Surfman Proud of Being in an Elite Group

By Eric Englund | Nov 13, 2019

Surf City — Graham Sahli has a job that only 140 people in the country have – he’s a U.S. Coast Guard surfman. When the petty officer at the Barnegat Light Coast Guard Station takes an excursion into the ocean, it’s certainly not for pleasure, as surfmen are Coast Guard personnel specially authorized to operate surf boats under extreme weather and sea conditions.

“To be a surfman, not only do you need a lot of boating and swimming skills, but you must have good judgment, courage, patience and leadership,” Sahli recently told an audience at the Long Beach Island Branch of the Ocean County Library in Surf City during a program about his job. “It’s hard for me to figure what was the toughest part of the training, but when you were finished, you knew you were part of an elite group. It’s the pinnacle of seamanship.”

To be awarded the very prestigious Surfman Badge, a service member must undergo training in dangerous surf conditions, accumulate a minimum number of hours operating in these conditions while conducting practical exercises and undergo a rigorous underway check ride as well as an oral review board. The process to qualify for a Surfman Badge requires at least eight years of training and experience.

Sahli enlisted in the Coast Guard as a 19-year-old in 2004. Growing up in western Pennsylvania, he was a lot closer to the Great Lakes and various rivers than the ocean.

“Yet I do remember sometimes when I went to the beach, I really liked it,” he said. “It made me think that one day I’d like to settle down there.”

In outlining a history of the Coast Guard, he said the term “surfman” goes back to the 19th century

“Those familiar with Coast Guard history know that the service’s development has been shaped in response to the nation’s natural and manmade disasters,” he said. “Nowhere is that clearer than the Coast Guard’s search and rescue mission.”

He said that beginning in 1790, the Coast Guard’s predecessor, the Revenue Cutter Service, assisted mariners at sea.

“At the time, this was a custom of the sea, but this tradition received official sanction for the Revenue Cutter Service in 1827,” Sahli said. “In 1854, two major maritime disasters took place in New Jersey.”

On April 16, more than 200 lives were lost when the wooden schooner Powhatan wrecked near Long Beach Island.

“It had left France with the destination being New York City,” Sahli said. “Nearing the end of its journey, the Powhatan encountered a hurricane-like snowstorm, The storm was one of the worst in state history, and the crew struggled against the powerful and dangerous currents. On the morning of the 16th, the ship was forced closer to the Island and hit the Barnegat shoals, just 100 yards offshore from present-day Surf City.”

He said that as word spread, a small crowd gathered on shore. Throughout the afternoon, the Powhatan was pummeled by huge waves and fierce winds. The ship was slammed up against the shoals, and a large hole was punched into the bow.

“The Powhatan began to break apart and passengers, some already dead, began to be washed overboard,” Sahli said. “Eventually the vessel broke in two. The crowd on shore searched among the bodies for signs of life, but none was found. The victims were washed on to the beach as far as Atlantic City.”

Sahli said that in November of that year, another 220 lives were lost when the ship New Era came ashore near Asbury Park. In response to this shipwreck, Congress passed the Act of Dec. 15, 1854, greatly expanding he federal government’s ability to support lifesaving efforts.

He said that in1878, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was established, which resulted in lifesaving stations popping up along the Jersey Shore and all over the East Coast.

“The individuals that were attached to those stations were called surfmen,” said Sahli. “These men were in charge of rescuing shipwrecked victims up and down the coast. In 1915 the Lifesaving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the Coast Guard we know today.”

Sahli said the Barnegat Light station is one of 19 Coast Guard stations that have surfman patrols.

“We need it here because the Barnegat Inlet can get very rough,” he said. “Conditions can quickly get treacherous.”

Sahli, who has been at the Barnegat Light station since 2017, said the unit averages about 60 calls a year, mostly from boaters in distress.

“But in June 2018, we got called out to rescue a man who was trying to row a boat to Scotland. He had hit some strong winds and high seas, and he was safely rescued. That’s why, generally speaking, we highly recommend boats to get the latest update for weather and sea conditions before venturing out. Some boaters might not know how to safely navigate through rough sea conditions, so that’s when we get the call.”

Sahli said the crew works from a 47-foot motor lifeboat capable of surviving winds up to 60 knots and breaking surf up to 20 feet.

“If the boat should capsize, it self-rights in less than 10 seconds with all equipment fully functional,” he said.

— Eric Englund




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