Boat Crew Training in the US Coast Guard

IFred Eshelmanf you ask me, I’ll tell you that boat crew training in the U.S. Coast Guard is the best in the world. I might be biased or it might be because we have been doing it for over 225 years. We’ve been able to put together a program that gets people trained and ready to respond in some of the worst conditions imaginable. 

Whether you just saw the recently released Disney movie, The Finest Hours, or you worked with a local Station’s boat crews last week, you – along with the rest of the world – recognize the professionalism and skill of our boat crews. The-Finest-HoursOur boat crew training program takes 18-year-old kids and molds them into professional mariners in a short period of time. Many of these trainees have never stepped foot on a boat in their lives prior to entering the Coast Guard, but they are soon responsible for conducting the high-stakes boat missions to which they are assigned. How does the United States Coast Guard pull this off?    

We have boat crew positions ranging from boat crewmember, which requires basic boating skills, all the way up through some of the most highly skilled positions on the water, like Surfman and Advanced Interdiction Coxswain. After identifying what position a member will need to fill, we ensure that that the trainees, or “break-ins” as they are known in the vernacular of the Coast Guard, are trained with the minimum skills (tasks) that each of these crew positions needs to know. I say minimum because crews must continue to develop and hone their skills after they are certified, so members are constantly improving from that minimum foundation. While the Coast Guard has had the same general list of tasks for decades, it took us about the same length of time to develop those tasks. The tasks evolved in reaction to significant mishaps, as well as the introduction of new boats and equipment, among other contributing factors.   

At the core of our program are the tasks that must be learned before qualification begins. They define what needs to be done. Tasks are made up with four parts: References, Conditions, Standards, and Criteria.

References are key. References tell the trainee where to go to find information on their assigned task. These can be Coast Guard-specific references like the Boat Crew Seamanship Manual or Boat Operator’s Handbook, or they can be an operator’s manual produced by the manufacturer, or a general maritime reference like the American Practical Navigator or Chapman Piloting & Seamanship. 

Conditions determine the environment and circumstances under which the tasks must be performed. For example, if the task is required to be performed underway it will be defined as such; otherwise it is acceptable to complete the task at the dock or classroom. If a task requires operating in a certain sea state, visibility, or other condition, we define it. 

Standards are made up of parameters, knowledge, and skill. Years ago, chartprior to the publication of written standards, there was nonetheless a standard to uphold. Seasoned Officers in Charge would ensure that their men and women not only received quality training, but also had the necessary knowledge and skill to perform their mission. This process (often frustrating to the trainee) involved throwing every possible scenario at prospective crewmembers to see how they handled stress and knew what to do in an emergency. For example, a trainee might have been asked to plot multiple magnetic courses on a nautical chart within five minutes and within 1 degree of accuracy. In this case, the parameter was time, knowledge was command of the basic parts of a chart, and skill was the faculty to accurately plot the courses without any assistance.

The fourth part is Criteria, which are simply the specific learning items required for each task. Criteria work hand-in-hand with Reading Assignments to move the trainee from gaining knowledge (facts, concepts and principles) to demonstrating skills.

The Coast Guard’s current process uses a building-block approach, wherein a member must be trained in a lower boat-crew position before training for advanced crew positions. Our process is heavily dependent upon On-the-Job Training (OJT), but is supplemented by formal schools and advanced distributed learning courses. Whether a break-in attends a formal school or learns using OJT, our 9-step task completion process below applies:

  1. Instructor assigns the task.
  2. Instructor assigns the reading assignment.
  3. Instructor confirms completion of the reading assignment.
  4. Instructor demonstrates the task.
  5. Instructor walks the trainee through the task.
  6. Instructor monitors trainee performance.
  7. Instructor evaluates trainee performance.
  8. If trainee performance meets the objective, task is signed off.
  9. Training records are maintained.

The final part of the Coast Guard process is the trainee’s successful completion of an oral examination and comprehensive underway check-ride. The oral examination is administered by a Boat Crew Examination Board made up of senior members of the crew who test the prospective crewmember on policies and procedures, knowledge of the Area of Responsibility, and team coordination and risk assessment concepts. If the prospective crewmember passes, he or she is taken for an underway check-ride to evaluate performance. Check-rides can last for hours and they are the critical last step in our initial training process.

If your agency wants to start a training program, there is significant work involved. To do it right, agencies in their training program infancy would probably do best to send a few officers through a training program that is already available. Look for a program that is accredited or otherwise meets a standard. Programs like NASBLA’s Boat Operations and Training (BOAT) program are recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard for meeting the national standard with respect to training. Much in the same way that an Incident Command System allows different agencies to work with each other, having more agencies working together to a national standard in the maritime environment allows for seamless integration and interoperability. As your program builds, that is the time to gather your core group of trainers and develop your standard. 

So why is all this important? For starters, the boating public is the direct recipient of our training. When things go bad at sea, they go bad quickly, and it’s reassuring to know that the Coast Guard can respond with the skills necessary to help if a mariner gets in trouble. There are times that the Coast Guard can’t get there first. Another responding agency might get there faster, and if that agency has a great training program with the right skills to respond, we have a force multiplier for the boating public. Coupling that with law enforcement efforts to ensure boaters have the required safety equipment, and operations focused on getting intoxicated boaters off the water, we can continue to make the water a safer place for everyone.   

The Coast Guard’s boat crew training program has been evolving for years and will continue to do so. While your training program may differ from ours, it doesn’t make yours less effective. As professional mariners and first responders, we all strive to be the best and work with the resources we have. A solid training program is the way we start.

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