Former Wahoo dives into Coast Guard life

Pumping water from a sinking drug smuggler's ship in an attempt to keep the vessel — and the evidence — afloat long enough to get back to shore was day two at sea for Ridgefield native and former Wilton Wahoo swimming star Derrian Duryea this summer.

The Coast Guard Academy cadet, now a sophomore, spent six weeks of his 12-week summer training working on a ship off the coast of Florida, recovering hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs, getting pepper-sprayed, performing migrant interdiction, searching for bodies, pulling over intoxicated boaters, and playing the part of a live prop for rescue divers in the open ocean.

"It's kind of hard to tell my friends from Ridgefield actually what I went through," he said.

But he won't have to. While he was in Florida, the Weather Channel had camera crews shooting for a new series that debuts Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 9 p.m.

"Everybody in the Coast Guard gets things done through teamwork and communication — effective communication," said Cadet Derrian Duryea.

"I always wanted to be a pilot ever since I was a little kid," he said. "Looking up at the sky, you'd see all the little planes flying over ... I'd always tell my mom and dad, 'I want to fly those one day.'"

After his experience in Florida, he said, he's considering pursuing "maybe the law enforcement aspect of flying."

On May 5, he and Tim Early, a fellow competitive swimmer at the academy, reported for duty at one of their "dream" assignments from a short list of preferences they submitted earlier in the year: Florida, Hawaii, California.

"We threw in Alaska as well," he said.

The next day, "we were out doing an operation 12 miles off shore," Cadet Duryea said. "On our way back ... they called us up on the radio and said they had reports of a Coast Guard helicopter flying over this boat that heading westbound coming from the Bimini islands to Miami.

"At the time we had two of our 45-foot boats. ... I was on one boat ... the other boat that was with us — the NCV crew — it stands for noncompliant vessel crew ... basically, they have the authority to disable a vessel by shooting out their engines if the vessel doesn't want to stop.

"They responded and they zoomed off the scene. My boat went back to the station" and debriefed from the previous operation.

"The NCV captured what we call a go-fast," Cadet Duryea said, explaining that a go-fast boat is suspected "to be carrying illegal narcotics or something of that sort — usually narcotics.

"We were then told that we had to go out to the scene and assist.

"When they were taking the drug smugglers in captivity ... they had a pre-plugged hole in the side of the boat ... they tried to scuttle it — to sink it — so it started taking on a lot of water fast.

"We took out what's called a P6 pump. ... We'll use that for pleasure crafts" that have a leak, he said.

As the NCV boat tugged the smugglers' boat as fast as possible to keep it afloat, Cadet Duryea's shipmates pumped water from the sinking boat.

"Tim and I, we saw what looked like a little package or brick ... floating in a compartment near the port quarter, which is the back left of the boat near the stern ... and so we told our coxswain. ... He got on the radio and we were working on this recovery of this brick."

A fellow crew member leaned over to the sinking boat "held pretty much by his belt buckle" to recover the brick, which turned out to be hashish.

"More and more bales started coming aft," he said.

As they got close to shore, he said, "We slowed down; the boat started taking on more and more water to the point where we couldn't dewater it fast enough ... We thought we lost it for a second." But then the NCV crew "revved up their engine and they were able to pull it up on plane" and then lift the boat on a travel lift.

"By that point they had the entire bow, which is the front of the boat, ripped open."

The team recovered 76 bales of marijuana and 26 bricks of hash — about 776 pounds of dope with a street value of half a million dollars, Cadet Duryea said.

"Having that major drug bust on that first night made it all real. What we're doing in the Coast Guard, it's real. People are out there every day putting their lives on the line, and going through that makes me want to do it even more."

"So from that we had a dead body. We had migrants and migrant boats. We had search-and-rescue cases. We did law enforcement boarding.

As part of training, "I was OC pepper-sprayed. It's basically a very strong, military-grade pepper spray. Being sprayed was probably one of the most painful things that I have gone through," he said. "I definitely have a lot more respect for the weapon now and definitely would think twice before using it on someone."

'Sweat training'

As a competitive swimmer Cadet Duryea was excited for one particular task.

"I went through a day of rescue swimmer training, called 'sweat training.' It qualified me to be a duck. What a duck is, it's a live survivor for rescue simmers, where they'll basically practice hoisting a live survivor."

Training to be a duck was tough.

"They put me in a vest with a 10-pound weight, made me tread water." They put him in a special chair to simulate escaping from a helicopter water crash. "You have to undo your harness or pretend to cut your harness off with a fake knife ... kick your way out of this hatch that they have."

He was then qualified to be hoisted by swimmers jumping out of helicopters.

"The rescuers' motto is 'So others may live,'" he said.

He did day hoists in Biscayne Bay.

"At night they invited me back and we went on a night hoist ... It was two miles offshore from Fort Lauderdale."

"The only light I had was the light from the helicopter. I could see the horizon of the Fort Lauderdale city, the skyline, but other than that it was pitch-black outside."

Cadet Duryea said swimming since he was 7 has made him ready for the Coast Guard, but not just because of his skill in the water. It built his character, and helped him learn to manage his time and priorities.

He credits Randy Erlenbach from the Wilton Y, where he swam for the Wahoos, among those who helped him.

"He gave me the motivation to never quit, to go to morning practice at 5, then go to school, then go to practice ... Doing that for all those weeks and all those years kind of shaped who I am, kind of gave me that motivation to never give up."

"When I started the academy as a freshman, I did very well. We finished second in our conference behind MIT. ... I was rookie of the year for that conference.

"Just kind of having that determination has helped me at the academy — and also the time management aspect has been a very big part."

Teamwork is the most important thing in the Coast Guard, Cadet Duryea said.

"Everybody in the Coast Guard gets things done through teamwork and communication — effective communication."

He learned a lot from Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Abeyta, who he said took time to get to know all of his crew, so members would come directly to him with any problems they needed to work out.

"I think the biggest thing I could take away is if you take care of your people they're going to take care of you."

He's already thinking about what it means to be a leader.

When he graduates, he said, "I'm going to be an ensign, an officer. So I'll only be 21, in charge of a lot of responsibility."