PUBLISHED: 5:03 PM on Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Sea Worthy: A day with the United States Coast Guard
Editor's note: This is the secondof a three-part series focussing onmilitary in Southeast Alaska.Part three will run in June.

Joseph Baxter has learned to expect the unexpected. You might even say it's his mantra.

The 27-year-old from a small town in Idaho joined the United States Coast Guard right after high school to see the world, serve his country and experience a little adventure along the way. For the past eight years he's served in Alaska, known as having the most dangerous and treacherous waters in all the U.S.

Charles Westmoreland photo
I met Baxter and his crew a few weeks ago while on assignment. I wanted to know what the Coast Guard does in Alaska and hear from the men and women first-hand about service in Southeast waters.

Since moving to Juneau in late February I've read, and even written, local stories about fishermen lost at sea, boat fires and fishing vessels dumping oil overboard. Then, last week a cruise vessel was dead in the water and needed assistance. Each time the Coast Guard was on scene.

I was standing outside the changing room at the Coast Guard's Juneau station in downtown with Petty Officer 3rd Class Levi Read, a public affairs specialist based in Juneau, waiting for our turns to don survival gear before heading out on the boats. A young, dark haired Petty Officer Second Class wearing black aviator sunglasses, body armor and with a handgun strapped to his side was the first to exit (I'd later learn it was Baxter).

"What's the body armor and pistol for, Levi? Why does the Coast Guard need those?" I asked. Were they planning a hostile takeover of a nearby island?

"It's standard for security patrols," he replied. "They have to be ready for anything."

I knew then to scrap any preconceived notions I had about the Coast Guard.

Charles Westmoreland photo
  Another rescue boat pulls up to prep our vessel for towing during simulated training near Taku Harbor in April.
Crewmen were conducting preventive maintenance in the bay where one of the 25-foot rescue boats sat. Read told me the crewmembers going on patrol do more than just keep their vessels ship-shape - they're trained to conduct maintenance and even overhaul engines if need be.

"We're a multi-mission service," Read explained. "They have to be able to do more than just one job. They could end up stranded in the water and need to know how to fix whatever is wrong."

Read and I split up on the two rescue boats heading out, each already carrying a crew of four.

I climbed into the cabin of the rescue boat. In the navigator's chair sat Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Cunningham, a graduate from Ohio State University with a business finance degree who decided being a desk jockey wasn't his calling in life. Sitting opposite of me was Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Vaughan, a former Army infantryman from San Diego who decided to try out his sea legs.

Vaughan didn't seem sure about having a journalist on board until I told him I was prior Army, too. By the end of the trip we were sharing stories about demolitions and bravado - just as any two grunts would.

Sitting in the rear of the boat outside the cabin, misplaced from his usual seat because of my presence, was Seaman David Pearson, a recent graduate from basic training who joined the crew a few months ago.

The two boats would head off to Taku Harbor for training, a routine practice that takes place about three times a week in between patrolling and rescue missions.

Once undocked and in the open water Baxter increased the throttle and soon the vessel was roaring through the channel, taking only seconds until it reached speeds of 40 knots. The rescue boats are among the fastest in the waters, if not the fastest. Ripping through waves at 40 knots seems fast, but we were only traveling at two-thirds of the boat's full speed.

Charles Westmoreland photo
  Seaman David Pearson lost his usual seat to me and had to sit in the back. He at least deserves his picture in the paper for that.
"If you took all this stuff off here (500 pounds of equipment) and had only two people on board, we could get up to 60 knots," Baxter said. "The boat will go over 40 knots no matter how much we load it down."

The seas were calm and temperatures were in the low 50s - a mild day compared to what the Coast Guard faces during winter months when they face eight-foot waves and freezing winds.

"Right now we're out on a beautiful day doing what people paying thousands of dollars to go on tours to see," Baxter said grinning.

Sure, it's a dangerous job, but on warm summer days there are benefits. But warm weather also means more boaters in the water, and more illegal activity to be wary of.

Men and women in the coast guard are trained to be on the lookout for anything suspicious - mobile meth labs being one. The crew with me has seen dumping sites in the past, and even had to deal with meth addicts stranded ashore, but none have come across an operation lab ... yet.

"We're trained to look for anything suspicious, and that is very broad," Cunningham said.

The Coast Guard, in numerous capacities, serves as the eyes and ears of local law enforcement. They have the right to board any vessel, for any suspicious reason, but also works in conjunction with state troopers when needed.

For security reasons the crew couldn't talk about how often or where they patrolled. Unpredictability is one of their assets: The Coast Guard could be anywhere at anytime, either by sea or air.

It took about 45 minutes for the boats to reach Taku Harbor. The other vessel pulled ahead to get into position to practice a distress call and simulate a towing mission.

After disappearing from site the other rescue boat calls through a few minutes alter to begin the drill. The scenario: A boat is dead in the water after hitting a rock and needs towing to safety. Cunningham follows protocol to obtain information the crew will need to prepare itself en route.

"What is your location? Are you taking on water? Are there any injuries? How many people are on board?" he asks, giving the distress caller time to respond in between questions.

After information is gathered Cunningham sets a course on the digital mapping system and soon the boat is back to 40 knots heading to Taku Harbor. In the distance the "stranded" boat floats idly a just off shore.

Once our vessel is close enough Vaughan and Pearson's role takes shape, checking on the other boat's crew, assessing damage, and getting the other vessel ready to tow. We pull the other boat a few miles to another nearby harbor, carefully harnessing it so both boats port safely.

The drill is then reversed and its our turn to be stranded. While waiting Baxter briefs his crew on the drill, both praising and critiquing their performance.

"I try to make sure the training we do is harder than anything we'll come across on the job," he said as we were being towed.

As coxswain, a nautical term referring to the pilot of a ship, Baxter is held responsible for not just the people his crew is trying to save but also for the crew itself.

"This is the best crew I've ever served with," he said. "These guys know their jobs and care about what they do."

If they didn't care the job would be insufferable some days. Shifts last from 48-72 hours at a time, any minute of which could mean receiving an emergency distress call and rushing from the station to someone's rescue.

Some spouses and families will visit the station regularly for dinner, others prefer to stay away from the scene altogether, Baxter said. But either way, the lifestyle still puts extra stress on family and loved ones because there's no such thing as a day off - there's just time in between shifts. And slow days simply mean more time to train.

After finishing the second simulated towing the boats are called back to the station and race off again toward Juneau, arriving around 2 p.m., finishing a four-hour training session. Before the crews break for lunch they head inside the station for a review of the day's training, which takes place after every real-time mission and training session.

I say thanks, shake hands, and wish the crew good luck. For me it's back to the office and into a chair. For the Coast Guard crew it's right back to work. Their shift won't end until the following morning, leaving plenty of time for that next distress call to come through.

But I leave feeling comforted that when the next distress call comes through I know the Coast Guard will be ready.

They're always ready.