On the Northern Neck, a day on the water conjures many possibilities. The area is defined by its water access, its water opportunities, and its water recreation. Fishing, sailing, water skiing, rowing, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, or simply running about on everything from a jet ski to a motor yacht—all fall under boating’s umbrella.
With the promise of all that fun, new boaters may be surprised to learn there’s an entire organization whose primary purpose is to make recreational boating even better for boaters of every nautical stripe. In addition to focusing on its major mission of boating safety, the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary assists the United States Coast Guard (USCG) with an ever-expanding list of responsibilities. The Auxiliary has flotillas in all 50 states and in territories like Puerto Rico and Guam. Most remarkably, it’s made up entirely of volunteers. Members go through a number of training sessions to hone their boating skills, and as part of membership, all must go through a full security check.
After a short time cruising Bay waters, boaters recognize the organization’s boats not only by the USCG Auxiliary patrol sign, but also by the actions of the crew, who may be helping a stranded boater, checking a boat’s equipment, or offering advice that could someday prevent an accident. Members are always in uniform, and they use their own boats, which are inspected annually. (The Coast Guard does reimburse owners for fuel.)
Not surprisingly, education is a big component of the Auxiliary’s efforts to improve boating safety. “One course that we offer has been especially popular lately,” says Win Schwab, Education Officer for Kilmarnock’s Flotilla 33, “because by July 1 of this year in Virginia, operators of personal watercraft and operators of motorboats with a 10 hp or greater motor must obtain a certification card to show they’ve completed a boating safety course approved by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Our class takes a full day. Many people express surprise at the amount of information we cover, and we hear that same comment whether the person is a long-term boater or a relative newcomer.”
Last year, the Auxiliary offered a new class with a special focus. “Suddenly in Command” is a comprehensive lesson on how to handle the boat and the situation if the usual captain is no longer capable, whether due to sickness, injury, or an overboard accident. The course was originally directed toward spouses, but anyone who regularly goes out on a friend’s boat would benefit from the information. The four-hour class is taught by four women—three Auxiliary members and one medical expert.
“In addition to the practical explanations of boat equipment and how to use it, we emphasize communication,” says Amy Thomas, Division 3 Commander and member of the Kilmarnock Flotilla. “Naturally, it’s important that everyone learn how to use the radio to get help, which includes being able to report the boat’s location. But we also address the communication that should go on among the people usually on the boat. People need to open the dialog, to discuss the possibilities that would create a ‘Suddenly in Command’ situation, and to do it before an emergency arises, even though it seems an unpleasant thing to talk about. Someday, it could contribute to the well-being of everyone on board.
“As for equipment, it’s impossible to overstress the importance of the most basic items. Besides having the right type and the right number of life jackets on board, they must be readily accessible. In an emergency, you must be able to get to the jackets and don one quickly. Hypothermia is another unpleasant thought that’s often misunderstood. In spring, the air temperature may be balmy, but the water is still cold enough to incapacitate a person in a very short time.”
One of the Auxiliary’s regular activities—conducting Vessel Safety Checks (VSC)—provides a chance to explain these things to boaters. Says Win Schwab, “This is a service offered to recreational boat owners by which members of the Auxiliary check to see that the boat complies with all safe boating requirements. Checks are often held at marinas as part of a special event day, when many owners will be available to take part. Inspectors run down the list of equipment that’s required to be on board, and they make sure everything’s in good shape and functional.”
The Auxiliary charges no fee for this service.
According to Walter Montross, Flotilla 33 Commander, “Two common failures are distress signal flares with expired dates, and navigation lights that don’t work. It’s obvious why flares should be current, and that’s an easy fix with a trip to the ship’s store. But it’s wrong to assume a boat doesn’t need navigation lights. You may not plan to be out at night, but in daylight hours, you may run into a fog bank or a nasty storm, both conditions of poor visibility. The lights can help others see you.”
Less obvious than VSCs but no less important are all the other activities the Coast Guard Auxiliary takes on. “We’re at the beck and call of the Coast Guard,” says Montross. “We go where they send us. The Auxiliary is authorized by the federal government to assist with any mission as directed by the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant or the Secretary of Homeland Security.” These do not include activities involving the military or law enforcement.
As one example, adds Brian McArdle, former Director of International Affairs, “We are contacted semiannually to assist with port security as part of a joint task force with the Coast Guard, State Police, ATF agents, and Customs Border Patrol agents, conducting inspections on trucks and containers at Norfolk International Terminal.”
Amy Thomas describes a more typical weekend. “We may go out to patrol a generally busy area and conduct a river sweep to see that everyone is OK. We may find a boat with a dead battery, perhaps another boat needs gas, or one has lost an anchor, so we help when we can. All the while, we’ll watch the passing boat parade, to be sure that children are wearing life jackets, and not riding on the bow. If we see children at the bow, we’ll approach the boat and explain why they should not be there, where they’re in a perfect position to bounce off the boat and into the water, at risk of injury from the propeller.”
While on such patrols, Auxiliary crews also look at the various aids to navigation—the lights, signs, buoys, and markers that direct travel on water routes. Explains Montross: “We check the navigation aids to be sure visibility isn’t obstructed by an osprey nest, that floating buoys are in their proper location, that no damage is evident from a possible collision of boat and marker, and to ensure that lighted buoys are lit at dusk. If we find any problems, we report them to the Coast Guard.”
The Auxiliary is also active in search-and-rescue operations, though fortunately, most become search only, when the missing boater is found, perhaps in an unexpected location. Boaters are strongly urged to file a float plan every time they go out on the water. This isn’t a special form and it doesn’t have to go through the Coast Guard. It’s a reminder to tell a family member or friend where the boat is going, approximately when it will return, and who is on board. Without that information, searchers don’t know where to start looking or for how many people.
It’s clear from conversations with Auxiliary members that joining the organization has altered their lives in some ways. Most obvious is an increase in boating knowledge and skills. Members also cite the satisfaction that comes with taking on personal challenges, fulfilling a civic duty, and giving back by helping or mentoring or teaching others. An ongoing love of the water is universal, and that does not change.
For information about classes or to enroll, contact Win Schwab: email@example.com 703-635-4100. For other information, including membership, see www.flotilla33.org.