In the United States Coast Guard, Coxswain is one of five levels of certification for boat-crew members. Coast Guard personnel serving as Coxswains are considered the most critical members of any small-boat crew, and as direct representatives of the boat’s Commanding Officer or Officer in Charge, their authority is unsurpassed so long as the boat is engaged on a specific mission or sortie. Every Coast Guard boat that is underway must have a Coxswain who is certified by the boat’s Commanding Officer.

Though achieving missions objectives is extremely important, it is not the paramount consideration for a Coxswain. First and foremost, Coxswains are responsible not only for the safety of the boat’s crew and passengers, but also their conduct. They’re also tasked with guaranteeing that the boat is operated in a safe manner. Only if those parameters are met can the Coxswain focus on another responsibility: completion of a mission or sortie, or actions that have been undertaken that are in line with Coast Guard Policy or regulations. Coxswains are charged with responding to any hazards to life or property or to violations of regulations or laws that they might observe, so they must be able to quickly evaluate the risks to the boat and the people aboard when deciding whether to take responsive, ad hoc reactions.

Though Coast Guard personnel from various ratings can pursue Coxswain certification, a large proportion are Boatswain’s Mates (BM). In fact, the BM rating is inextricably tied to the Coxswain certification: it is a requirement to reach the rate of Boatswain’s Mate Second Class or higher.

To be certified as a Coxswain, the candidate have already earned the Boat Crew Member certification for that particularly boat type. In addition to a physical fitness examination, Coxswain certification also requires candidates to successfully pass an oral examination held by the Boat Crew Examining Board of the unit to which they’re assigned, as well as prove their competency during a comprehensive “check ride.”

But the biggest challenge is completing the Coxswain Qualification Guide, a stem-to-stern test of their knowledge on all aspects of boat operations and safety principles that also mandates a minimum number of underway hours. Task areas include (but are not limited to) Boat Handling, Navigation and Piloting, Towing (this is not mandated for certification aboard cutters), Recovery of persons in the water, Open Water Survival, First Aid, Operational Risk Management Training, and Basic Engineering Casualty Control Exercises.

Coast Guard personnel must at least a half-year of satisfactory service at an operational unit as a certified Coxswain before they are awarded the Coxswain insignia on a temporary basis. Authorization for permanent wear requires five years of service under the same conditions, with t least two of those five serving as a Coxswain aboard boats at least 25 feet in length.

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