Southold native earns prestigious job as surfman in U.S. Coast Guard

Krystyna Duffy joined the U.S. Coast Guard a year after graduating from Southold High School in 2004. She had always wanted to serve. She viewed the four-year commitment as a way to earn money toward college. She didn’t envision what happened next.

“I got hooked,” she said. “It’s now a career. I can’t turn away.”

The 31-year-old has now been in the Coast Guard for more than 12 years, where as a Petty Officer 1st Class, she recently earned the designation of surfman, the highest rank in Coast Guard small boat operation. Of approximately 120 members currently serving as surfmen, she is one of only four women actively in that role. It was the culmination of a goal nearly a decade in the making.

“As soon as I got my first initial qualification in just driving a boat and doing search and rescue back in ’07, I always wanted to challenge myself more and more to be able to drive in bigger [surf] and be in a group of elite people,” she said during a phone interview from California.

As a surfman, Ms. Duffy is qualified to a take a 47-foot motor lifeboat out in 20-foot breaking surf with 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds, according to the Coast Guard.

Ms. Duffy is based out of Coast Guard Station Golden Gate near San Francisco, the busiest station on the West Coast and one of only 21 surf stations in the Coast Guard. Earning the designation of a surfman, she’ll lead a crew of four to six people on the boat for search-and-rescue missions, homeland security, marine protection and maritime law enforcement missions, a process that takes between four and six years, Ms. Duffy said. For starters, she needed to be at the right station to be able to train in rough sea conditions.

On the West Coast, the biggest surf tends to happen between October and April, Ms. Duffy said. So when the conditions were right for training, she needed to always be ready. She also spent a month training at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash., an area known as the “graveyard of the Pacific,” due to its number of shipwrecks.

“It is the worst, most treacherous place in the country to train,” Ms. Duffy said of the sea conditions.

Where Ms. Duffy is now stationed, the crews often respond to surfers who get swept out to sea. The Coast Guard crew must navigate the largest waves crashing on shore to reach people in distress. Other times inexperienced boaters get pushed into rough surf conditions, she said. Every day at work she spends on a boat, constantly in training when there’s no specific mission. There’s also the more mundane parts of the job, such as escorting ferries and working port security, she added.

A Coast Guard boat battles crashing waves. (Courtesy photo)

A large part of the job is focusing on the weather forecasts and studying tides. Ms. Duffy and the fellow surfmen work in a rotation, so when the surf conditions are over eight feet offshore, a crew is called in to begin a shift in addition to their normal duties, she said.

Ms. Duffy, mom to a 7-year-old girl and 18-month-old boy, formally received her surfman designation at a ceremony last month. Chief Warrant Officer Beth Slade, the commanding officer of Station Golden Gate, presented Ms. Duffy with the honor. In 2002, Ms. Slade became the first woman to ever earn the surfman qualification for the 47-foot motor lifeboat.

“It was by far the best day of my career in the Coast Guard, knowing that they trust me to take a boat crew — not just a boat, but a crew,” Ms. Duffy said.

Ms. Duffy grew up in a large family in Southold. Her maiden name is Surozenski. She has seven siblings, including a brother who’s in the Marine Corps based in San Diego. The rest of her family still lives on the North Fork, she said.

Looking ahead in her career, Ms. Duffy said she hopes to continue training younger generations and eventually attain the rank of chief petty officer. As for becoming only the fourth active female surfman, Ms. Duffy said: “This job has no gender.”

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