An Auxiliarist Underway – Part I

IMG_1040

Auxiliarist Charles McLeod recently departed aboard Coast Guard Cutter LEGARE as part of an unique Coast Guard Auxiliary program that builds a relationship between an Auxiliary member and a cutter crew. He will be sailing with the cutter for their entire two month patrol and will be sending updates about his experience throughout the deployment.

If someone told me six months ago I would driving a cutter in the ocean, I really would have laughed and hard – that’s where this story starts.

With three short blasts of the Cutter Legare’s whistle, we pulled away from the pier, and I embarked on a journey few in the Auxiliary have taken. In fact, it was a journey that, now underway, I wondered if I was ready for. The previous week was a whirlwind of packing, repacking, purchasing and tailoring. Then I checked and rechecked to make sure I had everything I thought I would need. It turns out you never remember everything, and I looked forward to the first port call to fix that. The slow and graceful turn of the cutter to starboard gave a picturesque view of Base Portsmouth, and it hit me again I wouldn’t be seeing this place for TWO MONTHS! My mind raced through what was happening to me. In a few short hours, I would start my first break-in watch on the bridge and be responsible for steering the ship through the waters ahead of us.

Cape Hatteras was described to me as a great time if you are fishing, but in a 270-foot cutter, it translates to a free trip to every Busch Gardens roller coaster on a full stomach! Fortunately that was not me. No way. I had planned ahead with a double-dose of seasickness pills, water and just in case… a little blue bag and a memorized path to the head (or bathroom for you landpeeps)! By the time we reached Hatteras, I was asleep, and had started to earn my sea legs.

Finally the hour arrived for my first watch. I walked up to the bridge with faux confidence, thinking, “Hey, how bad can it be, right?” Earlier that week, BM1 took me up to the bridge while still in port. I marveled at the equipment. Helm commands were being shouted and answered in short order. I swallowed hard and announced my presence to the bridge team. Nothing happened…

I said “Ahoy!” and still no one responded.

Just before I was about to tap someone on the shoulder and re-introduce myself, SN Workman came up to me and said, “Once you are qualified, they’ll respond. Until then just go through me.”

The next three hours were a complete blur – know this, watch this, listen for this, hey did you see that, remember if that ever happens again. Then they handed me my qualification packet with 21 pages of everything I would be tested on my board. MY BOARD? What! Can’t I just take an online test? Have a conversation over a cup of mess coffee? BM3 chuckled and just shook his head. I thought this was going to be a training cruise. I was learning!
The next week was a blur of watches – two a day for the bridge and two for the quarterdeck. If it was not for the Commanding Officer ordering me off the boat for two days in Grand Cayman, I probably would have stood more watches.

Being in the Caymans was an incredible treat, and what a great group of people to hang out with! I checked out the good places to shop, and reported back where the locals shopped and the best prices for things. I found the only place that had Wi-Fi, which allowed me to post pictures and check in with family and friends. Then the port call was over. Three days and nights, in what has to be one of the most beautiful spots in the Caribbean quickly concluded with the bellowing of three short blasts of Legare’s whistle signaling our movement astern.

The rest of the time was divided between watches, eating and studying. There is so much studying that takes place, that you are never far from someone who wants to quiz you or be quizzed on your next board. The funny part is your shipmates are just as nervous as you are, so, at least you are in similar company! Finally the day arrived. I was ready to ask to take my qualification board. Just learning how to request permission for a board felt like a huge learning curve on what to do, who to ask, and how to do it without it being kicked back only to start all over again. I waited. And waited. And waited. I was prepared to take place on Monday was now moved to Thursday. THURSDAY?! Now how would I remember all this? What if I failed? What punishment would await me? Would I be masted? Could I be masted?! No time to think about that now. I had to study.

That week, I dreamed of running aground and other horrifying encounters at sea. My watches sped through and suddenly it was it was time for the board! Had I lost track of time? Was I even ready? A funny thing happened though. Every one of the crewmembers said to me, “Hey! You can do this. We know you can do this if you want to.”

I swallowed hard and thought, “Wow! This is some support system. After a little more than two weeks at sea, these active duty guys accepted me as one of their own.”

Suddenly I felt ready, and I said, “Yeah, let’s do this!”

I can’t really divulge the elements of the board mostly because I don’t remember much of them! It’s a blur, but passing the board was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Being accepted as one of the crew led into helping in several areas of the cutter, and every day I am learning something new.

This Thanksgiving, while most Americans gather around the table to spend time with family and friends, the crew members of the USCGC Legare will be underway. Even though we won’t be there to celebrate with our friends and family, we will definitely be thinking of them. I am understanding more about the crew as they open up more about their lives and families. I am extremely proud to be a part of the crew who spends months together underway. I am also truly thankful for their fellowship and patriotism. Overall, what I’ve learned is the Coast Guard is exceptional at taking care of their own. Instead of Thanksgiving being a day like any other, this year I get to spend it with my newest family – the men and women of the USCGC Legare.