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Surf’s Up

Dave Rogers’ images of Coast Guard training reveal the great lengths public servants go to keep us safe on the water.

Going viral isn’t new for Dave Rogers. Last summer, his video of a humpback whale surfacing perilously close to his kayak cascaded across the internet. And this winter, his series of images of a Coast Guard training session quickly captivated the nation’s attention.

Rogers, a civil engineer in the Bay Area, usually photographs wildlife—hence the viral whale. On December 13, 2018, he was headed to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach to capture surfers in 11-foot swells. He saw three cameramen on a dune along Highway 1 and thought, “Okay, there’s surfers here.” He approached the gathering spot on a knee scooter, broken leg in tow, and peered over the dune. There were surfers, but that’s not what caught his eye.

Coast Guard Sector San Francisco has a team that specializes in rescuing people and watercraft in breaking surf. Two 47-foot boats, each with at least four crew members, respond to emergencies near the coast. “In order to maintain our proficiency, we practice going into surf zones,” says Commanding Officer Craig Ross, who ran the training drills Rogers witnessed in December.

Training generally works like this: One boat points its bow into the oncoming surf while the other stands by as backup. The crew braces for impact. The boats retreat to a calm area to debrief and switch drivers. Repeat.

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Rogers’ images capture the heart-thumping moments when the Coast Guard vessels pitch violently in the surf. They look straight out of an action movie, the bow rising at an almost impossible angle and the crew deluged by the swell. Rogers, who has been around the ocean his whole life and served in the Navy, had never seen anything like it. “Ocean Beach is a pretty treacherous place,” he told me recently. He remembers thinking, “If these boats have this much trouble getting through the waves, how are [people] getting out there to surf?”

The crew, outfitted with helmets, drysuits, life jackets and harnesses attached to the boat, range in experience levels. The boat operators are generally the senior members, having worked with the Coast Guard for at least six years. “It takes a long time for someone to get to this level of qualification to drive in the surf,” says Ross.

When asked about the impact this training has on crew members’ bodies, Ross surprised me by saying it’s not too bad. Just bend your knees, basically. But it’s clear that the crew members’ training extends far beyond their knee-bending skills. They practice man-overboard drills, look out for debris and other hazards in the water and monitor the swells.

The Coast Guard boats are designed for surf up to 20 feet and seas up to 30 feet. On this day, the buoys read 11 feet at 17 seconds, and the waves crashing on the beach were about 15 feet. “We try to get out there as much as possible,” says Ross. He says it’s pretty rare to receive an emergency dispatch, but at press time there had been two rescues since the December training.

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Rogers hopes his images will remind boaters and beach-goers of the hard work being done by the Coast Guard every day. “They’re prepared,” he says. “They’re working their butts off to save your life.” Ross hopes that by paying attention to weather, tides and nautical charts, boaters won’t ever find themselves needing a rescue. But if they do, there’s a cohort of men and women who will respond.

For now, there’s a different kind of response. Rogers’ photos have garnered comments from all over the world, some in languages he doesn’t recognize. And when he thinks about it, these photos aren’t that different from his usual subjects. “Photographing wildlife, you never know what’s going to happen. You don’t know how long you’re going to have to get those shots,” he says. “I’m looking for the unusual shot.” It’s safe to say he succeeded.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.