Above: Underwater egress training, aka “the Dunker.” Isabella Balsamo is on the right in the front row, 

By SN Isabella Balsamo 

30 September 2019 – 31 October 2019

“You guys want to know where y’all are going?!?” BM1 Jones asked with a smirk on his face. We all raised our eyebrows and cracked smiles while watching him walk to the front of the room as we yelled, “YEAH!!” We all jumped out of our seats and rushed to the television projection waiting for the assignment sheet to be displayed. My heart was racing while staring at the blank screen. BM1 Jones then slapped the paper on the table. My eyes ran from the top of the page to the bottom in search of my name. From the top I saw my shipmate’s name along with the unit she was assigned. Instantly my face lit up because she got her first pick. I was just hoping for the same. I re-scanned the page and finally found my name. It read Coast Guard Cutter Marcus Hanna, South Portland Maine. My heart continued to pound as the news settled in. I was overjoyed to receive my number one pick! I had to read over the paper several times to make sure I was seeing things right. Most of the class got what they wanted. It was a day I will never forget and I could not wait to share the great news with my friends, family and y’all (of course). Learning my unit brought the biggest smile to my face. I am so excited to finish school and report to duty.  

Week 07: Week 07 was the start of three weeks of Deck curriculum. Starting on Monday we learned about what a Boat Crewman qualification consists of, Boat Crew Survival vest components, and donning Personal Protective Equipment. These weeks are designed to prepare us for Weeks 11 through 13 where we get underway on the 38’ SPC’s on the York River. We will leave A-School with a Boat Crewman qualification for the platform and it will prepare us for getting the qualification on the small boat platform at our next unit. The main goal for a Boatswain Mate Third Class upon reporting to their next unit is to obtain their Coxswain certification. Becoming a Coxswain puts one in charge of the vessel and all personnel on board. Coxswains, while underway, operate without regard to rank or seniority. The Coast Guard’s Boat Crewman certification is a prerequisite to becoming a small boat Coxswain. It is important to achieve the qualification here at A-School. Once mastered, Coast Guard small boat operations are relatively the same from platform to platform. 

We finished off the week learning about boat construction, boat nomenclature, watertight integrity, stability, firefighting, and man overboard procedures. After each lesson we were evaluated on our knowledge of the topic. On Thursday we spent the entire day in the swimming pool preparing for boat egress training. In order to graduate BM A-School one must successfully complete underwater egress training … aka “Dunker.” The training is held at Air Station Elizabeth City, Elizabeth City, N.C. There we are tested on our ability to escape a closed cabin of an overturned vessel. This training is a prerequisite to graduation. We are taught these skills so we are prepared to save our own lives so we can continue to save others. During this day we did several exercises that would help prepare us for the day we went to the Dunker. When we got to the pool we were instructed to get dressed in a flight suit, Personal Floatation Device, boots and helmet. 

Once dressed out we were directed to the shallow end where we joined the instructors in and were tested on our breath holding ability. We were instructed to try our best to hold our breath for 30 seconds. The instructor would squeeze one’s shoulder when the 30 seconds was up. It was my turn. I grabbed hold of two plastic bricks, held them across my chest and was guided to sit on the floor of the pool by the instructor on the command of “3…2…1 Ditch.” I was nervous because this was the first exercise of the day. I came up for air and exhaled with relief as I passed. I then made my way to the other side of the pool deck where everyone else who had passed was gathered. Next was treading water for two minutes. We jumped into the deep end and BM1 Maguire began the timer. That was easy for me. Next we were instructed on how to operate the Swimmer Device and MSWET Chair. Coast Guard Underwater Egress Training Video: https://youtu.be/vR1M9VRngl4

We practiced with these devices in the pool at Yorktown so we would be ready for this segment at Dunker – and we were!  

Week 08: Week 08 was a continuation of deck incorporated with Underwater Egress. Monday we learned about parts and characteristics of lines, securing lines, and tying knots, hitches and bends. We were each provided with a line to practice our knot tying. On Tuesday, we departed Training Center Yorktown in a government vehicle en route to Air Station Elizabeth City at 0530. We safely arrived around 0730 to begin the training. Ten classmates and I filled in the remaining seats of the classroom we were sent to. Following the classroom instruction and safety brief, we were led to the pool deck for gear issue and reported to the pool deck. The instructors demonstrated the devices and now it was our turn.  

Our training paid off! We all passed the Swimmer Device and MSWET chair. We were then run through the egress procedures for the small boat before we went to lunch. Following lunch we all waited on the bleachers until the instructors returned to resume training. The instructors and divers then lowered the small boat into the pool. My heart immediately started to race as I saw the boat enter the water. It was now time to do what we have been preparing for. 

To successfully complete Dunker one must egress (escape) the boat once while sitting in the front seat and once from the back seat. If one experiences difficulty escaping the signal for help is holding both hands on top of your head. If this happens, the divers who stay under will pull you out of the boat and the instructors will raise the boat out of the water with the davit. 

Several people were struggling with back seat egress. In the event that one panics or gets disoriented, students must immediately attempt the back seat again. A number of people had experienced trouble with the back seat and the boat was pulled up each time. The instructors then called a training timeout and told us all to exit the pool. We then sat on the bleachers waiting to see what was going on. I noticed the divers were exiting the pool as well. We all sat there confused. At this point everyone had successfully egressed the front seat, but half of us did not get the chance to attempt the back seat. The lead instructor huddled on the other side of the pool deck with the divers, other instructors and BM1 Jones. After their discussion the lead instructor informed us they had to suspend the training. This was due to the amount of times they pulled up the boat. Apparently there is a limited amount of times the boat can be pulled out per training evolution. They also informed us that the divers had reached their crew fatigue limits for a day of training. 

We were all upset because this meant those who never got to attempt the back seat had to come back and do the whole day of training all over again. Even though it was frustrating, I understood why the instructors stopped training when they did. I respect the reasoning behind it. Safety is paramount. Safety is our mission!

Week 09: Week 09 was the final week of Deck. It was also a short week due to Columbus Day. On Tuesday we were evaluated on three-strand splicing and knot tying. Once completing the evaluation which took all morning we broke for lunch and returned to learn splicing double-braided nylon and lock stitching. Splicing is a skill that was completely new to me and it took a lot of time and practice for me to understand. The rest of the week was focused on more Boat Crewman tasks such as operating and passing a portable pump, crew fatigue, motion sickness, open water survival skills, helicopter operations and small boat towing. After being evaluated in the classroom on all of these topics our open water survival skills were tested in the pool Friday morning. There we acted as small boat surface swimmers and simulated rescuing a person in the water and transferring them to a stokes litter. We also practiced certain survival techniques as if you as crewman fell overboard, escaped a capsized or sinking vessel and operated a six person life raft to get out of the water. 

Week 10: This week was a little different than the rest considering our class schedule. The class was split up into groups and each group went to a different class/instruction at different times of the day. The week consisted of learning about Scale Integrated Navigation Systems (SINS) and a bridge simulator. The simulator is a simulation of a cutter’s bridge and/or pilot house. The bridge is where the cutter is driven from and where all of the navigation and communication work is done. We are trained in a simulator so we can get hands on experience with the bridge equipment and practice situations we may experience while actually underway. The simulator is a perfect training environment that allows us to learn from our mistakes and correct our errors. Incorporated into this training is the Navigation Rules of the Road and determining situations we encounter. All of this training allows us to get familiar with everything prior to getting underway on the 38’ SPC and soon reporting to our new units.  

Bring on the 38’s! Semper Paratus!!

Editor’s Note: We are following Bella’s adventures through her training with the U.S. Coast Guard. You can read her first installment here.