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Hanging with the Coasties

USCGC Bainbridge Island

My fabulous trip to NYC for the RWA National Conference started off with a visit to US Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook in New Jersey as part of pre-conference events sponsored by the Kiss of Death chapter. Here's a little of what I learned.

The US Coast Guard started in 1790 and currently has about 39,000 personnel. Their primary tasks are to guard the nation’s borders against attack, illegal immigrants, drug runners, and terrorists, and to provide search and rescue.

The USCG falls under the Department of Homeland Security, but is considered one of the five services, and can be tasked by the Department of Defense. In fact, USCG members are serving in the Middle East, helping to guard the waters of the Gulf since they specialize in small boat patrol.

The rank follows the Navy rank, complete with specialized ranks, for example a Petty Officer Third Class (E-4) might be called a Gunner's Mate Third Class (GM3), or a Boatswain's Mate Third Class (BM3), or any of a number of titles based on his or her rating (career field).

Sig Sauer P229

Upon arrival at Sandy Hook, our group was split into three. Mine started at the armory and practice range where we were introduced to the Sig Sauer P229-RDAK personal defense weapon (handgun), and the Colt M16-A2 rifle. The P229 is generally carried by all members of a boarding party. We didn’t get to fire or hold the weapons, but we were introduced to proper handling procedures.

After a quick lunch in the galley, we took a ride on a Motor Life Boat (MLB), a 47-foot, heavy-duty rescue boat that can withstand hurricane force winds and heavy seas. It generally goes out for hours at a time, but not for extended duty.

Motor Life Boat

The crew gave us a demonstration of rescuing a man overboard. Generally they use a hook on a pole for the victim to grab, or to hook onto the victim’s clothing if he/she can’t hold on. Rescue swimmers are only used in areas where the MLB can’t navigate due to rocks, a tight fit, or other hazards.

Along the way, I asked several of the guys why they joined the Coast Guard. Most of them wanted to serve their country and specifically chose the Coast Guard because they loved the water and/or had grown up around it and boats.

Big surprise, right? 😉

After the boat ride, we had a briefing from the Maritime Safety & Security (MSS) team. These guys are like SWAT for the Coast Guard. For example, if a freighter were taken hostage, they could use a vertical insertion—dropping from a line on a helo—to board the boat and take down the bad guys/recover the hostages.

We got a preview of the specialized equipment they use for breaching a boat, as well as their personal ballistic gear. They generally wear 60-70 pounds of gear when fully outfitted with body armor, radio, tools, weapons, and equipment specific to their role on the team (e.g. the team paramedic carries the medical supplies).

USCGC Bainbridge Island

Our final activity was a tour of the 110-foot USCG Cutter Bainbridge Island. This boat goes out for up to two weeks at a time on drug interdiction missions and to intercept illegal immigrants. It has a tight set of racks for sleeping (stacked three high) and a small galley and dining area belowdecks.

Up top is a 50mm gun, a Zodiac boat attached to a crane so that it can be lowered over the side, and lots of navigation equipment and radios on the bridge.

We wrapped up our informative tour with a brief Q&A session before heading back to Manhattan. Our Kiss of Death tour committee rocks, but I'd be remiss if I didn't also thank the wonderful men and women of Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook for a great tour and for their service to our country!

Kiss of Death

So you know I went to the RWA National Conference last week and met fabulous writers, both published and unpublished. I arrived a couple days early to participate in activities with my online romantic suspense/mystery chapter: Kiss of Death (KOD).

Yes, it's a bunch of ladies (and a few men) trying to figure out interesting ways to kill people…uh, I mean characters. On Tuesday (7/27), we took a tour of MacDill AFB near Tampa, and started the day with an inside/outside tour of a KC-135 Stratotanker (a refueling plane), complete with two pilots and a boom operator to answer questions.

The KC-135 Stratotanker, ready for 45 romance writers to board


It was awesome. The guys had great stories, and the KC-135 has an incredibly important mission. For one example of how they support other aircraft, check out this article.

After baking in the heat and humidity, we had lunch with airmen who had volunteered to eat with us and answer questions. Laura Griffin, Lexi Connor, and I sat with a Senior Airman who worked in satellite communications. He was shy but happy to talk about his career and future goals.

We left the group with thank you bags (which I diligently stuffed the night before along with many new KOD friends) with free books and goodies from our published authors, several of whom were in the room, though most of the men and women who joined us had no idea.

After lunch we went over to NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), which has a hangar on the base. These are the crazy folks that fly into hurricanes and other storms to monitor and study them. Among other things. The pilot we talked to was a former Navy flier. NOAA is actually a uniformed service (though not an armed service), so he gets to retain his rank, pay, and retirement. NOAA falls under the Department of Commerce.

Cool fact: Jim Henson created muppet mascots for three of NOAA's planes. Uncool fact: Disney will not give NOAA the license to use any other muppets for the newer planes in the fleet.

NOAA plane with original Beaker and Super Gonzo art by Jim Henson


We ended our day with the parachute riggers (the guys who pack the chutes). I thought this would be boring, but it might have been the most fun part of the whole day. We got a static-line chute packing demonstration, a simulator demo, and a talk from the free-fall riggers who were also jump masters.

And yes, the free-fall guys were under the special forces umbrella. I saw that maroon beret peeking out from a pants pocket…

Static-line jumps are for low altitude jumps, and the chute is triggered by the line to which the jumper is attached. You see these on TV and movies all the time where the guys are hooked to a cable and they jump one after another while somebody yells “Go, go, go”, and their chutes open almost immediately after they clear the plane. The person yelling is the jump master, by the way.

Static-line chute rigger


Free fall chutes are used for high altitude jumps where there's a need to go in quiet. They are shaped differently from the static-line chutes, and are made of more durable material. You may have heard of HALO (high altitude low opening) or HAHO (high altitude high opening) jumps. These are often used by special forces. The men can be dropped miles away from their target (often at night) and avoid detection by the bad guys.

Free-fall rigging

We grilled the guys on how to kill someone by messing with their parachute and determined it was near impossible without involving an entire group of people. Ah, well. Another method then.

The day wouldn't have been nearly as much fun without all of the new friends I made. It was great being surrounded not only by writers, but by a whole group of people mainly focused on romantic suspense.

The Kiss of Death has breathed new life into my writing, and I can't wait to do it all again next year!

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