Pete Barrett: Documenting The Perilous Training of the US Coast Guard

All images by Pete Barrett. Used with Permission.

Pete Barrett’s work remains a favorite of ours for his striking storytelling and visual style. Following our feature on his American Worker Project and a closer look at his image for a Travelocity ad campaign, we present another of his story-driven, documentary work. In his action-packed photo essay titled So That Others May Live, Pete captured the perilous training of the Coast Guard members stationed at Cape Disappointment. What was initially meant as an addition to the ongoing American Worker Project became a separate body of work with a compelling narrative of its own.

In this quick but insightful interview, Pete tells us the interesting story behind this precarious project, how the idea came about, and what he did to prepare for the mission.

What made you want to do this project?

I first became aware by watching a video on Facebook. It showed the members of the Coast Guard stationed at Cape Disappointment during their training exercises in really heavy seas. Mostly shot from a helicopter, it was intense, showing them in 30- 40 foot surf just getting pummeled. I thought to myself, that is crazy but also how exciting would that be to be able to go there and photograph them doing that? This would also be a great addition to an ongoing series I have called The American Worker Project. My hopes originally was to be able to shoot it from one of the Coast Guard helicopters. But I found out after getting there that they run from different offices and don’t often train in tandem. What I ended up able to arrange was far better however, as being on the boats themselves is far more exciting albeit a bit nerve wracking.

A lot of this seems like it was done in very close quarters and on really crazy waves. How did you mentally prepare yourself for something like this?

Yes, unfortunately we were in very tight quarters and there was no moving around. We were up on the top deck about 18 or so feet off the water. Everyone was strapped in with safety harnesses. They all had certain positions and tasks to perform to keep us from getting hurt or scuttled. That left one small place where I could “safely” be. They squeezed me in behind them on the Port side of the upper deck and that became my official spot to get all I could get. This turned out to be a pretty good vantage point as I could look forward and see the oncoming waves with the first two rows of people in the foreground, but I could also swivel around and catch the 52 foot cutter that was often just off our port side breaching the waves right next to us.

Preparing myself mentally was a tricky thing. There is a tug of war of anxiousness and excitement that builds just before heading into the waves. I liken it to the feeling you get just before strapping in to a roller coaster ride. Except that on this roller coaster, if you fly off there is a good chance you will drown. How I was able to keep it under control and actually function, was knowing that I was in capable hands. I felt relatively safe knowing that they do this all the time and everything works out… That was, until one of the crew told me that there was “that one time when the boat actually rolled completely over in water that was not deep enough to completely roll and the entire top deck (where we were standing) was completely destroyed”. No one died but a few people were seriously injured. At that point I just switched into auto pilot and did what I was there to do, and that was to make amazing images despite the conditions.

What type of gear did you use? How much did it suffer through the splashing waves?

I try my best to always be prepared and have several solutions to every situation. This one was no different. Being in tight quarters I had to keep it simple. My basic kit for this consisted of a Canon 1D Mark IV with a 24mm f/2.8 that I had inside a custom underwater surf housing, a small Tamrac bag with a brand new Canon 5D Mark IV, several lenses (a 17-40 f/4 wide zoom, a 24-70 f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.2 prime lens) and a few extra batteries and waterproof CF card wallets, a tiny roll of tape, several small microfiber rags and a BUNCH of Ziplock bags.

During the calm water drills I was able to use whichever gear I wanted. But when the time came to shoot in the rough stuff, the senior officer took one look at my heavy underwater housing and said, “No way, that thing will kill someone.” The problem was while the camera is safe and sound, the housing itself is quite heavy and requires two hands to hold it and shoot. When underway you need at least one hand to hold on plus you don’t want to smash someone over the head with what amounts to a bowling ball.

Instead, I pulled out the largest heavy duty ziplock bag I have, cut a small hole in it (for the lens) and shoved in my brand new 5D Mark IV with the medium zoom, and loaded a freshly charged battery and two 32 Gig cards. We then used gaffer tape to tape the bag tightly to a UV filter which kept water out of the lens, zipped the bag to my arm and then taped the whole thing tightly around my arm. This made for a perfectly waterproof splash housing attached to one hand and the other hand was free to hold on for dear life. I have used this combination many times but this was by far the roughest conditions and really put the setup to the test. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best one.

What was the scariest moment of all this?

I would say the scariest part of the whole shoot was when we were in the thick of things in the surf. They are trained for every possible scenario which means sometimes we would go racing over (or through) a crashing wave, which was scary enough… But sometimes, we would sit dead in the water and take it from the side. This for me was far scarier. You sit there looking up from your 18-foot perch at a wave that is head and shoulders higher than you waiting to get creamed. It seems like slow motion until it hits, then instantly time speeds up as the entire 47 foot boat lurches sideways. Everyone flies every which way and the pilot of the boat guns the throttles in an attempt to get us out before we capsize. Thankfully, he was very good at this and we came out unscathed.

I say “we” came out unscathed, but I did feel bad for the poor guy who was directly in front of me because more often than not, every time hit a wave we would get launched up into the air causing a split second of weightlessness, then the boat would immediately slam down the opposite side of the wave. A fraction of a second later we would all come crashing down, often times slamming into each other. Not too bad except I had this camera in my hand which gave the guy in front of me a pretty good thumping more than once. He was surprisingly okay with it, though. He just smiled and said, “No worries bro, that’s why I have a helmet!” I guess it was a good thing we opted for the lighter camera.

Visit Pete Barett’s website, Behance portfolio, and Instagram to check out and stay updated with his other projects.