Mark Sikorski

Captain’s log: 2100 hours, underway in the South Atlantic Ocean. Forward is heaving hypnotically to the gentle ocean swells as we glide beneath a canopy of brilliant points of starlight. The evening watches are set–on the bridge, combat information center, engineering control center, and communications room; the smell of fresh pastries from the galley is wafting throughout the ship. Most of the crew of 90 men and women have settled in for the evening, taking advantage of a well-deserved lull in activity. We are steaming northeast off the coast of Uruguay in position 35 degrees south latitude and 54 degrees west longitude, which is about 2,100 miles south of the equator. It has been three months and nearly 13,000 miles of ocean since we’ve seen our homeport of Portsmouth, Va.; it’s hard to believe our families are still in another hemisphere.

While not always thrilling, shipboard life uniquely blends tradition and customs with modern technology and comforts. For example, as the captain, I enjoy many of the perks traditionally offered in the early days of sail. I have my own cabin (which is the largest stateroom in the ship), I’m saluted as I walk on and off the bridge, and when I speak, people listen. Flogging, I think, has been left off the modern perk list! In simple terms, the buck stops with me. All actions and decisions are my responsibility–even if I didn’t make them. While my authority is absolute, so is my accountability; 90 lives depend on it. I can’t think of too many job descriptions that carry similar weight. I love my job, not because of personal gain, but for the personal growth I see in my shipmates and for the service we provide our country. I relayed a story to the crew one evening: We were traveling down the Rio de la Plata River from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Montevideo, Uruguay; the river has a fairly narrow channel that required a navigational pilot to assist us during the nine-hour transit. After a few short hours on the bridge, the river pilot told me that I had a very well run and professional crew; he went on to say that is why “America is the No. 1 country in the world.” You can’t get much better than that.

In the fast-paced, Internet-woven world we live in, it’s nice to take refuge in the simple aspects of being a sailor. I enjoy my morning workouts on the stationary bike in our helicopter hangar–ocean sunrises are as close to heaven on earth as you can get. I like to see the gleam in the eye of a young officer when she handles the ship well alongside the pier; mastering the effects of wind, tide, and current. I tell my wardroom of 13 officers to eat “three squares” a day–mealtime has always been an important aspect of shipboard life, more for its social aspects than anything else. Plus, I have many of them convinced that my sunny disposition is due to a well-fed stomach. I still get chills when my most junior crewmembers snap sharp salutes when I approach them on the bridge. I can sense they are happy to serve; America is truly blessed with the young Coast Guard men and women I have the pleasure to serve with.

Let me set the record straight before I leave you with the illusion that life aboard a Coast Guard cutter is one step removed from a cruise liner. A typical day underway is consumed with eight hours of watches and eight hours of ship’s work. There are boats to launch, helicopters to land, training to conduct and guns to shoot. Throw in your three squares and you’ve got an hour and change of free time. This ship is alive 24 by 7. When the weather kicks up, fatigue accelerates tenfold: Your bones ache; stuff flies loose; keeping a steady footing is hard work; sleep is nearly impossible. And yet we persevere; it becomes personal–to weather a storm is one of the ultimate challenges of the sea; to see it calm from its fury is like emerging from the dark side of the moon; euphoric moods erupt only to be outdone by the euphoria of returning home.