Boatswains Among Birds — The Secret Salts Of Elizabeth City

Petty Officer 2nd Class Calvin Hernandez, a boatswain’s mate and coxswain at Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina, rides aboard a 29-foot Response Boat-Small near the station, Feb. 14, 2016. Calvin and other boat crew members at the station routinely work with aviators from Air Station Elizabeth City. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn)

Perhaps the best kept boat station secret in the Mid-Atlantic region lies nestled within the largest Coast Guard facility in the country, at Base Elizabeth City in Eastern North Carolina.

Station Elizabeth City is easy to pass without realizing it’s there, located in an unassuming off-white building that looks like part of the neighboring air station complex. The boathouse on the nearby Pasquotank River is almost a hundred yards away.

The crew at the boat station is accustomed to the surrounding flurry of aviation activity — the base is also home to Air Station Elizabeth City and the Aviation Technical Training Center (ATTC), where all enlisted Coast Guard aviation personnel are trained in their chosen professions. Consequently, the vast majority of people coming and going from the base each day are connected to Coast Guard aviation in some way.

“Being stationed here is fun,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Calvin Hernandez, a boatswain’s mate and coxswain at the station. “Throughout the Coast Guard, boat and helicopter crews must work together to complete missions. A lot of the time though, crews talk to one another over the radio during training or on a case, but never actually meet in person. Here, we see aviation people every day.”

Hernandez acknowledged there’s an age-old rivalry between air and boat crews, but explained how he thinks it makes the service stronger.

“Our boat crews have about a 30 minute head start when we’re notified of a case since helicopter crews typically take about that long to launch,” he said. “We always strive to safely arrive on scene before the helicopter. We’re on the same team with the goal of saving lives, but working to get there first helps us all keep focused on the mission.”

A student at the Aviation Technical Training Center (ATTC) in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, plunges from an Air Station Elizabeth City MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter into the Pasquotank River, Feb. 14, 2017. Four aviation survival technician (AST) A school students at ATTC graduated and became ASTs Feb. 17, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn)

Hernandez admitted there are times when it’s frustrating to respond on the water.

“Sometimes for search and rescue cases, we have to trailer our boats by vehicle an hour or more away, launch from a remote location, then spend 45 minutes traveling on the water before arriving on scene,” he said. “A helicopter crew taking off from here can be to the same place in 15 minutes once they launch. Sometimes after a case, we’ll get back to the station after long hours on the water and find that the aircrew we were working with bought us a meal and beat us back to the station with it. It’s always nice to come back to find food waiting and to feel appreciated.”

Of course, anytime they want to be appreciated, crew members at Station Elizabeth City can always turn to their station dog, Chief Bert, for his unconditional affection.“

The crew adopted Bert, a German Shepherd and former explosive detection dog who worked for six years with the Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas. He’s arguably the most popular guy on base.

“Bert makes me feel like I’m home when I’m here,” said Bowen. “I look forward to coming here and seeing him. I think he brings a light-heartedness to the station and even the entire base that people are drawn to.”

Bowen said that after Bert, what she likes most about Station Elizabeth City is the opportunity to see all the Coast Guard jobs conducted around her.

“I’m lucky here,” she said. “In addition to the variety of jobs I get to explore at my station, I’m also exposed to the aviation jobs being performed right outside our door. We provide a lot of support for helicopter training flights for the air station and the training center. It’s neat I get to be around all that stuff and be a part of it.”

“The boat station crew allows us here at the rescue swimmer training school to offer our graduating aviation survival technicians a pre-graduation flight where they complete a free fall into the Pasquotank River,” said Chief Petty Officer Claude Morrissey, an instructor at ATTC. The boat crew provides a platform to pick up our swimmers from the water, and is there to respond in case any emergency should arise.”

Even while they assist with helicopter training missions, Station Elizabeth City crews are responsible for responding to emergencies in an area of responsibility that spans 1,700 square miles, includes 10 rivers and three sounds as well as the Intracoastal Waterway and Dismal Swamp Canal.

“We operate inshore and in areas that are very difficult to navigate due to shallow waters and multiple hazards to navigation,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Talys, executive petty officer at Station Elizabeth City. “Unlike most Coast Guard Stations which normally have a search and rescue season in the summer months, we have a transit season, which equates to periods of heavy vessel traffic moving up and down the
Intracoastal Waterway in the months preceding summer and winter. Our job is to ensure these boaters are safe and in compliance with federal laws and regulations.”

“Since we have such a large area of responsibility and none of it is open ocean, we operate in a wide range of environments,” said Hernandez. “There are swampy areas, areas where people like to wakeboard and areas popular for fishing. I think all the different nooks and crannies we have to be familiar with is what keeps it interesting here.”

A view of Building 53 at Base Elizabeth City, North Carolina, March 10, 2017 – the location of Station Elizabeth City. Building 53 is shared by crew members from both the boat and air stations. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn)

Hernandez said they do their best to cross train in each other’s jobs at the station. “Lots of people here can do almost any job required at the station,” he said. “We have seamen and machinery technicians that want to become coxswains, and we have boatswain’s mates who work with our engineers if they need help with a project.”

When they aren’t actively working, Coast Guardsmen on the base engage in sports, often competing with teams from different units. The station crew says they enjoy heated ultimate frisbee showdowns with the rescue swimmer shop, and basketball games against the MH-60 Jayhawk team from the air station. That recreational competition keeps the healthy rivalry alive and thriving in a service of the same status.

“This station is very unique to the Coast Guard,” said Talys. “Being co-located with Air Station Elizabeth City gives us direct insight into all the hard work and training the flight crews conduct every day.”