"Safety on the high seasThe Coast Guard Auxiliary is on patrol, ready when boaters need help."
June 9, 2008 · Updated 7:48 PM
"The Coast Guard recently released some alarming statistics: * Staffing is so low that many personnel work well in excess of 40 hours a week;* On-the-water accidents involving Coast Guard personnel have more than tripled in the past two years;* Virtually no new recruits assigned to Coast Guard stations have training in small boat search and rescue;* Eighty-four percent of search-and-rescue small boats were deemed not ready for sea.No one who boards the 37-foot Cooper pilothouse sloop Havorn, though, would think of it as not ready for sea.Shipshape and Bristol fashion, Havorn belongs to Poulsbo resident Peter Riley, a member of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary's Flotilla 48. The group has 15 members, while nationally, the Auxiliary boasts more than 32,000.We always welcome new people, says flotilla commander Sonya Quitslund of Bainbridge Island. You don't have to own a boat to join.Founded in 1939, the Coast Guard Auxiliary provides assistance to the Coast Guard in search and rescue, boater education, and vessel safety. And Quitslund adds a fourth function - fellowship among its members.Riley is taking Quitslund, three other flotilla members and me on a simulated patrol and it is obvious that whatever deficiencies the parent service may have don't extend to this level. That's good news for local boaters as summer weather attracts many of them onto the water.Riley conducts a brisk, business-like pre-departure briefing, making us aware of the various locations of his extensive inventory of safety equipment. And all of us have donned life jackets within moments after boarding his boat.Riley can't conduct official patrols aboard Havorn because it is not an operational facility - a vessel that not only has passed a strict inspection but also carries extra safety gear such as sound equipment and a towing bridle - and he endures some good-natured chaffing from the other four.I need a few more things, he says.He's dragging his feet, is the response.If this were an actual patrol, Havorn would be adorned with sideboards identifying it as a USCGA vessel, the crew members - at least three must be on board - would in all likelihood wear identical uniforms and we would have official written orders from Coast Guard Division 13 headquarters at Pier 36. In addition, we'd radio in prior to departure and every half hour or hour thereafter to report our position.That way, if the Coast Guard receives a distress call from a boat anywhere near where we were, we could be immediately vectored to the scene.Thus, the Auxiliary functions as a force multiplier, making it possible to extend more than a billion dollars worth of Coast Guard services at a small fraction of that cost. Riley, for example, will pick up the tab for the cost of the fuel we expend during our mini-cruise.But though the patrol on this lovely sunny afternoon may be simulated, there's nothing artificial about anyone's attitude. These aren't just a bunch of people out for an afternoon in the sun. Everyone has a specific assignment.While the chances of encountering distress on this virtually windless weekday on Port Orchard Bay are remote, someone is always stationed on the foredeck, scanning the horizon. When a small outboard appears at least two miles away, that fact is immediately reported to the helmsperson, operating under Riley's careful supervision.Riley himself is designated a coxswain, which means that he's undergone extensive training and is qualified to command a patrol.Quitslund and Poulsbo resident Norma Bailey are crew-qualified, meaning that they've digested the contents of a hefty manual more than an inch thick and passed a stringent test.Newer members Minnie Almojuela and Jim Brown of Bainbridge are seeking their crew qualification.Riley and Quitslund are to quick to point out the benign nature of their organization, that they have no law enforcement or military authority. We're here to help other boaters, Riley says. Some people are afraid of us, but that's not our intention.Quitslund adds that nothing we do jeopardizes the boating public. We aren't even allowed to carry firearms.One of their services is conducting vessel safety checks, and Quitslund emphasizes that boaters are in no danger of receiving a citation of any sort if they request to be boarded. For one thing, Auxiliary members cannot go aboard another vessel without an invitation. For another, they may well find deficiencies that could result in citations should the vessel be boarded by a less understanding person, such as a local sheriff. The next public vessel safety check is Saturday, July 21 in Poulsbo. She and other members will also conduct individual safety checks at owners' request.I've even paddled out to inspect liveaboards, she says.The most common deficiencies are burned-out running and anchor lights, expired visual distress signals, uncovered battery terminals and - perhaps most ominously - fire extinguishers that aren't in good condition.While Flotilla 48's overall patrol area extends from Point No Point in the north to the southern tip of Bainbridge - a distance of some 20 miles - we cruise only as far south as Battle Point before turning around and heading back toward Poulsbo. On the foredeck, Norma Bailey of Poulsbo maintains a constant vigil while she talks about her involvement in the organization. She joined in 1998, feeling that the Auxiliary performs a wonderful public service.She wears several hats: flotilla vice-commander, public information officer, marine safety and environmental protection officer. One of her functions is to educate dock employees and boaters about pollution.One quart of fuel can pollute 300,000 gallons of water, she says, saying her efforts are well-received.It's amazing to me how many boaters just get a boat and go, she says. Washington is one of 12 to 15 states that doesn't require a boating safety course.Boating safety is important to Almojuela, who recently joined with her husband Richard. The couple own a 21-foot powerboat.We like boating and wanted to learn more about safety, she says.Adds Brown: I've been in boating on and off for my most of my life. I called a couple of weeks ago and said, 'Hey, send me a packet,' and in no time at all, I had a huge book to study.He's already become qualified as a vessel safety examiner.Quitslund is by far the group's most senior member. She joined in 1982 after watching her foster son and his wife fishing from shore on Chesapeake Bay.I decided to get a boat, but first I needed to learn about boating safety. So I joined the Auxiliary, the retired college professor says. I never sweated my Ph.D. exams like I did the Coast Guard tests. She's taken specialty exams in weather, search and rescue, seamanship and more. This isn't a yacht club, she says. We're expected to volunteer our time and energy for boating safety.Her time commitment generally runs 50-60 hours per month, though a good portion of that is administrative work connected with her position as flotilla commander.Riley joined in 1995 after he retired.It just seemed like a good way to give back a little, he says. And the Auxiliary seemed an excellent way to learn more about boating, which is one of my recreational desires.As we near the dock more than two hours following our departure, Riley notes that this is almost always the way our patrols end - boring. And we like it that way. It gives us a chance to teach and review and practice.Lack of practice of live man overboard drills has been noted soon after our departure, with someone suggesting that I volunteer my services.Always in search of first-hand research, I eventually agree.So wearing a wetsuit (and of course a lifejacket), I plunge into the chilly waters of Liberty Bay. Moments later the cry of man overboard! reverberates through the Havorn and Norma, the foredeck lookout, moves to the rail and points to me. Someone else hurries to the Lifesling mounted on the port side railing near the stern as Havorn begins to circle back. Soon the bright yellow flotation device drifts toward me and moments later I slip it over my head. Within a minute or two I am pulled back aboard, somewhat invigorated by my impromptu bath and brief brush with ersatz disaster.While it's hard to imagine anything untoward happening on a day like today, the majority of boating accidents happen precisely on days like today - and more than 75 percent of all boating-related fatalities occur because someone like me falls overboard without wearing a life jacket.So while the afternoon has served as a pleasant outing on the water, the underlying subtext is a little more serious: safety awareness saves lives. "