On the Water: USCG Auxiliary keeping boaters safe

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If you have been boating on Lake Pend Oreille, Pend Oreille River or Priest Lake, you have likely seen U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Auxiliary and County Sheriff patrol boats cruising the waters. The purpose of these men and women is to encourage safe boating and provide assistance when necessary.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary is the uniformed, all-volunteer component of the United States Coast Guard. Created in 1939 by an Act of Congress, the Auxiliary has over 32,000 members in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

Auxiliary and Sheriff Patrols

The primary purpose of both the Auxiliary and the county Sheriff’s offices is to promote safe boating. This is done through active patrolling on the water, providing both in-depth and abbreviated boating safety courses, conducting free vessel safety checks at boat launches, providing free boating safety literature at many outdoor-oriented businesses and boating dealerships, as well as conducting many other activities related to recreational boating safety. And when boaters experience trouble on a lake or river both can provide varying levels of assistance.

Flotilla 87 and the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office/Marine Division (BCSO/MD) work closely together. Every spring the Marine

Division prepares a list of patrols that it asks Flotilla 87 to conduct during the summer on both Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake. These patrols can take place on weekends or during the week, or a combination of both, depending on where and when the Sheriff’s office believes flotilla vessels can be most helpful. Besides conducting weekly patrols, the Marine Division also seeks patrol assistance from the Auxiliary during the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends on Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake.

When a patrol is about to be conducted by the Auxiliary, the coxswain (the person in charge of the boat) contacts the USCG, Sector Puget Sound in Seattle, informing the USCG duty officer of the impending patrol. The coxswain also contacts the Bonner County Sheriff dispatch so both dispatch and any Sheriff vessels on the lake are aware that an Auxiliary vessel is on duty and available if needed.

Patrol Vessels

The Flotilla 87 fleet currently consists of 3 private vessels, or, in Coast Guard Auxiliary-speak, Facilities. They range in length from 18 feet to 25 feet. One is moored in Sandpoint for the summer and conducts patrols out of Sandpoint. The remaining two are usually trailered to the Sandpoint, Garfield Bay and sometimes Hope boat launches from Sandpoint, Cocolalla and Bayview. When patrolling on Priest Lake the patrols will usually be initiated from either Coolin or Indian Creek.

On-water training is essential for the Auxiliary to maintain a high degree of professionalism in such areas as towing disabled vessels, as well as search and rescue, when requested. Such training is usually conducted out of Hope for logistical reasons. On occasion, when requested by the Flotilla in Kootenai County, one or more Auxiliary vessels will assist in ensuring that boaters do not accidentally stray into a swim event area on Lake Coeur d’Alene. And every year Flotilla 87 is asked to assist with safety patrols on the Columbia River at Wanapum, near Quincy, WA. Flotilla 87 has also been present in Bonners Ferry at swim events.

In addition to Sandpoint’s Flotilla 87, Coeur d’Alene’s Flotilla 84 primarily patrols Coeur d’Alene Lake, while another smaller flotilla, Flotilla 88, exists in Lewiston. Other flotillas within Division 8, which includes Eastern Washington, are Spokane (82), Yakima (83), and Tri-Cities (85).

Vessel Safety Checks (VSC)

Vessel safety checks (VSC) can be conducted free of charge at any boat launch where an Auxiliary member is present simply by asking for a check. (See the previous April 6, 2018 article, First Things First, to see what you need on your boat to pass a VSC). If your boat meets the minimum safety requirements you will be issued a sticker good for the calendar year that can be displayed on your vessel’s windshield or somewhere prominent on your boat. This sticker will also serve to alert Sheriff vessels that you have already been examined and have passed a safety inspection. Auxiliary vessel exams are not conducted on the water away from a boat launch for safety reasons. You can also schedule a VSC by contacting a member of any Flotilla.

Emergency Assistance

If you are in need of immediate assistance while on the water you are encouraged to use your VHF radio, Channel 16, which is the hailing channel monitored by Sheriff and Auxiliary vessels, as well as the boating public. Using the VHF radio will almost certainly result in making quick contact with someone who can assist you or arrange for help to come to you. Alternatively, if you do not have a VHF radio on board you should try using your cell phone to summon help. Remember, though, that cell phone coverage can be limited and not available in some areas where you are boating. Just as having life vests on board can save lives, so can a VHF radio.

Auxiliary Mission Examples

Besides normal patrolling on local lakes and rivers, the Flotilla is sometimes asked to assist in special operations as well.

Over the past couple of years, the Clark Fork River log diversion structure, up-river of the Clark Fork delta, has been breached, as it was again this year, allowing logs to enter Pend Oreille Lake. This creates a potentially very dangerous situation for boaters who, if not paying close attention, can hit a floating or partially submerged log putting everyone on board in immediate danger of the boat sinking. In 2016 and 2017 the Auxiliary assisted in identifying and tagging loose logs. The Auxiliary coordinated its search with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who deployed several boats on the lake at Hope. Together, the USACE, BCSO and the Auxiliary identified and tagged loose logs and recorded their locations using GPS for eventual recovery. Spiked numbered stakes were driven into logs for easy identification.

On July 4, 2017, a Sheriff’s Deputy boat cruising in the Sandpoint City Beach area contacted the Flotilla 87 vessel on patrol via VHF radio and requested that the Auxiliary boat assist a boater who was stranded north of the Sandpoint marina near Ponder Point.

When the Auxiliary boat reached the stranded boat and its occupants it was discovered that the boat’s fan belt had broken and the engine had overheated and was no longer operable. The boat was safely towed to the City Beach boat launch where the owner was able to put his boat on the trailer and safely remove it from the lake.

Contact Information

If you are interested in joining the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary you are encouraged to contact Beverly Hannibal at bhannibal44@gmail.com.

Tom Barnes is the Flotilla 87 Operations Officer. If you have questions or comments you are encouraged to contact him at tombarnes.tb@gmail.com.

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