CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT - Taylor Smith is a 23 year old who graduated from the National Motor Lifeboat School (NMLBS) heavy weather coxswain course Nov. 2 at Cape Disappointment. He is originally from Boise, Idaho and he first saw the ocean on a family vacation when he was in high school.
For the star wrestler (he qualified for three state tournaments while attending a small Catholic school) and lacrosse player, it was love at first sight. "I was able to take a tour on a 47-foot motor lifeboat while we were at the Oregon coast and I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do," Smith explains as the serious, somewhat shy young man lights up with enthusiasm.
Smith enlisted in the USCG while still in high school and has already served five years. He has been a coxswain on the "47" for three years. As a lacrosse player in high school Smith combined the skills of football, baseball, basketball, and soccer with the endurance of a cross country runner. In the USCG his goal is to become a Surfman, the highest step in the progression as a coxswain that will also require a combination of a myriad of skills and talents.
Stationed at Bodega Bay, Calif., Smith has been in charge of "dozens of tows of crafts of all shapes and sizes" and has carried out missions in seas of 28 feet with 45 knot winds. He has rescued several PIW's (persons in water) and helped extinguish boat fires while on duty in the Pacific. The soft-spoken Smith says simply, "When I joined the Coast Guard I wanted to be involved with search and rescue. I wanted to be there to save lives and to help people."
While at the NMLBS Smith explains, "I am anxious and excited to be here. I know this is a great time to review and a way to sharpen my skills as a coxswain. I want to learn all I can." He spent ten days last year at the NMLBS, but the weather didn't cooperate as the surf was too calm, so Smith was sent home and invited back this year.
When Smith takes the controls of the 20-ton motor lifeboat the twin 390-horsepower Detroit Diesels respond with a verve that resonates throughout the entire 47-foot vessel.
There is not a moment's hesitation to his movements or to his decisions, as he calmly tows another "47" and then directs his crew to shorten the line from 400 feet to 100 feet, all in one go-round.
During a hard chine drill when the "47" is intentionally put on its side at a 45 degree angle and then maneuvered back to an upright position in up to 15-foot seas, Smith holds on the rail with one hand and looks out for others in his crew in case they might slip. When it is his turn at the helm, one gets the feeling that it's the wave that is in trouble as he firmly sets his jaw to the task of going into and out of one hard chine after another. His muscular arms and hands effortlessly move the controls and his eyes never waver from where danger might come.
"My goal is to become a Surfman, first class. I also want to enter officer candidate school. I would like to make the coast guard my career and be the commanding officer of a life boat station on the west coast. I want to be either involved with search and rescue or possibly with counter-narcotics," Smith states.
There are only 161 Surfmen in the USCG and there are openings for another 160 or so, however the qualifications are so stringent to become a Surfman that about half of those openings go unfilled each year. "To be a Surfman you have to pass the heavy weather class and then get more training as a coxswain beyond that. Then there is an oral examination and a skills test on the motor lifeboat," Smith explains.
"If I don't for some reason get into officer candidate school or make Surfman, then I may go into criminal justice." Smith is currently studying for a degree in criminal justice online through Saint Leo College. He also is in the Big Brother Program at Cotati, Calif., a small town on Bodega Bay. "I work with an 11 year old boy. Being a Big Brother is about as rewarding a thing as you can do," he explains.
His hobbies are mountain biking and diving for abalone. Seeing Smith's stout frame fill his USCG issue uniform, one can only hope for the best for whatever mountain he wants to bike on or for those helpless abalone in the depths of the Pacific. Yet, when another student needs a hand getting into his survival suit, Smith is the first to assist without a word being spoken.
Smith also has his easy-going side. During a break at Cape D he went on a trip with the other dozen students enrolled in the NMLBS to the Astor Column. "We found some four-inch balsa airplanes on the ground. Sam's (Graham) plane went forever, but mine went straight down. It wasn't fair because the tail of my plane was broken off. And there are 167 steps going up," he says. "I like this part of the coast. I saw the Columbia River for the first time in 2004 and then I was here last year."
For Smith, the best part about being in the coast guard is "the quality of life." He says, "We get the best of everything in the line of equipment and I really enjoy the family atmosphere we have in our unit-the teamwork."
For the USCG, the best part is having quality people like Taylor Smith dedicated to the old coast guard saying, "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back." Smith is the kind of guy who has the wherewithal and who will do everything in his power to make sure everyone does come back-alive.