Best of the best
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
March 08, 2013 10:16 pm
Brandon Thompson, left, and Sam Blosch receive the Coast Guard’s highest qualification Friday. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Brandon Thompson, left, and Sam Blosch receive the Coast Guard’s highest qualification Friday. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Two local U.S. Coast Guard guardsmen joined the ranks of only 161 others nationwide when they were bestowed the Surfman’s Badge, the highest qualification for boat operations in the military branch.

Brandon Thompson, 25, and Sam Blosch, 27,   were given golden “checks” – medallions engraved with a life ring and two oars – for the years of  training spent to earn the certifications, whose holders represent the smallest operating specialty in the Guard.

“The fun part’s over,” said Operations Chief Bruce Day at a ceremony at the Chetco River Lifeboat Station in Harbor Friday morning. “Training is way different than real life. We are empowering them with the go/no-go decisions of the Coast Guard.”

The rigorous training takes so long because it is largely weather dependent, requiring participants to be based in harbors where surf strikes over the navigable bar more than 10 percent of the year.

The U.S. Life Saving Service is credited with saving more than 178,000 persons. The service passed on its legacy of lifesaving – and its surfmen – to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. Today, the title of surfman is reserved for the service’s most highly trained boat handlers.

The surf in which surfmen are qualified to drive is both unpredictable and treacherous, and requires the utmost boat driving skill and mastery; surfman qualification is the pinnacle of professionalism at these units, according to the USCG website.

Those seeking the certification must be able to pilot 47-foot lifeboats in the worst of conditions. Those include operating in 30-foot swells, 20-foot surf and 50 knots wind, the maximum the boats are capable of tackling. The two Brookings men are also now qualified to drive the Guard’s 52-foot motor lifeboats Victory, stationed in Newport; the Triumph, in Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash.; the Intrepid in Charleston; and the Invincible in Grays Harbor in Westport, Wash.

Thompson and Blosch trained in the National Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, Wash., and spent time in Tillamook, Cape Disappointment, the Rogue and Chetco stations along the West Coast. Nationwide, there are 188 boat stations in the Coast Guard, of which 22 are surf units, located in areas that require the skills of surfmen. Of those 22 units, 17 are on the West Coast.

“School was a lot of fun,” Thompson said. “Learning from each person, gaining knowledge – that was unique. You can’t learn this from just anyone; just a surfman. They’re the only ones who can sign off on the tasks.”

Thompson and Blosch represent Nos. 475 and 476 in the ranks.

The checks were passed around the room for all to admire and offer “strength from the heart of each individual,” said Officer in Charge BMCM Peter Janusch.

“These two are taking on the most challenging, most dangerous tasks a Coast Guard boatsman can,” he said. “The training is long and extremely demanding. Only 5 percent of coxswains who try qualify. They are the core of the Coast Guard’s soul of service.”

The life rings depicted on the checks denote the oldest form of life-saving devices, offering hope and a will to live to those in peril, Janusch explained. One of the crossed oars represents the Guard’s “steadfast dedication,” the other, a steering oar, the “steady eye that keeps the course true.”