Southern California brings images of convertibles twisting along coastal highways, miles of superb beaches and near perfect weather. The description is accurate. Among the many highlights of California are two of my favorite places, the serene and enchanting fishing town of Morro Bay California, home of gCaptain HQ, and the city of Santa Barbara‘s Mediterranean-like climate has provided the nickname “The American Riviera.”
The Pacific Coast Highway, arguably America’s most scenic road, attracts visitors from around the world. The route runs right along the coastline, for most of the distance, giving visitors majestic views of the Pacific Ocean. But in the area between Morro Bay and Santa Barbara the road turns several miles inland, avoiding the coast entirely. The official reason for the detour is to avoid Vandenberg Air Force Base, a missile testing facility, but locals know that the road turns inland to avoid the desolate and wind swept coast at Point Conception.
If Santa Barbara is the American Riviera, then Point Conception is America’s Cape Horn. Alternately lashed with ferocious wind and short periods of pea-soup fog, exposed to large ocean waves and encrusted with jagged rocks, this small stretch of coast has been the setting of countless shipwrecks. This section of coastline is so dangerous in fact that its most infamous story is not that an entire squadron of navy ships wrecked here, but that the wrecks were abandoned, any salvage attempt was considered too dangerous and futile.
I mention this because last year I boarded a small sailboat in Morro Bay on a course south, past Point Conception, to Santa Barbara. Departure was scenic and ideal with wale spouts dotting the horizon. Then Point Conception hit like sledgehammer. During that short 24hr trip, I went from the pinnacle of joy to the desperate misery only a sailor who has experienced bad weather can relate to. Twenty foot seas came seemingly out of nowhere and winds stood steady at 45 knots, peaking much higher, for hours. Then, once we had rounded the point, calm and serenity returned.
With the sun still low on the horizon we entered Santa Barbra limping, the boom lashed to the deck after having been ripped from the mast. We checked in with Harbor Patrol and were soon greeted by a few members of the US Coast Guard. I don’t remember his name but one shook my hand, asking “Looks like you’ve been around the point?”
“Yes and she almost got the better of me. I’m not sure what happened, I wasn’t expecting such high winds. The weather report showed clear sailing yesterday,” I replied.
“Point Conception happened,” he said with a knowing smile.
We were then introduced to the crew of the USCGC Halibut and my questions (as a journalist, I tend to ask a lot of these) were met with smiles and adept answers. Then we were warned not to head back north for a few days, that the weather was getting much worse. Four hours later the cutter set sail in that very direction and my heart was reminded, for the hundredth time in my career, of the reasons I am thankful for each guardian… when someone is, or even might be in danger, they willingly ignore their own advice.
Last week the USCGC Halibut lost a crew member. Terrell Horne III, a 14-year career Senior Chief, was killed in the line of duty on Dec. 2, 2012, while carrying out law enforcement operations near Santa Cruz Island. During the remembrance ceremony, many talked of his distinguished career, the dangers of the job and his unquestionable bravery at sea. To this I want to add another point…
Bravery is not in the unexpected, it’s in turning towards it.
As mariners, we look at the Coast Guard as saviors from an angry sea, but the dangers they face are unexpected and wide in scope. Few in my local community expected drug smugglers to come so far north. What we did expect were lives to be lost to nature and the merciless coast near Point Conception. While I was working in the Gulf Of Mexico, few expected USCG rescue helicopters would be forced to land on rooftops among an apocalyptic urban setting, but we did expect that the hurricane named Katrina would wreak havoc at sea. Few among the Halibut crew expected Horne would be lost to a reckless smuggler, but each knew with full confidence that, in the course of his career, Horne would save many lives.
And this is being a sailor, the profession we love every day, except during those rare, unexpected moments when our hearts fill with fear and hate. Like salt in the water, it’s part of the job, but along with the joy of life at sea comes the responsibility to be prepared for the unexpected. We sailors face occasional hardships for the reward of a perfect day at sea. This is not brave because bravery is not facing remote dangers with honor when they arrive unexpectedly. No, Bravery is seeking out unexpected danger with honor.
Senior Chief Horne did not sign up in peacetime and find himself, years later, in an unexpected war. He faced it everyday. Horne was not brave because he acted honorably when the smuggler turned toward his crew…. he was Brave, a hero, because he was the one who turned first. He, like the Coast Guard itself, turned towards danger on a daily basis. He is brave because his crewmates expected him to be ready to willingly trade his life for theirs each time the Halibut cast off her lines.
Bravery is ignoring your own advice and turing towards danger. Bravery is Horne and his crew.
As 2012 comes to a close it’s impossible to predict the most dangerous missions the Coast Guard will face next year, but it’s easy to be thankful of their preparation and bravery. Easy only because of men like Horne.