With a little help from their friends

By PA2 Shawn Dean Eggert

SEATTLE – The familiar reflection of a stripe and shield emblem bounces across the surface of the water as a small boat races to the aid of a swimmer swept out to sea.  Men and women in bright orange lifejackets hurriedly set to pulling the unlucky swimmer to safety; their dark blue caps emblazoned with silver letters confirming that help has arrived.  However, these heroes are not active-duty, or even reserve, Coast Guard members.   They’re members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and they’re part of an attempt to improve the Coast Guard’s ability to respond in the waters near Port Townsend, Wash., home of the Coast Guard Cutter Osprey and its crew.

The Osprey arrived to Port Townsend from Lockport, La., in 1999.  Missions of law enforcement, search and rescue (SAR,) marine environmental response, recreational boating safety enforcement and military readiness have kept it busy ever since.  So busy that Master Chief Edward Butz, Officer in Charge of the Osprey, has implemented a program to bring in local Coast Guard Auxiliary members to increase the abilities of the unit, provide mentorship and serve as ambassadors to the large boating community that work on and enjoy the waters in and around Admiralty Inlet.

“When I was Officer in Charge at Coast Guard Station Milford Haven in Virginia, I actually shut my station down for an entire week during Opsail 2000 and we augmented the entire station with Auxiliary personnel,” said Butz.  “We trained right alongside them until my confidence level was up to the point where I could let them run the station as a full crew while my crew did operations elsewhere.  It worked out very well and allowed the Auxiliary members to work directly with Coast Guard personnel.”

Being the only passage into Puget Sound, Admiralty Inlet is possibly the busiest waterway in Washington.  Thousands of vessels travel through the inlet yearly, increasing the odds that an accident might occur and putting the Osprey’s crew in a prime spot for responding to the scene.

“Even though we aren’t a station, we run a lot of search and rescue cases,” said Butz.  “The locals know us and often call us before calling Group Port Angeles.  We’re not required to, but we maintain a search and rescue response.  It helps to have an Auxiliary asset here when my cutter is on patrol.”

Coast Guard Auxiliary safety patrols are already a common sight on the waters around Port Townsend.  Auxiliary members routinely get underway to promote safety and guide boaters back to shore when they become lost in the fog.  Once members are properly trained, SAR becomes just one more tool in the Auxiliary’s arsenal of skills for use by the Coast Guard.

“The Osprey is occasionally under repair or maintenance so what we do is come in and take care of some the situations that would normally require the crew’s attention,” said Auxiliary member Henry Loresch, Flotilla 47 Commander.  “If a boat capsizes or comes under some other distress, we might be dispatched to the scene.”

Loresch and other Auxiliary members recently responded to a possible person in the water near Marrowstone Island south of Port Townsend.  A personal flotation device (PFD) was spotted within a mass of debris and lumber drifting near the island prompting the crew to begin SAR procedures.

“We came upon this lumber with holes drilled through the ends of it and some rubber tires stuffed with foam and thought it was somebody’s makeshift dock that had floated away,” said Loresch.  “What immediately got our attention was a child’s PFD that was in amongst it.  We thought there might have been a kid who’d built this as a raft and gotten into trouble.”

“We contacted the Auxiliary at Ediz Hook and started our search,” said Auxiliary member Diane McGann.  “We stayed on scene for several hours and collected some of the debris, but we didn’t find anybody.”

The case turned out to be a false alarm, but it did manage to show the potential for using Auxiliary members to conduct SAR missions.  Of course, the Auxiliary won’t only provide SAR support to the Osprey’s crew.

“Once we understand the Auxiliary members’ capabilities and learn their interests, we can capitalize on those interests,” said Butz.  “In fact, the Auxiliary has already saved me over twelve-hundred man-hours by working on projects that were too numerous for my crew to take on.”

Through their work with the Osprey, Auxiliary members are also able to serve as mentors to new Coast Guard members who are still learning their duties.

“It seems every time I went underway or stood watch with the Coast Guard Cutter Active, we had a SAR mission,” said Auxiliary member Steve Demaggio, Flotilla 42 Member Training Officer and Division 4 Vice Captain.

Demaggio teaches classes in seamanship, patrols and weather and has experience as a Coast Guard watchstander.  He also has some skill as a cook.

“I can’t get away from the kitchen,” said Demaggio.  “I understand the Osprey may need a cook, but I’m afraid they may get too used to my cooking because I really like to tinker around in the kitchen.”

The third task ahead of Auxiliary members at Port Townsend is to serve as a public face for the Coast Guard when the Osprey’s crew is too busy or unable to interact with the community on a more personal level.

“One other goal I have for the Auxiliary is to have them perform patrols, walk our docks and talk to the boating community to find out what kind of questions or concerns they have,” said Butz.  “We want to conduct an outreach program that allows boaters to get questions answered and provide any kind of training they need to make their boating activities safer and more efficient.  I think it’s important to show we care, and we’re out there.”

The only obstacle in the path to the program’s success is a shortage of Auxiliary members.  The Port Townsend flotilla is hovering close to only 17 members.

“The flotilla needs a boost,” Butz said.  “We’re looking for people in the Port Townsend area to do great things like this.”

Potential Auxiliary members must be 17 years of age and American citizens.  More information on how to join can be found at http://nws.cgaux.org/visitors/ps_visitor/index.html.  The Auxiliary is always seeking new members with useful and specialty skills.  For instance, Flotilla 47 is using members with kayaking skills in shallow water areas to investigate sources of pollution and provide security under bridges and docks.

“There’s a place, a job and a schedule for everyone,” said Loresch.  “Anyone who is interested in a way to help the Coast Guard and the country in a very satisfactory way can find a place to work within the Auxiliary.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary has been a part of protecting America’s waterways since 1939.  Its partnership with the Osprey may not be as old, but its members can still be counted on to be there when the Coast Guard calls.  The next time a swimmer gets swept out to sea in the vicinity of Admiralty Inlet, it might just be the hand of a Coast Guard Auxiliary member that delivers them to safety.

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