Walking the Plank: Sara Faulkner

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Sara Faulkner describes herself as a “real-life Valley Girl from L.A.” On the other hand, during Hurricane Katrina she helped rescue 48 people in one night — so don’t let your mind rush to images of Cher Horowitz from Clueless just yet.

Photo by Billy Black.

Faulkner was the first female graduate of the Coast Guard’s Rescue Swimmer School, and she was nominated by the International Maritime Organization for its “Exceptional Bravery at Sea” award for rescuing three people from a sailboat during a storm with 45-knot winds and 15-foot seas. As she approached the boat during that operation, a wave lifted the stern and swept her underneath. The 63-foot sailboat came down on top of her twice while she was trapped between the rudder and the screw. It was a close call, but she got three people off the boat and into a helicopter. All in a day’s work.

Faulkner recently retired and lives in Palm Beach, Florida, with her boyfriend, Mark Sargent, who is also a retired rescue swimmer. What’s next for a woman who survived a school with a 50-plus percent attrition rate and whose graduates must demonstrate the flexibility, strength, endurance and equipment knowledge to function for 30 minutes in heavy seas? Who knows, but we’re betting it won’t be dull.

First memory of being on a boat: My family moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, from Los Angeles when I was a baby. I remember going fishing in a canoe when I was 3 years old with my mom, dad and twin brother. My dad had just bought all-new fancy fishing gear and was very proud of his new rod and reel. My brother and I each had a stick with a short length of fishing line and a hook tied to it. I felt a tug on my line, then it got stronger and I couldn’t hold on to it anymore, so my mom grabbed it. She called to my dad, who grabbed it and yelled for her to get the net before the stick broke. We were all so surprised at the size of the fish I caught on a little stick. My dad was pretty ticked off that he had spent all that money, only to be beat by his 3-year-old daughter and her stick that caught a huge brown trout.

First boat you owned or crewed: I’ve never owned a boat, but when I first joined the Coast Guard, in 1996, I was a crewman for two years on the 52-foot Motor Lifeboat Victory, our four 44-foot Motor Lifeboats, our 36-foot surf rescue boat and our numerous RHIs [rigid hull inflatables] we had while I was stationed at Motor Lifeboat stations Yaquina Bay and Depoe Bay in Oregon.

Favorite boat you’ve crewed: My favorite ones to crew were the big Motor Lifeboats. That’s a boat you feel safe on. Not only are they extremely strong, but they are designed to purposely go into the surf line to rescue boats that get caught while trying to cross a breaking bar. They can right themselves if they capsize or pitchpole. The coxswains who drive these boats into the surf have a special qualification that other CG coxswains don’t have. They are called Surfmen. We would go out into the surf for training — I mean, how crazy is it to take a boat into the surf? We had to clip ourselves to the boat so we didn’t go overboard. I loved it; it was terrifying and fun at the same time.

Your dream boat: I spent 16 of my 20 years in the Coast Guard flying on helicopters, which gives you a different perspective. I’ve plucked people off boats and ships or from the water when they had lost their boat to an emergency at sea. So I’m not a huge fan of taking a boat too far offshore unless you really know what you are doing and are well prepared for Mother Nature to turn on you.

Most rewarding professional experience: The rescues I did during Hurricane Katrina. One night in particular, my aircrew and I rescued 48 people — I could write a book just about what happened on that night. It was so horrible to see a big city in the United States under such a state of emergency. The entire city was under water and on fire. It almost looked post-apocalyptic. It did not matter if you were black, white, Asian, Latino, poor or rich — we were there to rescue as many people as we could as fast as we could. It was heartbreaking to see my fellow Americans in such danger.

Most memorable experience: Aboard the USCGC Polar Star on our trip to Antarctica. One day, after two months underway, we started seeing little slushy pieces of ice floating in the water, and as the hours went by the pieces got bigger and bigger. We were all so excited; everybody was out on the bow looking for icebergs, and then we started to see little black things on the ice chunks. Penguins! We all pretty much lost it. We were so happy to see them. They were so cute but also extremely majestic. I’m sure I had to hide tears that the sight of those brave little ocean wanderers brought to my eyes. I can’t help it. I’m a big softy.

Longest time you’ve spent on board: We brought two of our helos and a lot of gear along with our crew on the 2003-04 trip to McMurdo, Antarctica, aboard the Polar Star. We were deployed for six months and sailed from Seattle to Honolulu to Sydney, Australia, to Hobart, Tasmania, and then on to the McMurdo science station on Ross Island. We spent two months down there. While the icebreaker broke a channel for supply ships to get in, we flew scientists all over the Antarctic. We’d go to penguin rookeries for head counts, help retrieve ice core samples from remote locations. We even landed on icebergs.

Favorite destination so far: Antarctica.

Favorite nautical book: Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan.

Favorite nautical cause you support: The U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps (seacadets.org). I was a Sea Cadet in the Betsy Ross Division in high school. We were the only all-female Sea Cadet Unit in the country and proud of it. Thanks to the Sea Cadets, before I graduated high school I had sailed on the USS Kitty Hawk from San Diego to Seattle for Sea Fair, on a Naval tugboat pulling aircraft carriers in and out of San Diego, worked on a Naval dive boat in Long Beach, California, and went to a two-week boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. But the training that impacted me most was going to Humboldt, California, to train with Coast Guard rescue swimmers — I even got to fly co-pilot in the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter. This organization is great for any kid thinking about joining the military.

Favorite quote about the sea: In the Coast Guard there is a saying that always made me proud of the job we do: “Most can’t, many won’t, we do.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.