WHEN YOUR BRAIN spends most of its time chewing on disasters with a million moving parts, each capable of claiming a life, you tend to savor life’s slower, straight lines. Running is simple: you and your shoes and the salt air. Lt. Jessica L. Shafer, a former college rower and longtime fan of line-of-sight missions, loves to run.
She needs to, even — the drifting fog on the ocean beach of Southwest Washington countermanding the fog in her mind. Still, nagging details of her work and her passion tend to intrude as she jogs the shores, forests and craggy hills guarding the gaping mouth of the Columbia River.
Shafer, an elite lifeboat pilot, spends hours mulling sets of waves, the way they move, build, break, dissipate — and, occasionally, attack and kill.
Call it an occupational hazard. If you live and breathe search and rescue, realizing that your workspace is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” the final resting place of countless scuttled craft of every size, shape and intention, can sort of … weigh on you. Shafer often mentally storyboards the slipping or muscling of a 47-foot welded aluminum craft through the most angry breakers the notorious Columbia River bar can muster.
“That’s what will keep me up at night,” she confesses. “It’s always in the back of my brain: What’s the bar doing?”
Even after a two-decade career graced by memories of delivering countless people, gift-wrapped in warm blankets, back ashore to loved ones, or aiding masses of battered souls in the wake of recent hurricanes, a skilled rescuer’s brain still ebbs and floods with patterns of waves.
But know this: What Shafer, 39, pointedly does not ponder on those long runs on Long Beach Peninsula are the two things that make her stand above her crowd. In 2006, she became the second woman in the two-century history of the Coast Guard and its predecessors to earn the prestigious Surfman rating, denoting the ability to drive rescue boats through the worst conditions deemed survivable. And last year, she became the first female commanding officer for Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, near Ilwaco, a Northwest foothold dating to 1877 — 12 years before Washington statehood.
Faithful to the team-oriented spirit of Coasties en masse, she views those honors as coincidental — more like the constantly shifting sands of the Columbia bar than a suitable place to plant one’s career flag.
Rank aside, in the Coast Guard, you’re only as good as what you bring onboard every day. And, as Shafer likes to point out, “There’s not one boat in the Coast Guard that I can take out by myself.”
TO BE SURE, those female “firsts” are sources of tremendous pride. Shafer is down, very down, with the idea of being a role model for youngsters — male and female — considering careers in public service, especially in the humanitarian-mission-driven Coast Guard, which stands to assume an increasingly high profile in American life in a predicted coming era of more frequent and damaging natural disasters.
She simply prefers to focus on what her crews accomplish, as a unit. Because that’s what makes the Coast Guard what it is.
“I worked really hard for this job,” she says one day, offering a tour of Station “Cape D” and the adjacent National Motor Lifeboat School. “And if you’d give it to me because of a gender or timing thing, I think you’d be doing a disservice. Because maybe I wouldn’t be the most competent person for the job.”
She laughs, suddenly, at the possible presumption in that statement. “I guess time will tell!”
The Coast Guard, she says, is the national military service where ascension is based most purely on merit. You move up by proving what you can do. Gender, politics and other factors are moot.
“At the end of the day, you can either drive a boat in a 20-foot wave, or you can’t,” she says. “The boat doesn’t care. Mother Nature certainly doesn’t care. I just think that in the face of adversity … the ability to do your job rules more than anything.”
This is what lured a native of Logansport, Indiana, a graduate of Purdue University with a degree in cultural anthropology, to join the ranks of the Coasties in the first place.
“Adulting is hard,” she recalls of her post-college career panic. “I was physically active, and I knew a desk job was probably not going to work out. I looked at all the military branches. At the time, the Coast Guard was, to my knowledge, the one that had zero restrictions on gender.”
Plus, “The benefits were unbelievable,” she says. “You don’t make a lot, monetarily, starting off, but you get these things that you just can’t afford, starting off in a normal industry. So that was the appeal, plus the outdoors, and the physical nature of it. Seeing the country, and serving the country. Volunteerism was a big part of it also. I wanted to be in a job where people wanted to be there.”
SHAFER TODAY is in the fascinating position of commanding the Coast Guard station housed in the same remote fish town where she literally got her feet wet, straight out of basic training. Her office on the easy-to-miss base near Ilwaco looms directly above the building where she first dropped her duffle bag on a bunk as a fresh recruit in 2002.
As a youngster, Shafer had traveled to 11 countries, but had visited the U.S. West Coast only for crew regattas in San Diego. By luck of the draw, her first deployment was as a “deckie” (memorable duty: bilge scrubbing) at the famed lifeboat school, a weathered cluster of docks and timeworn buildings clinging to the rocks at the base of the ingloriously named Cape Disappointment promontory.
She came to town as a 22-year-old on an ink-black December night, and awoke at first light to find a resident deer poking its head into her barracks window.
“I was used to deer in Indiana,” she says with a smile. “But you don’t socialize with the deer there.”
Shortly after arriving, at a viewpoint over the bar, she saw her first 40-foot wave, and then lifeboat trainees getting the snot pounded out of them in the heavy surf. Her eyes popped.
“I was like, ‘So I can do this? I can do this?’ They said, ‘Yeah, you can do that.’
“I was like, ‘Sold!’ ”
SHE ENTERED a program that trains about six dozen drivers annually to operate a rescue boat in what normal people would consider stupidly inhospitable conditions. Like the legions of Surfmen before her, Shafer learned to drive the Coast Guard’s primary rescue steed, a powerful, self-righting, 47-foot lifeboat, the hard way: doing it wrong, debriefing and heading back into the salty maw. As a crewman, she experienced the light-dark-light full rollover of a self-righting 47, and came back for more.
This training is weather-dependent — bad-weather-dependent; 10-to-15-foot seas are considered ideal. That’s why it’s done here. The 47-footers are built to take waves of 30 feet and winds to 50 knots — conditions where only Surfmen are allowed at the throttles.
Shafer describes the boat driver’s learning process as a broadening of vision, the gradual development of instinctual reflexes.
“You start out driving in those big-sea states, and you can only see what’s right in front of you,” she says, making a motion with her hands to simulate side blinders. But after time on the water, “It’s like the aperture on your camera just went, WHOOP. You can see in your head this line through the waves. Your aperture just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. You finally can see where to go.”
The goal is to do all this reflexively, so the conscious brain can focus on additional critical tasks that help a boat pilot bring a crew and subjects home alive.
She learned. Shortly after moving south in 2007 to Station Golden Gate in the Bay Area, she received her Surfman rank, entering one of the Coast Guard’s elite communities. She was thrilled, she says, to be onboard one of 21 “surf stations,” which many Coasties consider at the heart of the service’s core mission.
(Only four of the service’s 100 serving Surfmen are female. Overall, last year, 13 percent of enlisted Coasties and 22 percent of officers were women. Shafer says she has never considered the honored term “Surfman” a gendered designation. She sends along a link to a bio of a notably badass female Rhode Island rescuer of yore, and notes: “I don’t think people like Ida Lewis were much concerned with terminology, either.”)
Over six years in San Francisco, Shafer’s boat skills brought crews and survivors home from countless rescue missions, some through seas so monstrous, they were recounted in adventure books. Then it was on to the Officer Candidate School at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, and later three years as an executive officer in Fort Lauderdale.
The latter posting included recovery efforts for hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Maria. It was here, organizing evacuations and disaster relief — essentially creating order from chaos — that her leadership skills drew the keen attention of Coast Guard higher-ups.
When it came time for her first C.O. assignment, she leapt at the chance to return to “Cape D,” where she was installed a year ago June, with a warm reception from locals, some of whom knew her from back when.
ON DUTY, Shafer is strolling Station Cape D and checking her phone for texts and weather, trying to decide whether conditions will be too “sporty” to haul a couple barf-o-matic journalists onto the bar at first light. This day is quiet, but on an average of about 175 times per year, Cape D gets a distress call and instantly shifts into rescue mode. (Shafer, as is common in the more-flatlined command structure of the Coast Guard, is regular crew on some training and rescue missions.)
Given the area’s industry and maritime heritage, there are fewer false alarms here than some other surf stations. “When a commercial fisherman calls for help,” Shafer says, “you pay attention.”
Most of the outings prove challenging, but uneventful. Some are deadly.
Two dozen Coasties and mariners have perished in these cold waters since 1960. The most tragic incident, for the local Coast Guard, was the January 1961 sinking of the 52-foot lifeboat Triumph, which claimed the lives of five rescuers and two crew from the foundering fishing vessel Mermaid, near Peacock Spit. Each time current Coasties leave port in the successor vessel, the powerful, 52-foot Triumph II, memories of that loss ride with them.
Even rescues later deemed routine take a toll on the station’s lean, close-knit team. In March, nearly everyone at Cape D played some role in the 18-hour rescue of the 78-foot fishing vessel Lisa Marie, towed home overnight by Triumph, from 17 miles out, overnight, through 40-knot winds and heavy seas, with assistance from Cape D’s two 47-footers.
“Everybody on that boat was sick,” Shafer recalls. “You still have to do your job, and you won’t see that on the news. When I met them at the door, they were all smiling.”
ON THIS RELATIVELY quiet day, blue-suited Coasties busy with daily duties salute Shafer as they pass. One young man instinctively begins to acknowledge her with a “Sir,” before correcting, somewhat red-faced, to “Ma’am.”
Shafer just smiles. “It’s sort of a reflex” for enlisted personnel, she says. “I own it; it’s fine. I’m not going so get all spun up about it. Oh my gosh, I do it to people sometimes. When you’re in boot camp, the majority of people yelling at you are dudes.”
Daily work on the base — repairing and maintaining boats, survival gear, lines and other gear; updating nautical charts; conducting “bar-check” patrols or on-water training with helicopter crews from nearby Air Station Astoria; even cooking and cleaning — qualifies as mundane, but an essential part of the life of every Coastie, Shafer emphasizes. Attention to detail and teamwork, she believes, are what make the Coast Guard known for getting stuff done with little fanfare.
Despite a remarkably long list of other duties, the service nationally responds to more than 100 distress calls daily; its ranks of 40,000 (roughly the size of the New York Police Department) are heralded for multitasking. The Coast Guard annual budget, about $11 billion, has inched up in recent years, but mostly in response to increased Homeland Security duties.
The agency’s funding is nowhere near, some say, what the service likely will need in the future, given the probability of increased disaster-relief work. Author and oceans advocate David Helvarg, who chronicled the modern service a decade ago in his book “Rescue Warriors,” sees the Coast Guard, with a penchant for flexibility and ability to “do more with less,” as the ideal model for what should become a future U.S. force more focused on natural threats.
“Today our main threats aren’t just other guys with guns,” Helvarg says. “I look to (Coasties) as our new warriors: young men and women who’ll put their lives on the line for others.”
Few Coast Guard commanders more ably demonstrate the skills needed for such a role than Shafer, notes one of her mentors, Tobias Olsen, program manager for the Coast Guard Academy’s leadership school.
“She stood out to me as being a unique, and hard-to-come-by, person in our organization,” Olsen says. In 2017, when Olsen was assembling a team to restore basic services in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico, Shafer was the first person he called. She set up a service structure there entirely on foot, setting out with a backpack and a radio every day to build a network of local leaders.
Specifically, Shafer, aside from her proven rescue skills, is adept at organization and logistics, but she also displays unique people skills — a mix Olsen calls “extremely unusual,” even in the higher ranks. “She can bring out the best in an admiral, or bring out the best in a new recruit,” he says. “She finds the good in people, and cultivates it.”
THE ASSESSMENT MIGHT surprise Shafer, a practiced purveyor of humility, who paces behind more often than she sits at the large desk in a Cape D office that affords a view of the Ilwaco boat basin. The room is dotted with trappings of a career surely closer to midpoint than peak. (She admits fretting about having enough career stuff to cover the walls of a space she remembered, from her deckie days, as quite large.)
“This is my humble section,” she says, pointing overhead at a small, white life ring bearing a boat name: Lot’s ‘O’ Fun. It’s a reminder of a rescue attempt that did not go bad, but still taught her a lesson. With a Discovery Channel crew aboard, she charged out of Station Cape D in a 47 one day to rescue passengers of a sinking pleasure craft, taking a straight Point-A-to-Point-B line over the bar. An older, more-seasoned lifeboat pilot, future station C.O. Scott McGrew, followed in a second boat, but swung what seemed oddly far to the left — avoiding what turned out to be pounding surf blocking Shafer’s path.
“By the time I got there, he had pulled them out, and they were all dry,” she says. “We were soaking wet and beat to heck. So the big joke was that I got a life ring on my first big rescue case. I’ve toted this around with me from station to station, for a long time. There are a lot of life lessons in that life ring.”
Shafer and her husband, fellow Coastie Tim Woody, who recently retired from the service and is studying for a master’s degree in philosophy, are kept busy minding Woody’s two teenage sons, who live much of the year in Ohio, and a pair of Great Danes, Franklin and Plato, who run the household north of Long Beach.
Shafer is on call 24/7, but the couple relishes Pacific County’s clean air and relatively quiet life after years of high-wire work down South.
Shafer’s command at Cape D will run through 2021, at which point she will near a retirement window in a service where numbers of women have grown, but retention rates have been challenging. She’s not speculating on the future, but expresses interest in disaster-relief work, where she’s already made a mark.
For now, the sea, the wind, those foggy running trails — and that vexing, three-dimensional, moving puzzle of a river bar — are more than enough. To a true-blue Coastie, the ever-present ocean roar at Cape D feels like home. The community Shafer serves recently welded that connection.
During last winter’s lengthy government shutdown, the Coast Guard went about its mission saving lives in the coastal space between Haystack Rock and Ledbetter Point. Without pay. And when Coasties went for meals or supplies at local businesses, many were surprised to find their checks had been picked up, anonymously, by residents in a decidedly blue-collar community.
The Coast Guard is used to being thanked by people it saves, and Coasties usually just smile and say, “It’s what we do.” But this was the general public saying thanks, and to any service member, Shafer notes, that’s special.
“You can’t ask for anything more than that.”