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A gateway to success

Coast Guard veteran leverages military skills and resources to successful business

Jeff Hellam, owner of Hellam’s Vineyard Wine Shop & Wine Bar. Photo provided by Jeffrey Hellam

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Starting your career off in the military can be a great gateway to success in life. That's what Jeffrey Hellam, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and the proprietor of Hellam's Vineyard Wine Shop & Wine Bar in La Conner, Washington, did. He trained at the Motor Lifeboat School in Ilwaco, Washington, and later became a rescue swimmer on the Coast Guard cutter Point Winslow based out of Morro Bay, California.

Coast Guard training in the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean was especially challenging. Some of Hellam's training involved swimming to shore from a 44-foot boat.

"I remember the undertow being extremely powerful, the water very cold and the swim very hard in a mustang rescue suit," he recalled. "I believe this training set the stage for my success as a rescue swimmer upon my next duty on the Point Winslow."

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter the Point Winslow in Morro Bay, California. Photo provided by Jeffrey Hellam

Hellam eventually trained at the Rescue Swimmer School in Monterey, California, after his skipper requested it.

"I was always athletically inclined and had a love of swimming in the ocean," Hellam said. "The training was intense (and composed of) mostly pool workouts but also physical fitness and (helicopter) basket training in Monterey Bay, which involved lifts into the helo, swims back and forth to the stokes litter, approaching someone who is drowning, (and learning) how to tow them. It was outstanding training, and I felt even more fit afterwards."  

An assignment on a Coast Guard cutter is pretty exciting, but one particularly harrowing rescue stands out to Hellam. A tugboat captain was traveling alone off the coast of Big Sur in a storm with large 18-foot waves. A large wave busted out the boat's windshield, and the captain got glass shards in his eyes. Unable to navigate, he radioed mayday to the Coast Guard.

"We ran out to him, but because the water conditions were so terrible, we couldn't tie up next to him," Hellam described, "so the next best option was for me to coxswain the rigid hull (a type of Coast Guard inflatable boat) over to the side of the tug and get our boarding team onboard. It took me several passes, and we almost threw someone into the ocean before we were able to get our crewmembers on board. We then worked with a helo to lower the basket onto the deck of the tug, which by now was in the trough, so the basket was knocking around pretty good. Twenty minutes later, we secured the basket and the boat captain and steered the tug behind the cutter back to the harbor. We received a unit commendation for that rescue."

Hellam believes the training he received in the military helped him succeed in the civilian world.

"The skills I learned in the Coast Guard were multi-faceted because we had a small crew of 11 people on the cutter," he said. "My responsibilities included everything from navigation (and) rescue swimming (to serving as the) assistant weapons officer and boarding team member (and completing) first aid/firefighting (and) weapons certification. ... I believe being multi-faceted gave me the ability to multi-task in college and really focus on my studies. When you are in a lifesaving situation, you better get it right the first time or someone's life could be on the line. In school, if you don't study for a test properly, you fail -- you really only get one chance at success. So that really set me up to do well. I did my Reserve time while in college, four years of weekend duty and two weeks in the summer. The G.I. Bill helped pay for my studies, which led to an emphasis in hotel and restaurant management, and beyond college, a career in the wine business."

Hellam believes that determination and hard work are two things you must have to succeed in business. His advice to military members seeking to start their own business is to "start small, be cautious, have a niche and (have) a good business plan," he said. "Don't get huge loans to start out; rather, try to do it yourself. Don't pay staff, which only adds overhead. If possible, do the work yourself in the beginning and (put) everything you make right back into the business. We lived off my wife's teacher salary for years and scraped until the wine shop was doing well enough (to) hire someone. We gradually grew from our original 400 square feet to over 2,500 square feet now. Fourteen years later, it's still thriving, and we've established ourselves as the largest family-owned and operated wine shop in Washington State."

Hellam's Vineyard, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Friday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, 109 1st St. #101, La Conner, 360.466.1758,

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