Practice makes perfect: Coast Guard Station Merrimack River trains to save lives

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Click above to see video of Station Merrimack River in action.

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell and Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Mitchell

“Going in!” yelled a boat crewman just before covering his face with his hand and stepping off the side of a Coast Guard boat, splashing into the water below.

Dressed in bright orange dry suits, life jackets and boat crew survival vests, more crewmembers jumped from the 47-foot Motor Life Boat into the cold New England water off the coast of Newburyport, Mass., July 13, 2011.

Crews aboard a smaller orange Coast Guard boat followed suit, each crew swimming toward the other.

Swimming hard

BOSTON – Coast Guard Station Merrimack River crewmembers swim 100 yards as part of a semi-annual training requirement off the coast of Newburyport, Mass., July 13, 2011. The training is to get the crew acquainted with the water temperature and check their suits for leaks, practicing different recovery techniques of people in the water, and locating where all their survival equipment is in their vest so that it becomes second nature. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.

To some, this may have appeared to be a large-scale rescue attempt, but for the Station Merrimack River crew it was all about maintaining a proficient and trained workforce.

The training involved a 100-yard swim to get the crew acquainted with the water temperature and check their suits for leaks, practice different recovery techniques, and locate survival equipment in their vest so it becomes second nature.

The survival vests are outfitted with different types of flares, a signaling mirror, whistle, personal locating beacon, strobe light and a survival knife that a crewmember could use if he or she fell overboard.

“It’s a matter of life and death if you don’t know where your equipment is and how to get to it,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Molnar, the operations officer of Coast Guard Station Merrimack.

After spending about 15 minutes in the water it was time to be “rescued.”

The first mock rescue was made by one of the remaining crewmen aboard the 47-foot rescue boat. The boat crewman threw an orange rescue bag to one of the people in the water. The “victim” grabbed the bag and the boat crewman pulled him closer to the boat. He was then lifted from the water and back onto the boat.

Almost there

BOSTON – Petty Officer 1st Class Lucas Marland, a Coast Guard Station Merrimack River crewman, grabs a rescue heaving line that was thrown to him by one of his shipmates aboard a 47-foot Motor Life Boat during a mock rescue off the coast of Newburyport, Mass., July 13, 2011. The training involved a 100-yard swim to get the crew acquainted with the water temperature and check their suits for leaks, practicing different recovery techniques of people in the water, and locating where all their survival equipment is in their vest so that it becomes second nature. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Mitchell.

Other “victims” were pulled out of the water using other techniques based on whether they were supposedly conscious or not.

Molnar said the crew’s training really paid off last year when a boat hit a jetty and ejected three of the four people aboard. One suffered a back injury due to the accident. Three station crewmembers swam out to the jetty, stabilized the man on a back support to be airlifted by a Coast Guard helicopter crew and then swam back out to the boat.

“These training swims, even though they are only done once a year, help us get a feel for the water – how cold it can get, how much harder swimming is in an ocean than a swimming pool, especially with all the gear we are required to wear,” said Molnar.

Although the training is required to be a qualified boat crewman, it’s not a pass or fail situation. If anyone is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, they receive extra training.

“The most important thing to us is that everyone knows the proper techniques to rescue a person in distress and can swim with all their gear to reach a person if need be,” said Molnar.

Because the station often works with local agencies when responding to emergencies on the water, they also do joint training. During this training both crews are able to understand each other’s abilities and resources each have to offer during a joint rescue. This enables them to learn each other’s standard procedures in order to effectively work together.

“It’s all just part of making sure we are fully trained in all of the missions we do,” Molnar said.

Locking hands

BOSTON – Petty Officer 2nd Class David Hamilton, a Coast Guard Station Merrimack River crewman, grabs the hand of his shipmate, Petty Officer 1st Class Jacob Correia, to pull him from the water during a 100-yard swim off the coast of Newburyport, Mass., July 13, 2011. The required training is to get the crew acquainted with the water temperature and check their suits for leaks, practicing different recovery techniques of people in the water, and locating where all their survival equipment is in their vest so that it becomes second nature. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Mitchell.