Woman On Deck
Lt. Deborah Darminio commands Monterey’s Coast Guard station.
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Lieutenant Deborah Darminio is the kind of person you would hope to be seated next to on a flight across the Atlantic or a drawn-out dinner party. While other strangers would probably talk about their grandchildrens’ accomplishments or their exciting careers in the software industry, Darminio would be able to tell you about seeing the Northern Lights, swimming in 29-degree water off Kodiak Island, and bouncing around in a 250-foot ship in 50-foot-seas off the Aleutians.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Darminio moved with her family to Chiniak on Kodiak Island, where her dad worked at a remote satellite tracking station. Without television or telephone, Darminio’s childhood was spent climbing trees and chasing wild horses.
Darminio admits that her upbringing in a maritime environment, along with her brother’s prodding, influenced her to join the Coast Guard in 1987. Even in boot camp, where some recruits wonder what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into, Darminio quickly realized that she was pursuing the right career. “It was fun,” she says. “I had a blast there. The military rigidness suited me well.”
After all the good times at boot camp, Darminio was transferred to the first of many rugged outposts when she was stationed at Cape Disappointment, Washington. According to the Long Beach Visitor’s Bureau in Washington State, this peninsula known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” is a treacherous stretch of coast that has sunk almost 2,000 ships and taken 700 lives in the past 300 years.
Darminio says that large surf, poor visibility and ripping tides conspired to keep her very busy for her two and a half years at Station Cape Disappointment. One memorable experience came when she was in a 52-foot boat in 30-foot seas. “I never remember being scared,” she says of the turbulent experience. “I think you are focused on doing your job and hanging on.”
A few years later, Darminio was stationed at Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, an area dubbed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Regular hurricanes were among the biggest problems Darminio faced there—three different times, she had to coordinate the evacuations of about 80 Coast Guard families when Hurricanes Dennis, Floyd and Bonnie were poised to hit the narrow barrier islands. “It was extremely challenging,” she says.
Though the hurricanes created a fair amount of stress, Darminio says that the region’s isolated location made for a relaxed atmosphere most of the time. “I think that even after we left it took me a year to get my daughter to wear shoes again,” she says.
One of Darminio’s most exhilarating experiences in the Coast Guard came while she was attending a survival school off the coast of Kodiak Island. During a training session with the Navy SEALS, Darminio was the first to dive into the 29-degree water, wearing just her Coast Guard uniform, and swim to a thick, neoprene survival suit. She remembers exactly what she was thinking as she first hit the water. “Yeah, but I probably can’t say those words,” she admits.
On her way to the showers after the swim, she recalls being overcome by a massive rush of adrenaline. When the adrenaline subsided, she says she slept for 18 straight hours.
Another assignment off Kodiak Island was a stint on the Coast Guard cutter Storis , where she experienced 50-foot seas during one of the boat’s 30-day coastal patrols. Luckily, the rougher experiences were undercut with moments of incredible beauty, like the time she heard the Northern Lights crackle like crumpled paper off the Aleutian Islands.
Before transferring to Monterey in 2003, Darminio worked as the head of the Coast Guard’s Rescue Coordination Center in Juneau, Alaska. There she organized rescue resources for everything from plane crashes in the North Pole to Bering Sea boat bailouts.
Last July, Darminio transferred to Monterey and became the commanding officer of the local Search and Rescue Small Boat Station, a 48-person crew that covers the coastline from Ano Nuevo to Piedras Blancas.
After living in remote areas like Kodiak Island and Jonesport, Maine, Darminio had only one real concern about Monterey. “I was a little worried about the amount of people,” she says.
Now, the lieutenant thinks of Monterey as a small-town environment with big city amenities. And the weather here is not too shabby when compared to other places she has lived. “A bad day (here) is a good day in Alaska,” she says.
In addition to working for the Coast Guard, Darminio and her husband Joe run the Alaska Bush Safari Company, a business that takes clients into remote regions of the largest US state. But that’s a whole other story.