ILWACO — Fresh out of basic training, Ryan O’Meara’s first assignment in the Coast Guard in 1997 was as a replacement on a 44-foot lifeboat crew in La Push, where three of the four crew members died during an attempted rescue of a sailboat crew in distress.
“I was younger,” O’Meara, now 43, said. “They asked me how I felt about going there, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I wanted to drive the boats in the worst conditions possible.”
Twenty years later, O’Meara is the head of the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, training the Coast Guard’s next generation of surfmen. He replaced Kevin Clark, who retired after 30 years in the service.
O’Meara grew up near a Coast Guard boat base in Chicago. His father published boating magazines, and he often heard about the Coast Guard in mariner circles.
Having raised himself since 16, he lacked the personality traits needed to be successful, and saw the Coast Guard as a path to maturity, he said.
A year into his watch in La Push, O’Meara attended a course at the lifeboat school. Established in 1968 next to the Graveyard of the Pacific, the school is the only place in the U.S. to learn rough weather surf rescue.
It attracts aspiring surfmen from around the country, who then return to their stations to use what they’ve learned.
At 26, O’Meara started his second stint at the school, this time as an instructor.
“I didn’t think I was worthy,” he said. “You didn’t come here unless your command held you in high regard. I just didn’t think I was good enough.”
It took O’Meara a year or two to get his boat-handling abilities up to snuff for the school.
“If you’re good here, you’re the best boat driver in the Coast Guard,” he said.
O’Meara became an executive petty officer at Station Umpqua in Winchester Bay, and later the officer in charge of Station Juneau in Alaska.
He then did a tour as the operations chief for the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Hawaii, before being assigned as commanding officer of Station Yaquina Bay in Newport.
As leader of the lifeboat school, he oversees more than 50 people, including Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeremiah Wolf, a former student.
“It’s uncommon to have former instructors here,” Wolf said. “It’s a great firsthand experience.”
O’Meara said Wolf helps him focus on the school and turning out the best possible surfmen, with the help of eight instructors. They usually take in nine students a year, but recently added another class in response to a shortage of surfmen.
Being a surfman is tough on the body and can take half a decade of training. O’Meara has had multiple foot and knee surgeries, all of which he credited to the challenges of the profession.
“To be a surfman instructor is a totally selfless job,” he said. “You’re not going out and saving the day. You’re teaching people how to save the day.”
O’Meara has 22 years in the service. His family remains in Newport while his son Sean, 17, finishes high school. Next year, his wife Summer, a medical assistant, and daughter Meghan, 14, a freshman, will join him.
O’Meara is working on his bachelor’s degree and hopes to eventually retire to Alaska to ply calmer waters as a ferry captain.