Commandant’s Reading List – Highliners

At the start of the year, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft shared his reading list on All Hands. As part of a continued discussion on leadership, the Commandant has invited members from across the fleet to review the selections and share insights on how they are applying what they’ve read to mission execution. This is the second blog in the series and was authored by Jeffrey Pielet, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and this year’s recipient of the COMO Charles S. Greanoff Inspirational Award Recipient.

Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell transits Stephens Passage in southeast Alaska. U.S Coast Guard photo by Lt. James "Bobby" Miller.

Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell transits Stephens Passage in southeast Alaska. U.S Coast Guard photo by Lt. James “Bobby” Miller.

When one reads or hears about the Alaskan fishing industry, thoughts go to the reality television programs that show the dangers on the high seas. Visually, the viewer may experience treacherous conditions, frigid waters and killer seas. That’s probably the only way they relate to this industry. William B. McCloskey, Jr. has presented another approach to experience the action, adventure and terror that Mother Nature can unleash at a moment’s notice.

Highliners

Highliners is fictional story that takes place from 1963 to 1974. It’s about Hank Crawford, a college student who intends to spend his last summer break making a “quick buck” in an Alaskan fish cannery. Hank’s fascination with the Alaskan fishing fleet turns into infatuation which becomes an obsession. His only goal is to fish the Alaskan waters. He will do anything to crew aboard a boat. After completing college and serving a tour as a U.S. naval officer, he returns to his passion. He was hooked!

While the story may be fictional, McCloskey, a former Coastie, has provided facts and information about the Alaskan fishing industry, how it operates and how the industry has grown. It’s an extremely hard and dangerous occupation that has maimed crew members and taken many lives. Those who choose this profession know the possible perils that await them every day.

As Highliners follows Hank’s path, I looked at the overall situation from a leadership and team coordination training perspective. The book was written well before the Coast Guard introduced the Team Coordination Training Program. As a TCT facilitator, I could see the seven critical skills in action – leadership, mission analysis, adaptability and flexibility, situational awareness, decision-making and communications and assertiveness.
When Hank jumped aboard a boat as a “greenhorn fisherman,” the captain would lead (designated leader) while other crewmembers would instruct and teach him their specialty (functional leaders) as he learned how to “work the boat.” Situational awareness was continually preached. Each of the other critical skills was utilized over and over. One slip-up could take a life or, perhaps, kill the whole crew.

A Coast Guard helicopter refuels on the flight deck of Coast Guard Cutter Munro while on patrol in the Bering Sea conducting fisheries enforcement. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A Coast Guard helicopter refuels on the flight deck of Coast Guard Cutter Munro while on patrol in the Bering Sea conducting fisheries enforcement. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Even though there was a hierarchy with the captain in charge, it took teamwork from every crewmember to survive each trip. Early on, Hank would sometimes lose focus until he got the hang of it. One mistake resulted in a bad injury. Another mishap almost took his life in the freezing waters; he lost a finger. Death came knocking a second time due to a fire aboard a boat, but thanks to an exhaustive Coast Guard search, he survived. Yet, his skills as a deck leader, and ultimately the captain of a boat, improved with each trip.

McCloskey did an excellent job of pacing. When Hank was ashore and looking for a boat to crew aboard, the story seemed to slow a bit, as if I could feel Hank’s agony of being stuck on the dirt. But, once he was aboard and the fishing started, the pace would pick up as he rode the pitching decks through high seas, driving rain, snow, sleet or frozen conditions to bring in the catch.

Highliners was recommended by the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, which had patrolled the Bering Sea to enforce fishing laws and guard the maritime boundary line between the United States and Russia. Though Boutwell is now decommissioned, one of the many things that the Boutwell should be remembered for is making this book a must read for anyone who wants to experience fishing the unforgiving Alaskan waters without having to board a boat.

Editor’s note: All members of the Coast Guard are encouraged to continue the leadership dialogue. If you’d like to review a selection, or have a suggestion for next year’s reading list, email the Office of Leadership via Brianne.E.Alvis@uscg.mil.

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