Feature

Strength and Honor

An Odyssey with Ivan Trent

Ivan Trent and I were both working as defense contractors when we met in 2009. He was interested in the Greenough Advanced Rescue Craft (GARC) for maritime security work and convinced his employer, a major defense contractor, to allow him to test and evaluate our boat. Although we had spoken on the phone and had an extensive email correspondence, we met for the first time on a cold winter morning in Dam Neck, Virginia, where a group of retired DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6) operators had gathered to discuss recent trends in piracy and maritime security. While the others sat in the warm conference room drinking coffee, Trent was lying under the GARC in an unheated warehouse carefully examining the hull’s soft curves. “Only Mr. Greenough could have come up with this,” he said by way of introduction, “It reflects not only a lifetime on the sea, but more importantly, in the surf.”

Although the temperature was in the 40s, Trent wore no coat, only state of the art running gear and a skintight Lycra T-shirt. His ultra-fit frame in no way offset his weathered face, hard dark eyes, and long unruly beard. Ivan Trent’s Osama bin Gump exterior is every bit as misleading as George Greenough’s Robinson Crusoe bearing; in both cases, what you see is not what you get. “If still waters run deep, then my brother Ivan is the deepest sea,” wrote his sister Anna Trent, “Ever gracious with a certain air of humility, he has surfed waves all over the world that were equally as big, if not bigger than those surfed by our father Buzzy. Having seen more in one life than most people see in a hundred, he is never one to talk or boast.”

Trent-family-born, SEAL-trained, North Shore-tested: Ivan "Instructor Blah" Trent. Photo: Harry Taylor
Trent-family-born, SEAL-trained, North Shore-tested: Ivan “Instructor Blah” Trent. Photo: Harry Taylor

Following a few days on the water with the GARC, Trent penned this evaluation: “After two decades as a Naval Special Warfare operator and instructor, I’ve tested, evaluated, and utilized most of the small waterborne craft in the American military arsenal. Quite simply, there is no substitute of experience and nobody has more experience running boats in the surf than legendary waterman George Greenough. Greenough’s Advanced Rescue Craft (GARC) is the finest small boat in the world.” Trent’s words of praise meant a great deal to me, and the team who built the GARC. Although he was a Seal, he was a waterman first. I knew that while he was on active duty, Trent had a fearsome reputation for identifying and uncovering wasteful government spending. “I take it personally,” he explained, “as every American taxpayer should.”

At that time, the fate of the GARC was uncertain. Not only was the American economy in the worst shape since the Great Depression, the long-promised military contract for it kept “slipping to the right” as I slipped further into debt. True to his Hawaiian roots, Trent became a trusted friend. During my frequent trips to Virginia Beach, he showed me true aloha. Not only would he take days off work to help me fix broken boats and trucks, his suburban hale became my home away from home. At the Trents I debated international law with his eldest son Ivan Jr., had jiu jitsu matches with his youngest son Bud, and fended off the attacks and amorous advances of “Dinky,” his incongruously hung Chihuahua.

More than anything else, Trent and I discussed maritime security. We both believed that the expensive and frail technology designed to monitor harbors was doing little to deter forces who were growing increasingly comfortable with small boats and seaborne attacks. Osama bin Laden himself said in a poem he penned after the USS Cole bombing in 2000:  “A destroyer: even the brave fear its might. To her doom she moves slowly. A dinghy awaits her, riding the waves.” The 2009 attack on Mumbai tragically validated many of our assumptions. Pakistan-based extremists (Lashkar-e-Taiba), used motherships and fast inflatable boats to infiltrate Mumbai’s urban peninsula and launch a series of grenade and machine gun attacks that left 166 dead. More than anything else, Mumbai showed the world what smugglers, combat swimmers, and al-Qaeda already knew: ports, coastal regions and the big, cumbersome craft that protect them, are the soft, watery underbelly of asymmetric warfare. Trent and I teamed to offer a more traditional maritime security plan that drew more from combat swimming and the waterman’s tradecraft than high technology.

Ivan Trent first honed his instincts as a SEAL while free-diving and surfing at Makaha with his father Buzzy—and (above) at Waimea. Photo: Bill Romerhaus
Ivan Trent first honed his instincts as a SEAL while free-diving and surfing at Makaha with his father Buzzy—and (above) at Waimea. Photo: Bill Romerhaus

In our paper “False Paradigms in Maritime Security,” we challenged the Navy’s “false assumption that Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) can detect and engage maritime invaders the same way that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles engage land-based targets.” When Trent and I attempted to present our views at the Navy’s Multi Agency Small Craft Conference we were told by a spokeswoman that our abstract was “unsuitable” because our “proposed topic lacked clarity.” Despite the Navy’s disinterest, other government agencies were responsive. One spring day in 2010 we briefed two intelligence officials in Virginia Beach. The older man was a former field operative, a seasoned pro with experience dating back to the Vietnam War. His cohort was a young patrician, smartly dressed in a preppie sailing outfit that he rounded out with fake Oakley sunglasses that I suspected he had just picked up at Walgreen’s, because they still bore a “UV Protection” sticker on the lens. Whoever they were, they weren’t surfers.

After a few minutes of conversation it became clear that nothing could shake their belief that improvements to technology could both replace and defeat humans. Ivan and I held the view that the technology was only as good as the man sitting behind the screen or holding the joystick.

As condescension began to creep into the young spook’s questions, Ivan interrupted him and pointed to his fake Oakleys, and said, “Hey, those work better when you take the ‘UV Protection’ sticker off the lens.” His partner even started chuckling and said, “I was going to wait until we got back to Virginia to tell him.”  Even though they didn’t buy a boat, we savored the Pyrrhic victory. For a brief moment it felt as if we were back in the Makaha parking lot.

For more on the surf and SEAL adventures of Ivan Trent read Peter Maguire’s story, “Redacted,” featured in issue 23.3 of TSJ.