Buoy 10 – The Boater’s Conscience

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Parker

It’s just before dawn and a long a line of headlights fill the dark roads leading to the Hammond, Ore., boat ramp. As the sun pierces over the eastern horizon there’s all ready a speckle of small boats filling the entrance to the Columbia River. The massive parking lots at the Hammond Boat Basin are cluttered with hundreds of boat trailers and the vehicles used to pull them.

The rush of thousands of fisherman from of all over the U.S. to the waters at the entrance of the Columbia River happens like clockwork every year. Their goal is to reach Buoy 10, a buoy that marks the entrance to the Columbia River and a place where the salmon are biting.

This surge and accumulation of boaters to one specific area has brought both hazards and challenges that are being answered by the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary.

In 2001, over a morning cup of coffee, Larry Kellis, Flotilla 62’s Public Affairs Officer in Cape Disappointment, Wash., and Chief Petty Officer Kyle Betts, who at the time was a first class petty officer at Station Cape Disappointment, began talking about what they could do to help with the over abundance of search and rescue calls the Coast Guard was having to answer to at Buoy 10.

“We sat down and started looking at the statistics,” said Kellis. “We came up with too many deaths; too many rescue calls. What could we do to change this?”

Reports for 2001 alone showed that there were seven deaths and approximately 315 search and rescue calls to this one specific area.

“We talked about what we could do to eliminate the problem of people losing their lives,” added Kellis, “and the amount of rescue calls that the Coast Guard was responding on during this fishery.”

At the end of this conversation, the Auxiliary program that would be known as Buoy 10 was born.

Buoy 10 brings Coast Guard Auxiliarist to boat ramps along the entrance of the Columbia River, on both the Washington and Oregon state sides, to talk to boaters about boating safety and do voluntary spot checks just before the boaters leave the docks.

“We want them to operate safely and wear their lifejackets and have the right equipment onboard,” said Chief Petty Officer Ian Bauer, Coast Guard Group Astoria, Ore., Auxiliary Liaison and a Buoy 10 Coordinator. “We put the Auxiliarists out there to remind the boaters of that and to hand out safety packets.”

The result of this program has been a dramatic decline in deaths and search and rescue cases. In 2008 there were zero deaths and only 17 search and rescue cases. This year there were zero deaths and 65 search and rescue cases.

“The first year we went from seven down to one on fatalities,” said Kellis. “We’ve made right at 170,000 contacts in the last eight years between the three docks on the Washington side and the two docks on the Oregon side.”

When a boater arrives at one of the five boat ramps they can expect to be greeted by a friendly face; an Auxiliarist who will help ensure their boat is in proper order and to double check that they haven’t overlooked something before getting underway. The Auxiliarist will remind boaters to put on their lifejackets and hand out certificates for a free ice cream cone to children who have already done so.

“This year we found twelve boats that had their plugs out,” said Kellis. “Which saved a possibility of twelve boats sinking out in the water, twelve rescue calls and the possibility of fatalities?”

The success of the Buoy 10 program has both Kellis and Bauer looking toward the future, when programs like this could be implemented across the United States.

“They could set this program up anywhere in the United States where there is a high fatality rate or a high number of rescues during any fisheries,” said Kellis.

“The program is a good way for the Auxiliarist to interact and make sure everyone is conducting themselves in a safe manner out there,” said Bauer.

“This program has proven itself over the past eight years that it’s saving lives, reducing rescue calls and saving the Coast Guard a lot of man hours,” added Kellis.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary’s primary mission is boating safety and these Auxiliarist of the Pacific Northwest are at the boat docks in the early morning hours to be the boater’s conscience and help ensure they return home safely.

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