Oak Harbor’s Sea Cadets: Working hard, playing harder

The Sea Cadet Corps fuses the best aspects of the ROTC and the Boy Scouts.

Key tenants of Oak Harbor’s Naval Sea Cadet Corps list responsibility, accountability, inclusion and respect, but this weekend, with their annual flagship competition, they added bragging rights.

The Orion Squadron gathered at North Whidbey Middle School with the four other Puget Sound units — Bellingham, Seattle, Everett and Burlington — for a day of friendly nautical-based competitive games, like knot-tying, medical relays and color guard routines.

The Sea Cadet Corps fuses the best aspects of the ROTC and the Boy Scouts, said Lt. Maurice Davis. Because they are supported by the Navy, they are Navy-focused, but they do a lot of activities and training that have little to do with the military, such as camping, navigation, culinary arts, small engine repair, drug reduction education, robotics and drone flying.

While Oak Harbor had Sea Cadets in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the current squadron was organized in 2015 by an active-duty chief at Naval Air Station Whidbey who was a sea cadet in his youth out of the original unit in Brunswick, Maine, Davis said.

The Orion Squadron is appropriately focused on aviation, but the program allows kids to follow their interests. This could be anything — if it’s not possible here in Oak Harbor, cadets can transfer to a different squadron. In one squadron in California, every cadet plays an instrument, he said.

Not everyone in the Orion Squadron lives in Oak Harbor, he said. Some are from Anacortes, Mount Vernon and San Juan.

“I have one single cadet from South Whidbey,” Davis said. “He’s a rockstar.”

When the Orion Squadron united with the Bellingham unit, the Coast Guard took the cadets out on boats. During the training, they received a call about an unmanned vessel floating in the harbor. With the cadets on board, they had to respond. While the call turned out to be a simple fix, the cadets were able to go through the process of a live Coast Guard response. Even more exciting for some, they learned to drive the boat.

While the Sea Cadets started as a Navy recruitment tool, Davis doesn’t push the cadets to join the Navy, he said. If they are interested in the Navy, the program can help advance their career, but he doesn’t urge them to do anything but follow their interests.

“If they’re interested in the military, then we’re going to help them,” he said. “If they’re interested in college, that’s what we help them with. They want to find a job, that’s what we help them with.”

A lot of kids join because they want access to planes and boats, he said, and that’s great.

In a graduating class, some go on to join the Navy or other military branch, he said, and he’s had students become EMTs and police officers on Whidbey. Some go to Western Washington University, and some have gone to the Citadel.

Davis, along with the entire leadership team of the Sea Cadets, is a volunteer. He started leading cadets in Hawai‘i in 2013, seeing the immense value of the program.

It provides kids opportunities they would never otherwise have access to, he said. Under Davis’s watch, cadets have grown beyond the program and changed and matured as a result. He’s seen leadership training transform formerly shy kids and kids who end up taking on lots of responsibility.

Small improvements, like making the physical requirements, become big improvements, like leadership positions, he said.

Just as important as this, the Sea Cadets become family, he said. Even after they move on, cadets can always keep in contact and fall back if they ever need help or guidance.

“I just think it’s a great program,” he said. “It’s a really good opportunity.”

The Orion Squadron poses before a prowler on a VAQ-129 tour in 2022. (Photo provided)