Always Ready

The U.S. Coast Guard Diving Program

MK1 Michael Pearsall enters the water for a training dive in Alameda, Calif., using the extreme lightweight diving system (XLDS).

"My umbilical is stuck," MK1 Michael Pearsall reports.

"Primary banks going down," DV1 Geri Cabrera says from where she's monitoring her fellow diver's air, communications and depth on the XLDS (Extreme Lightweight Diving System).

We're on a Coast Guard pier in Alameda, Calif. It's a hot, clear day, and we can see his bubbles about 30 yards out.

"I'm having a hard time breathing. I need some air," Pearsall says.

"Tell the diver to go to EGS," directs team supervisor DV1 Adonis Kazouris, referring to the emergency gas system. Cabrera relays the message. Pearsall switches to the EGS scuba tank on his back instead of the rack of tanks on the pier that has been supplying him air through a quarter-inch umbilical.

"Can you get the umbilical untangled?" Kazouris asks Pearsall.

"No, negative," he replies.

The team's second diver proceeds over a muddy gray bottom through murky, 5-foot-visibility water and reports, "I've found a leak in the umbilical. Unfouling it now."

"Thanks, buddy," Pearsall responds into the mic of his MK-20 full-face mask, prompting some wry grins from his seven topside teammates.

Soon line handlers lift the two divers to the surface. "Divers on surface," Kazouris calls out.

"Divers on surface," a topside chorus repeats. The two divers climb up a swaying 15-foot rope-and-wood Jacob's ladder that's been secured to the pier a short distance behind the Coast Guard cutter Stratton.

I'm with a "fly-away team" from the U.S. Coast Guard's Regional Dive Locker West (RDLW), based in San Diego, and working out of a trailer full of tanks, weights, a compressor, safety lines and more.

Between maintenance dives underneath the 418-foot Stratton, they're doing what Coast Guard personnel always do between operations: train fiercely, in this case with various emergency scenarios such as loss of air supply, injury, entanglement and decompression sickness (DCS). They're working to qualify a couple of dive supervisors on the new XLDS. These drills are based on their primary missions: aids to navigation, polar operations and PWCS (ports, waterways and coastal security).

Examples of this work include helping to rescue the 207-foot Australian fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain after it got stuck in Antarctic ice last winter, securing Manhattan's rivers when Pope Francis visited New York in September and helping recover debris and bodies from a Coast Guard helicopter crash that killed four of their fellow service members off Mobile, Ala., in 2012. In March 2016 they will head to the Arctic Ocean to train with Navy divers on an ice floe off Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where a growing range of threats and challenges are emerging from the declining sea ice.

As part of their polar mission training, they do a lot of ship inspections and repairs for the fleet. Yesterday they inspected the Stratton's hull, props and bow thruster (using a hand-held Outland video system so the ship's engineer could see what they saw), and they plugged a discharge port so a leak in the engine room could be worked on. This afternoon they'll put another patch over a sea chest (intake reservoir) so additional maintenance can be carried out inside the hull.

One of the dives lasted for an hour and 55 minutes, which is why they're using a surface-supplied air system — so they don't have to pull divers out of the water to switch tanks.

"These guys are beautiful for us," notes the Stratton's commanding officer Captain Nathan Moore. "If we'd called in a commercial dive team we'd be at their mercy."

The two unplanned patches probably would have cost about $10,000. In August 2015 the RDLW sent eight divers to Juneau, Alaska, to work on eight ships gathered for the annual buoy tender roundup. (Along with law enforcement and search and rescue, the Coast Guard also maintains the nation's navigational lights and buoys).

When I began writing my book Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes, I was surprised that these service personnel seemed more comfortable on and above the water than below it. They had a rescue swimmer program that grew out of a helicopter rescue tragedy in 1983, but no dive program.

The service has had hardhat and scuba divers since World War II, but until recently diving was considered volunteer or collateral duty and comprised shallow-water repair work from three Pacific buoy tenders and hull inspections of polar icebreakers. After 9/11 the number of Coast Guard armed responders skyrocketed. The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 created Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs) in major ports, and these teams included scuba divers doing underwater security sweeps. Still, even as it expanded from four to 12 units, diving remained a collateral duty, with most divers selecting and maintaining their own gear. Then on Aug. 17, 2006, a tragic safety failure occurred.

That day Lt. Jessica Hill and Boatswain's Mate Steven Duque died on a training dive below arctic ice during an "ice liberty" on the Coast Guard cutter Healy about 500 miles north of Barrow, Alaska. They were undertrained and overweighted, each carrying 60 pounds of weight in the pockets of their BCDs — about twice the recommended amount. Their low-pressure inflator hoses were not connected to their BCDs. They rapidly dropped down nearly 220 feet, where they ran out of air and asphyxiated. Their line handlers were nondiver volunteers who had no idea what was going on. The internal Coast Guard investigation that followed revealed a cascade of safety breaches, including that their gear had not been inspected in more than four years.

"The Healy incident flipped our entire leadership on its ear," says Ken Andersen, now chief of subsurface capabilities for the Coast Guard. Recognizing that diving had to be "elevated on par with other high-risk, training-intensive operations such as aviation," the service decided to professionalize it, establishing permanent dive lockers in California (RDLW) and Virginia (Regional Dive Locker East) in 2008 and a third more recently in Hawaii (Regional Dive Locker Pacific). Training, gear and inspections were standardized. The lockers will soon have 71 rated members. The Coast Guard officially established a diver rating, and the first class of certified Coast Guard divers was recognized in April 2015.

Those already on duty spend more than 200 days a year deployed on missions. To carry these out they've acquired and trained on remotely operated VideoRay subs; metal detectors; hand-held, mask-mounted and towed side-scan sonar systems; and hydraulic tools, including underwater chainsaws. They use surface-supplied systems, Kirby Morgan helmets and scuba units. They hope to have their own hyperbaric chamber within five years; for now they deploy to sea with Navy medical crews and chambers or else depend on shore-based facilities.

New recruits go through a one-week screening at the enlisted training center in Cape May, N.J., where they put in a lot of pool time. Next they get acquainted with the lockers and are then sent to the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC) in Panama City, Fla. There they undergo the Navy's five-month Second Class Diver Course (see "Year of the Military Diver," Alert Diver, Summer 2015). Some will later return for the three-month First Class Diver Course, which focuses on dive medicine and mission planning. Toward the end of the Second Class course, instead of Navy underwater explosives training, the Coast Guard divers undergo specialized training in light salvage, drysuit operations and polar diving.

The Coast Guard runs the armed services' only ice-diving school for two weeks each winter at a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility in Seattle, Wash. After some emergency ascent training in a tower tank, the trainees head 370 miles north to Lac des Roches, British Columbia, where they chop a hole in the lake ice and head below each morning. They lay out wagon-wheel designs in the snow around the hole in case a diver loses an umbilical and needs surface markers to find his or her way back. The patterns stand out dramatically on the ice as long as it's a sunny day.

As part of its training agreement with the Navy, the Coast Guard assigns six full-time trainers to NDSTC. Another seven work at the "dunker" at the Rescue Swimmer school in Elizabeth City, N.C. Dunkers are mock-ups of helicopter or small-boat interiors that drop and capsize in a pool (often in simulated darkness and storm waves) to train aviators and sailors to escape from a water crash.

Other interesting jobs done by Coast Guard divers include habitat surveys of endangered sea grasses and corals off Florida to see if navigation buoys need to be moved and post-Hurricane Sandy underwater inspections of newly created hazards to navigation. Poststorm assessments such as that, along with oil and chemical spills, have gotten program managers focused on developing contaminated-water diving capability for the lockers.

DV1 Geri Cabrera and Chief Petty Officer Lucas Spencer monitor a diver using the XLDS.

Back in Alameda, Pearsall complains to Geri Cabrera and the others, "This gray muck really clouds up," as he scrapes the mud off his dive boots, which he used to walk across the not really contaminated but certainly not pristine bottom of Alameda Bay.

One of only two women in the program, Cabrera, who grew up in Guam, is a pretty typical Coast Guard diver. "In 2007 I was asked, ‘Can you do pull-ups?' ‘Yeah, I can do pull-ups,' I said; I guess that's the issue they had with women," Cabrera says. "So I qualified and began diving with MSST Honolulu while also driving a 25-foot tactical boat because diving was still collateral duty. Later I dived the Pacific off the buoy tender Sequoia and then came to San Diego before moving on to Operation Deep Freeze [aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star] for five months to McMurdo Station. So I've dived on untouched corals in the Pacific and in cold Antarctic waters. I have had the best of both worlds while getting to help people. I'd say my career's been blessed."

Now the recreational diving community stands to benefit from the Coast Guard's growing interest in diving. Since the Coast Guard investigates all maritime accidents, the dive program recently wrote a guide to help nondiving investigators better understand the factors that contribute to diver injuries and fatalities. Having themselves emerged out of a deadly incident, the dive lockers are seriously committed to putting safety first while also living their service's motto: Semper paratus — Always ready.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2016