training surfmen.
"It's the best area in the country to train surfmen," said Lt. Jamie Frederick, Cape Disappointment commanding officer. "We probably get more surf than anywhere else on the West Coast. The Pacific Northwest has always been known as the breeding ground of surfmen."
Frederick cited several obstacles to training surfmen, whether at the school or an individual unit.
"The biggest factor we can't control is Mother Nature," Frederick said. "Without the weather, you can't train."
He said bad weather is actually good when it comes to training.
"Either the waves break and we train in it, or we sit and wait until we get some weather good enough to do the training."
In addition, it takes one surfman to train another. Frederick said Cape Disappointment has five surfmen but ideally would have nine. The surfmen respond to search-and-rescue calls, train new surfmen and have other station duties, such as maintenance.
"I only have two 47-foot motor lifeboats," Frederick said. "You're trying to train them all with a limited amount of weather and a limited amount of resources, and they all need a lot of time at the helm for experience."
But being co-located with the motor lifeboat school is a "unique benefit," he said, taking boat drivers "out of their everyday routine," and allowing them "to specifically work on those tasks they have to accomplish for a couple of weeks."
Coast Guard members stationed at Cape Disappointment sometimes have a better chance of attending the motor lifeboat school because they can fill in when other people can't make it.
Bartel was readyTyler Bartel was able to fill in a spot at the school when another Coast Guard member failed a running test.
"I was so excited I got to go to the class, I could have sprinted the whole thing," Bartel said, noting the physical tests are an important condition for becoming a surfman.
Powerful ocean swells pound against a sand bar where the Columbia River spills into the ocean, producing hazardous breaking surf, which, in the winter, is joined by high winds, heavy rain and fog.
Guiding a boat through giant waves with water spraying over the boat's sides and into the faces of four people strapped in with belts, while reading the waves and navigating to a rescue, is a mentally and physically demanding task.
"Getting hit by a 20-foot wave feels like you just got hit by a semi truck," Bartel said. "A lot of things can go wrong. You have to be able to trust a person mentally and physically to take a boat out in 10- or 20-foot surf."
His station's commander said it takes a lot of experience for a boat driver to "be able to read the waves properly, to know what effects they're going to have on the boat and to maneuver the boat to counteract those effects."
"When you put a boat in breaking surf intentionally it's inherently dangerous," Frederick said. "It takes a real level of fortitude for a boat driver to be able to stand up there and do the right things as a wave's crashing down on them."
And not everybody can learn the skills needed to be a good surfman, he said.
"You can teach somebody what a wave's going to do to a boat, you can teach somebody what to do with their hands on the throttles; but the way a person actually reacts when a wave is breaking on them and there are three more behind it - that's a little more instinctive," Frederick said.
Regarding the surfman shortage, he's "not in such a shortage that I can't provide a surfman, but we aren't operating at an optimal level. We could use more people."
"The biggest problem is it takes more to turn things around. It's a really small community, and a really small fragment of the Coast Guard in general - maybe 80 out of 40,000 people on active duty," Frederick said. "The guys who are qualified have to stand more duty. It limits the ability to train more, because you have a limited number of people with limited time to pass on their skills."