Thursday, January 30, 2014

Penciled In

It’s been an exciting week for us with regards to our return to the Coast Guard.  On Sunday, we rented a car and re-provisioned the boat for the week while we have easy access to all the shopping in Puerto Rico. We also found out where we will be living and working for the next several years.

On Monday, the fun started…we drove to San Juan and met with the Coast Guard Recruiter for Puerto Rico.  We had submitted a lot of our paperwork ahead of time, so thankfully all was in order and we only had a few minor items to take care of. 

While meeting with the recruiter, he told us that we were projected for a medical exam the very next day (we had been thinking it would be next week), and that he had booked us a room in San Juan for the night (a great surprise – free hot water and a real bed!).

So we trekked over to the hotel and got settled in.  We spent the entire night (until midnight) working on our electronic security clearance paperwork.  In the best of times, the online system is a real pain in the butt…for instance you have to provide all your personal information and write down where you lived for the past 10 years, along with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of people who knew you while you were there.  Ostensibly, this is so the intelligence people can make sure that you are not a spy or have too much debt or anything. 

The hard part for us was that they also ask if you’ve completed any foreign travel in the past 7 years.  This is to ensure that you haven’t been recruited by a foreign intelligence agency or anything.  However, as you can imagine, our passports are completely full, and entering the details and dates for over 30 countries that we’ve been to was a real joy!  But despite the pain, I wouldn’t change a thing – this has been an amazing journey.

At 0340 the next day, we met down in the hotel lobby with about 50 other recruits from all the different services.  It was crazy to imagine that some of them will be soldiers, sailors, marines, coasties, aviators…some will work on submarines, or fly in crazy aircraft, or jump out of those aircraft.  A great patriotic moment, however we were definitely the oldest people there! 

After a quick breakfast, we took a bus to the medical facility (we entered through the cargo entrance), and formed up into some lines.  Apparently the medical staff had heard about our special case, because they quickly picked us out and asked us how old we were.  Kellee stuttered, so I said “I’m 33 and she is 40.”  They were not amused. 

However, the medical exam was painless – for prior service personnel, we were able to move quickly through the exam stations: hearing, vision, height/weight, medical history, blood testing, urine testing, fingerprinting etc etc.  No new thing for us. 

So with the early start, we were actually out of there by noon!  Pretty easy.  We are on standby for the next couple weeks in case anything comes up or there are papers we need to sign, but otherwise we should be good to go for returning to the service…hooray!

As I mentioned earlier, we also found out our new assignments (a completely separate process, it just happened to occur during the same week). 

The Coast Guard officer assignment process can be tricky to navigate.  In a nutshell, the Coast Guard assignment officers in Arlington, Virginia, assign officers to jobs every 2-3 years in a kind of nebulous way. 

Although we are able to ask for jobs, we get assigned to jobs based on the needs of the service.  So although I would love to remain skipper of a patrol boat for the rest of my career, the Coast Guard needs to give that opportunity to other people as well, and since we’ve recently advanced, they need to give us the experiences of working managerial positions in the greater organization. 

From the assignment officer’s perspective, it is all about grooming Coast Guard senior officers…so by the time we reach 18-20 years of service, we should have experience in a variety of Coast Guard missions, have some geographic diversity in assignments, and have a proven record of exceptional service.

The first 10 years of our careers were based on building operational experience and getting a sense of how the organization works from the deckplate level.  Even still, Kellee and I lucked out with a few more awesome jobs than most people get.  For instance the typical sea to shore duty ratio after 10 years is 4 years at sea and 6 years ashore…however we average 7 years at sea and 3 years ashore…can’t complain!

But going into this sabbatical, we knew the tide was changing. As mid-grade officers going forward, we are expected to advance our education, serve in staff positions, and eventually command larger, major cutters….no more patrol boats!

So by disappearing on sabbatical, we were able to delay the inevitable staff job that we were both (over)due for.  Nevertheless, we were still nervous about what we were going to get or if we would even be together!

So we asked for staff positions in Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu, Boston, and Washington DC based on trying to get a diversity of experience and location under our career belts for later.  We hoped for something on the west coast, but we were ready for anything they could throw at us. I think our quoted request to the assignment officers was “Please put us together in jobs that are useful and challenging, somewhere in the Pacific Area.” That all happened in August.  Then there was a long wait….

Office assignments are made top-down.  So all the Admirals get to find out where they are going in November. Then they can influence the decisions on everyone below them.  Captains find out around Christmas, and Commanders find out in early January.  Once they were all notified, it was our turn!  So we anxiously waited a phone call or email, while we simultaneously found out some of our friends were getting assigned to this or that billet. Some of our dream picks disappeared, so we were constantly talking about the likelihood of this or that job as the power balance changed.

Finally, this week the assignment officer emailed us to set up a call.  Being a “dual-military” situation, sometimes our case is even more challenging for the assignment officers – in our first 10 years, we were assigned together for 5, and apart for 5.  So we didn’t know what to expect, especially coming off our sabbatical…would we end up with bottom of the barrel jobs? Would we end up together or 12 hours apart? 

Eventually the phone call came and we held our breath.  We were both assigned to Pacific Area command staff, in Alameda, California, just like we hoped. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Virgin Islands Encore

Being back in the British and US Virgin Islands reminds us how great a place they are…as we worked our way westward to Fajardo, Puerto Rico, we spent a majority of our time underwater, diving on the wreck of the Rhone, and snorkeling on the reefs around Tortola, Norman, Sand, and Peter Islands

The VIs have easy sailing conditions, plentiful logistics like groceries and calm anchorages, and great underwater scenery - what more could you ask for?

We've been here a total of 4 times now, and it still doesn't get old.  We calculated that we've spent about a month of our lives in the BVI and determined that it was a month well spent.

But we quickly moved through the region and on Friday ensconced ourselves on the eastern shore of Puerto Rico for the next couple weeks.  Monday starts our USCG medical exam and paperwork, and next week we should also find out where we will be stationed for the next 2-4 years.  Lots of our top choices are already off the table, so it will be interesting to see what we end up with!

We also took advantage of the plentiful marine stores in the region to stock up on some fairly priced parts and consumables that we need for the next phase of our journey.

While diving near the Rhone, we spotted this Spotted Eagle Ray cruising beneath our boat. Pretty cool.  Adios for now!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Grenada to the Virgin Islands

We arrived today at Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, after a 4 day passage from Grenada this week.  We had been waiting for a good weather window to make the crossing of the Caribbean, and we departed Tuesday with a favorable forecast of ENE winds of about 20 knots, diminishing over the week. 
Our first night was a little rough since the waves from last weeks winds were still present, and the winds were still diminishing a bit from 20-25 down to 15-20, so we got pretty wet with the weather on the beam the whole trip.  
However the rest of the trip was nice, still a bit rolly and rough, but the winds were for the most part steady and squall-free, so we made excellent time, arriving 12 hours sooner than we anticipated.  So we just cleared customs in the British Virgin Islands and are drying out all our clothes and rain gear from the wet crossing, before we head out for more adventuring tomorrow.  
It was pretty strange making the 4 day crossing…we didn't see any of the islands, but we were only about 100 miles offshore from all of the islands we visited in 2013 on our way south…we covered in 4 days what it took us 5 months to do last year!  However its great to be back in the BVI…we have a week to make it to Puerto Rico for our Coast Guard physicals, so we'll check out some of our favorite spots in the British, US and Spanish Virgin Islands on our way west.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Goodbye Grenada

 We're wrapping up our month-long stop in Grenada this week, and our "capstone" event was a visit by Leah and Rob who departed the frigid USA and met us in Grenada for a week of sun and fun.

To stage for their arrival, we positioned the boat on the south coast of Grenada in Clarke's Court Bay and then Phare Bleu Bay. However along the way we discovered a problem with our anchor windlass, the device used to retrieve our heavy anchor from the bottom.  It kept slipping, so we had to recover the anchor and chain by hand, and then immediately set to fixing the windlass. After two days of man-handling the beast off the deck and prying apart 30 year old seals and clutches, we discovered pretty much everything in working order with no obviously broken parts, so we simply cleaned and lubricated everything, tightened it all the best we could, and put it back in place…it was quite a project and it now works well, so whatever magic we performed must have been sufficient.  We'll hope the gremlin does not re-appear.

 With the boat as far east as possible, once Leah and Rob arrived we did some island exploring, including the very impressive Mt. Carmel falls, the highest on the island.  Since we've been having so much rain, the falls were really falling, and the water actually hurt as you got close to the base of the falls.  Unfortunately the rain also made the trail very muddy, so we ended the hike pretty "soiled."

After a bit of relaxing in the southern portion of the island we headed out into a nasty sea (the trade winds have been kicking lately), but thankfully most of the sailing was downwind and we just had to watch for the occasional reef or breaking wave to avoid.  But eventually we brought Navigator around to the western portion of the island and the more protected bay of St. George's.

There, we did some exploring of the city, some snorkeling at the famous underwater sculpture park, and some Hobie Cat speed racing along the beautiful Grande Anse beach. Along the way Rob discovered a love of passionfruit juice and Kellee found a new puzzle game for the ipad that will keep us occupied on the long sea voyage ahead!

All too soon, the last sunset happened and our friends headed out to the airport early this morning to head back to reality…which is crazy for us, because we're kind of doing the same thing, just on a slightly longer timescale.  We should be learning our new duty station within a few weeks, and then our plans will fall into place for the return voyage and our ultimate destination.  Time flies!