The idea of Coast Guardsmen going aboard a ship to inspect it is not a new concept. Yet, as a small team of boarding officers stand in the roaring and windy opening of a helicopter over the deck of a ship some 30 feet below, they are part of a new chapter in Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement. One by one, they exit and descend to the ship by way of vertical insertion.
Vertical insertion is used by boarding teams to deploy from a helicopter to the deck of a ship by sliding down a rope. The training and risk factors involved, are not simple. Because of the ever-increasing need to have this type of capability in the Coast Guard, a training program in the First District has begun, with the ultimate goal of qualifying all Maritime Safety and Security Teams in Atlantic Area. Located on the Massachusetts Military Reservation, also home of Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, the Atlantic Area Vertical Insertion Training Center has fully taken shape.
"It's not as simple as just sliding down a rope," said lead instructor BMCS Steve McDonald. During the course, students are immersed in a program unlike any other.
Students literally begin learning the ropes at the course's training tower. The wooden tower stands nearly 50 feet high. From an overhang at the windy top, a thick, green rope dangles to the ground of crushed rubber below.
Before the students are allowed even to enter the tower, they must meet the challenge of the upper body strength evaluation. First without and then again with full gear, the students are required to do a set number of pull-ups and chin-ups - two of each with full gear, and five without.
"Anything can be dangerous if it's not done the right way," said McDonald, who, from the very beginning of the course, consistently reiterates to the students the need for safety - a point well illustrated by the incremental method used where the students get a feel for the rope one floor at a time. "We have them start low and build up before even getting near a helicopter," he said.
For two days straight, that's just what they do. Time and time again, they climb and descend, all the while preparing for real deployments from a helicopter where things are quite different.
In a real boarding, descending down a rope from a helicopter onto a ship poses many unique challenges. "You're deploying from a helicopter with a lot of moving parts, onto a ship with a lot of moving parts," said Lt. Paul Casey, lead instructor. The pilot also might be fighting strong winds, flying over a hatch, a life-line or water. However, each of these situations is anticipated during the course and the instructors are quick to provide the students with effective methods of overcoming such challenges.
"We teach them to brake with their boots," said McDonald. They need to be able to control their descent and stop midway if they have to. "It's not really gripping with your hands, it's more your feet," explained McDonald. They are required to brake and count aloud for 10 seconds before continuing down to the ground, while constantly keeping their eyes on their landing area.
At the tower, the landing surface is made from crushed rubber pieces. It resembles thick, all-rubber gravel and provides safe, soft landings for the trainees. As safe as it is, it gives a false sense of comfort that is painfully revealed to the students when they move into the next phase of the course: deployments to the tarmac. "That's when you're really going to feel it," said McDonald. After one has gotten used to the soft rubber, a shock to the ankles is not uncommon on the first deployment or two to the hard tarmac and eventually to the deck of a cutter. This pain is in addition to the tight muscles and sore joints that develop over the course of the entire grueling program.
"It's a physically demanding course, no doubt," said McDonald. "The water survival really tires you out - the shallowwater egress trainer chair, going upside-down and taking pool water up through your nostrils. You're upside-down and trying to stay calm, breathing through a little emergency scuba bottle - that's tiring," he continued. "You get to the tower, and start with the pull-ups and PT test. Then you've got to climb up and down. That's a lot of climbing steps - up and down - and those multiple descents down the rope. It is certainly a tough course, but it offers a big payoff."