The Coast Guard of the Great Lakes: Its 9th District is so different, in so many ways, from the service’s other districts that it’s difficult to explain those differences concisely, but its members have figured out a way. The Great Lakes Basin is characterized by what Coast Guard members call the “Three Ss”: shared, saltless, and seasonal. Shared, because the district’s area of responsibility includes 1,500 miles of international maritime border with Canada. Saltless, obviously, because the lakes are a freshwater environment, with characteristics that differ from the Coast Guard’s other maritime regions. The third S, seasonal, may at first be puzzling to outsiders: All Coast Guard districts experience seasons, of course, but as District 9’s commander, Rear Adm. Michael Parks, pointed out, no other district’s waters are frozen solid for a good portion of the year.
“We have two really distinct seasons here,” Parks said. “We call them the soft-water season and the hard-water season.” The operational environments dictate proficiency in two distinct sets of capabilities. “When we have to pull our boats, for example, out of the water in the dead of winter because we’re concerned about them becoming ruined in the ice,” he said, “the mission for those assets stops. But we still do things like ice rescue. We use a whole new mission set for a period of three or four months, depending on the ice conditions.”
While it makes for an exciting, varied work environment, the extreme seasonality of the 9th District is disruptive to training regimens that are the norm throughout the Coast Guard. “I think we kind of came to the conclusion that our folks are somewhat disadvantaged,” said Parks. “For example, when the boats are out of the water, the helicopters don’t have anybody to do hoist training with. Potentially, they could have a three- or four-month gap in hoist training.”
Not long after District 9 began sending some of its helicopter crews south for part of the winter for proficiency deployments that would help them keep their skills sharp, Parks began to see the potential for a district-wide proficiency program that embraced all of its missions. “The goal,” he said, “was really to design a program where everybody was taking a look at how they could use that time to try to develop some additional proficiency.”
Boats out of Water
The contrast between the soft- and hard-water seasons in the 9th District couldn’t be starker: Between June and August, it’s the busiest Coast Guard district, with more search and rescue (SAR) cases and boardings than anywhere else in the service. As recreational boaters leave in the fall, the Great Lakes are afflicted by a period of rough weather known to local folklore (and to musician Gordon Lightfoot fans) as “the gales of November,” a span in which motor lifeboat crews rotate in and out of three smallboat stations to hone their rough-weather capabilities.
These practice sessions are supplemented by off-season proficiency deployments to other motor lifeboat stations – most likely, the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment in Washington state, where consistently terrible weather and huge waves draw boatcrews from all over the service to train.
Proficiency deployments occur year-round, but most commonly in the dead of winter, when ice prevents most shipping traffic on the lakes and the district’s smallboat stations – 47 of them, more than any other Coast Guard district – go largely quiet.
The absence of boats means the loss of a key training partner for the district’s helicopter crews, who use them to practice hoist training. “To do what we do,” said Capt. Stephen Torpey, 9th District chief of response, “which is to basically recover people off of sinking ships, you would like to be able to train 12 months a year. Those boats are the principal hoist platforms that we use to maintain our hoist capability.”