Always with a friendly smile, yet strong and patient, with nerves of steel and unshakable dedication. They provide military service, waterway security, assist with maritime transportation, hazardous materials shipping and are even on the scene as pollution response. Did we mention that as we sip our morning java that more than likely these folks are running training drills in a pool, strapped upside down in a vessel so that when a real life scenario arises there is no loss of life?
Yeah. These folks are real life superheroes. Their motto, — Semper Paratus or “Always Ready” — could not be more fitting. We may not always see them in action, but for the Coast Guard there is never a dull moment as they are always on the move; training, coordinating, updating and outfitting new equipment.
For Hawaii native, now an Outer Banks transplant, Mark Peer, it was literally love at first sight. “I grew up surfing Barbers Point in O’ahu,” Peer says.
“Every time we were in the water, I would see the Coast Guard helicopters flying over, and I always thought how cool it would be to become one of those rescue swimmers.” With an expressed interest, Peer was finally asked to join, and at the age of 18, he did just that. But not without a lesson in patience first.
“What I didn’t realize is that each rescue swimmer class is limited to 24 students, and there were literally hundreds of people on the waiting list,” Peer says.
“After I finished boot camp, I spent the next 2 years on a ship until it was my turn.”
His patience paid off: 11 years later, Peer is as stoked as he ever was.
The rescue swimmer training is no joke as it takes about a year and half to complete the entire process and has an attrition rate of about 80 percent.
“We work on EMT skills, ocean training, inspection of safety equipment and as always their is the pool training,” he says.
Starting off in Hawaii as an operational swimmer, all of these skills were put to the test. “Because Hawaii has so many cliffs, a lot of times we would respond to situations where hikers had fallen and needed to be medi-vacc’d,” Peer says. “The most gnarly experience is when we have had to respond to an airplane crash.”
But that’s what these guys do — show up without hesitation.
With a state-of-the-art U.S. Coast Guard training facility in Elizabeth City — the largest Coast Guard installation in the country — Peer decided to take advantage of a new opportunity.
“I’ve always wanted to not only live on the Outer Banks but also challenge myself to be with the best.”
Not surprisingly, Peer continues to succeed and is now 1 of 15 instructors.
The facility guides students through the 3 phases of training, with Peer being in charge of phase 2.
“Usually during phase 1 we start with 24 people,” Peer shares a grin broadening across his face. “By phase 2, we have five or six.”
And those five or six people are exactly the ones you want if you ever find yourself in a sinking vessel or swept out to sea.
“These folks are really solid. These people are the most motivated, who want to learn and will do anything necessary,” he says. “It’s why I love training.”
But even after all the phases, the work really never ends. “Once or twice a year we attend different schools and must complete EMT recertification,” he says “I’ve been to arctic survival school in Fairbanks, Alaska and there are others we complete such as jungle, desert and repel school. We really get to complete a lot of cool training.”
And that’s not to say that there isn’t always risk involved and the load is never easy. “I always tell people,” Peer says, “Our bread and butter is going out in stormy seas and having to tow someone twice your size in; you always have to remember that.”
Thanks to the facility in Elizabeth City, folks like Peer can help train new recruits in every scenario imaginable — blowing wind, rain, darkness, and underwater drills — that would send most of us running with our tails tucked.
That’s what it takes — and thanks to their constant efforts, our coastline is that much safer.