We're pulling out onto the water from Alex Harvin Landing. It's mid-May, not yet 10 a.m., and I'm already sweating.
Two men chug up as we step off the dock onto the boats, nine of us split between two vessels distinctly marked with red-and-white …
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Two men chug up as we step off the dock onto the boats, nine of us split between two vessels distinctly marked with red-and-white "PATROL" signs, the American flag fluttering next to the Coast Guard flag, and one blue-uniformed man in a third ghost boat to allow for wide-scale photos later.
"Y'all doing inspections?" the one hand-steering the motor asks, holding up a bite-sized fire extinguisher.
"We are, but if you can come back in a little," said Perry Moses, flotilla commander for the group of Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers who cover Lake Marion, Lake Moultrie and the Santee River promoting boating safety by doing free inspections and responding to calls for assistance on the water, from towing boats that run out of fuel to assisting the Department of Natural Resources in search-and-rescue incidents.
"Is this the right one?" the man asks.
"Does it have a plastic top on it?" Moses responds. It does. "That's on recall. There's been some instances where they haven't discharged, so all those Kidde extinguishers with plastic caps shouldn't be used. You need to get a new one."
Turns out, the fire extinguisher the boater asked about was recalled with about 37.8 million of its brand and type - Kidde extinguishers with plastic handles and push buttons - in November require excessive force to discharge. At the time of the recall, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel counted one death due to the defect and 391 reports of faulty extinguishers that resulted in 16 injuries.
That's what Perry and his flotilla members are there to do. They can't enforce the law - though that misconception is one they aren't upset about because people tend to behave better when they think they could get caught - but they hope their mission to promote boating safety prevents tragedy.
Historically, a vital volunteer service
The current 12 members of the Inland Sea Flotilla 12-1 are responsible for patrolling more than 250,000 acres of water. Lake Moultrie is 60,000-plus acres, and they also go into the upper Cooper River on top of spanning Lake Marion, the largest lake in South Carolina at 110,600 acres and 173 square miles. Much of Marion is "dead forest," dangerous stumps and dead tree trunks standing just beneath the surface from when the lake was made in 1941 as a result of the construction of the dam to create a reservoir for hydroelectric power in World War II.
They try to get out on the water twice a month.
"It's not worth it if I get a call when I'm home in Sumter and have to take a couple hours to come over," Moses said.
He said there was reluctance from boaters and fishermen to get their vessels inspected from the auxiliary when they started out, but 10 to 12 years in, Moses said, "about 80% of the folks we ask take the inspection." They appreciate it now, knowing the auxiliary is there purely to help and not to punish.
They inspect for the correct equipment, paperwork and general boating safety knowledge. If they have a fire extinguisher they won't just stop there. They'll explain why it's beneficial to have it mounted somewhere for easier access. They tell people about new life jackets and how they are lighter and more fitted than ever before. From sound-producing devices to hull numbers to navigation systems to the Coast Guard app for smartphones that lets you file a claim, report suspicious activity and provides safety checklists, they reward successful inspections with a sticker that lets DNR know they passed. Boaters can still get on the water after a failed inspection from the auxiliary, but Moses and the other members, by telling them what's missing, offer the chance to self-correct.
"The discussion part is just as important as the inspection," said Larry Odom, who spent four years in the active-duty Coast Guard before joining the auxiliary 12 years ago at the same time as Moses.
Once they're out on the water the auxiliary responds to any calls for help and continues its education mission.
Congress authorized the Coast Guard "Reserve" on June 23, 1939, with a legislative mandate to use civilians to promote safety on or over the high seas and the nation's navigable waters. According to the Coast Guard Auxiliary website, the auxiliary was created in 1941 when the 1939 act was amended to designate the reserve as a military branch of the active service, and the civilian section became the auxiliary.
When the United States entered World War II, 50,000 auxiliary members joined as military teams. Many private vessels were placed into service, which is where Moses' family comes into the auxiliary service.
His father was too old for the military at the time, but his cousin has a nice boat in Georgetown, he said, so they spent the war helping the Coast Guard protect and rescue airmen and vessels damaged by submarines off the East Coast.
Auxiliary members also fill jobs as cooks, physicians and gate and radio watchmen on Coast Guard ships and bases.
Practice and discussion make for a safe ride
It's now about 11 a.m. On the water with the wind blowing, the heat is not as stagnant.
Until the engine cuts off.
For our sake, and for training purposes, the group demonstrates how it responds to a broken-down boat that requires a tow.
The auxiliary-marked boat with a coxswain (the person in charge of navigation and steering) and three crew members approaches my "dead" boat. Moses, as coxswain, had demonstrated a radio call for help. Odom takes on the role of a potential person they may encounter, asking for beer, needing direction.
They can have fun.
"We're going to circle around you to make sure your boat isn't damaged, then we'll throw you a line across the bow," declared William Hayes, whose son, Trad, also an auxiliary member, drives a third boat to allow Micah to photograph both boats in action.
First, they connect the line to the very front of our boat. A stern tow to get out of danger. Then, they inch closer and connects the two vessels side by side. A side tow to give them more control of the dead boat, which they will use to get ashore.
Moses does a de-briefing after. Overall, great protocol. Timing could improve.
"It just took too long, but I'd say great for our first time out on the water since last fall," he said.
There's a lot to keep up with. They pass time on the water with "heated discussions on how you do certain things and what's in the manual," Larry Odom said.
"Who's usually right?" I asked.
"Perry," Odom said, without hesitation. Professor Perry, they call him.
One thing to know for radio communications, according to Adam Barwick. Don't say "over and out. It's redundant."
What are the most important supplies to have on a boat?
- Signed registration card
- Appropriately displayed registration numbers
- One life jacket per person on board appropriately sized for each individual
- When operating on the ocean, three correct visual distress signals
- The correct number and size fire extinguisher for boat length
- Sound-producing device (horn or whistle)
- Navigation lights in good, working condition
- Batteries should be covered and tied down
These are the most common requirements for small vessels and are the minimum standards according to South Carolina state requirements. There are more requirements for boats more than 26 feet in length.
What kind of maintenance should be done on a boat?
- Check tires on your trailer for air pressure and that bearings are greased
- Check all tie downs and winch
- Make sure battery is fully charged and in good, working condition
- Ensure there is adequate fuel aboard to include one-third of a tank for the outgoing trip, one-third for returning and one-third as spare
- Fuel should be fresh and properly mixed with oil or according to motor requirements
- Motor should be serviced and in good, working condition
* These are minimum maintenance suggestions. More maintenance may be necessary depending on the individual trailer and vessel
What information does the Flotilla provide during its recreational safe boating classes?
The America's Boating Course covers the following topics:
- Knowing your boat
- Before you get underway checks
- Navigating the waterways
- Operating your vessel safely
- Local requirements
- Boating emergencies / what to do
- Enjoying your boat
What is Flotilla 21-1?
Flotilla 12-1 operates primarily on Lake Marion, Lake Moultrie and the Santee River. It is made up of auxiliary members who are all volunteers with a mission to support and promote safe boating on the area's lakes and rivers.
For more information on joining, contact Bob Young, flotilla HR officer, at (803) 406-7669.
Join the Coast Guard Auxiliary
Membership is open to anyone aged 17 years or older who is an American citizen in good standing and can pass a background check. You do not have to have any previous military experience, and ownership of a boat is not a requirement. Both men and women are welcome as long as they share the goal of promoting recreational boating safety and supporting the U.S. Coast Guard as able.
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