Saturday, April 5, 2008

Stefan joins the Coast Guard

In 1995, Stefan Edmondson Magnusson Toren sailed with his parents from Darwin, Australia to the Caribbean Islands, a journey of 21,000 miles, when he was just 5 years old. Now, at 18, he’s joining the US Coast Guard for a 6 year tour of duty.

When Stefan was completing his secondary school studies he decided that being a “Coastie” was something he wanted to do. He just graduated from his 8 week basic training in Cape May, New Jersey, and joins the crew of the USCGC Buckthorne as a seaman in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan (pronounced “soo saint marie”) next week.

Magnus and Mary Lu Toren, Stefan’s parents, invited us to join them in celebratory dinner for him this past week. Their cabin glowed in the candlelight as we drank French champagne in small etched glasses, and ate delicious Pasta Bolognese while reminiscing about Toren family adventures past and present.

What Stefan remembers from that first, epic journey across the South Atlantic is Table Mountain while sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, seeing his first crocodile, and getting a thorn in his hand on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. He recalls sudden squalls on the open seas, schools of dolphin, and the ubiquitous flying fish, fleeing their pursuers like skipping stones across the waves.

As they passed one particularly beautiful island, Stefan asked to go onshore. “Sorry, Stefan, we don’t have enough time to do that,” said Magnus sympathetically. “But Dad,” Stefan said, “I have enough time. I’ll loan you some!”

On the Scott Free, the 65’ sloop they traveled on, Stefan got his first taste of the seafaring life. Now he wants to be a boatswain’s mate and more, moving up through the ranks of the Coast Guard. He eventually wants to drive a 47’ motor lifeboat in 20’ waves! His Dad has a great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncle and father who all served in the Swedish military. Father and son wear matching Coast Guard hoodies. “It’s good to know that there’s a Toren serving in the United States’ armed services, “ Magnus says proudly.

As you might expect from such a self-aware young man, Stefan came up with the “wild idea” as he put it, to join the Coast Guard all by himself. It seems the Coasties are like a big fraternity ready to spring into action to help others when the call comes. Stefan wants to do his best to make a difference, he says modestly. His preparation, he said, was sailing with his parents, traveling by himself, and living in a boarding school community. He thoroughly explored the Big Sur wilderness as a kid, and, as a competitive gymnast since he was 9 years old, he brings a high level of physical fitness to the job.

Self-sufficiency in the natural elements seems to be a practice and a goal. When I ask what he liked best about growing up in Big Sur, his eyes sparkle and he says, immediately, “The woods. Being able to run out into the woods, fend for myself, and come back and say hey, I did this. The freedom of it.” By himself or with a friend, Stefan spent a lot of time in the forest growing up on Partington. The time of year he likes best there? “Winter, when it’s down pouring rain, that was the most fun.”

The downside to being a kid in Big Sur, he says, is “being so far from everything. Like, I want to go do this, but we can’t because it takes too much time to get there.” Yes, we can relate to that one. It’s a matter of taking the good with the bad, but it does seem to be harder on younger folks.

Stefan will be learning navigational skills working on the Buckthorne, a buoy tender on the Great Lakes. Buoy tenders are the Coast Guard’s unsung heroes: it’s tough as nails work, and ensures the safety of ships throughout the region. Sailors rely on buoys the way airline pilots rely on landing lights, says the Coast Guard literature. Fortunately he’s beginning his service in the Springtime of this notoriously cold part of the country.

The Great Lakes were formed during the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago, and the temperature there today was 46 degrees, dropping to 30 degrees (in other words, they’re expecting snow on this early April evening.) Considering Stefan’s least favorite memory of basic training was a midnight fire drill that left him outside in very cold weather in his skivvies, we imagine he’ll be dressing warmly.

Right now it seems Stefan’s biggest problem is listening to his Mom rave about his accomplishments, and about the first-class treatment they received at the Admiral’s Club in the airport. “Hey, give her a break,” we say, “she’s a Mom, after all!” And, fitting for any discussion involving sailors, we debate the pros and cons of different tattoos, what the Coast Guard allows and what it doesn’t (no graphics above the collar of your shirt, for example.)

That evening, all the adults are moved by the potency of Stefan’s fresh start in a new world, where he’ll be following his dream and helping others along the way. Youth, strength, integrity, awareness, Stefan embodies all of these qualities profoundly.

As we start to give him advice for his future though, a neighbor who’s a veteran laughs at us. He’s more interested in pay and benefits (Stefan will make about 7 times what he made per month in the Marines in the 60’s.) The idea of sending Mom pictures of his apartment elicits a snort: “I would never have shocked my mother that way,” he says to me, discreetly.

Soft buzz cut hair with v-like pattern on top of his head, slate blue eyes, old soul smile. Hood pulled over one side of his face, napping after dinner with his head resting on his dog’s belly…we wonder where the world will take Stefan on this next adventure, what challenges he will face, what dreams he will fulfill. It's comforting to know though, that where ever he goes, he will be piloting his own ship.
Photos: Mary Lu Toren, Dick Sonnen, Linda Sonrisa, USCG


Anonymous said...

Good luck to him.

Kent said...

I am so proud of Stefan having followed his progress since childhood. One of my disappointments in life was not being able to accept Magnus's invitation to help crew on the famous sailing trip on which Stefan got his first sea duty. I had to stay home and keep my job at the time. Well, "Soo Saint Marie" sure beats duty in Iraq, but I will bet it is a lot colder in winter. Hats off to you, Stefan! Kent Colwell

Anonymous said...

I am Sarah Cashwell. I am the one Stefan has hopefully told you about. We met in boot camp and his encouragement and support helped me get through the toughest days in boot camp that we both had to get through. I remember the day Stefan and I both realized that we were stationed in the same state, that was also the day that our company earned it's flag. That day we swam and ran through sea, sand and snow, but as we held it above our heads, laughing triumphantly, I knew he was one of the most admirable people I had ever met. I can't wait to meet you and your husband, from what I hear you are both amazing people. Hope to see you soon!

Anonymous said...

I've known Toren (excuse the lack formal first name, I've never called him Stefan) since the first day he got here and I felt I had to add that he is one of the most upbeat and outgoing friends I have made up here in the Soo. However, I don't get to work with him on the Bucky (by the way, he's on the ANT Team now) I'm right across the lot on the Katmai Bay, a 140" Icebreaking Tug.

It's was cool to hear he'd been sailing before, I lived on a yacht for most of my life before high school, and he's never shared the story. He did tell me his entire name when we went on a rather wild trip through and around the backroads outside of town. I like his name, it sounds like royalty or something.

Anyways, I was sent this link from a friend and it was great to read about him and kinda funny, too.

Kent said...

Hi anonymous.
Enjoyed your comments on Toren. Good to make friends in the service. I still have some close friends from the US Navy, 50+ years ago. I can't resist letting you know that the ship I was in, in the Navy, was the USS Mount Katmai which was an ammunition ship. Glad to know the USCG also has a Katmai vessel. Kent

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