The US Coast Guard Auxiliary is not your typical group of volunteers. They are a uniformed, unpaid wing of the Coast Guard who train alongside their military counterparts and participate in search and rescues, towing, vessel inspections, education and answering distress calls. There is a good chance that if you hailed the Coast Guard off Falmouth or Martha’s Vineyard, it was an auxiliary member that first arrived on scene.
“Our mission is recreation boater safety, to be the face of the Coast Guard for people of Falmouth, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard,” said Russ Gasdia, auxiliary commander of the Woods Hole flotilla.
Commander Gasdia and the 47 other auxiliary members work side-by-side with Coast Guard officers stationed in Woods Hole. Most of the auxiliary members are retired, and are passionate about boating and being a part of a mission, he said.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary was originally established in 1939 after Congress directed the Coast Guard to use civilians to promote safety. Two years later, Congress officially re-designated the civilian part as the auxiliary. During World War II, 50,000 members joined the war effort and many of their private vessels were placed into service.
Now, the auxiliary members cook on ships, perform courtesy vessel safety inspections, teach boater safety and navigation courses, serve as communications watch standers, patrol waterways and help the Coast Guard with homeland security duties. The line is drawn with law enforcement and military, the two functions in which the auxiliary does not participate.
Often the public does not differentiate between Coast Guard active duty and the auxiliary, since the uniforms are essentially the same to the untrained eye.
“We look like active duty with our uniforms and we take that very seriously. We are always aware we are representing the Coast Guard and act accordingly,” Commander Gasdia said.
Those interested in search-and-rescue missions participate in training similar to the training provided to active duty members of the Coast Guard. That training includes first aid, CPR, man overboard drills and correct towing techniques.
“As soon as we leave this dock we are under Coast Guard orders and are now an extension of this station....Very often we’re the boat that is out there and we stay on scene to make sure the boaters are safe,” Commander Gasdia said.
And when they are on patrol, these volunteers use their own personal boats. They are reimbursed for fuel and, if they get hurt on the job, can use federal health insurance,
“They’re a tremendous help,” said Executive Petty Officer Larry Pennington at US Coast Guard Station Woods Hole. “With the auxiliary being held to standards similar to ours, and they’re out on patrol orders, it’s a force multiplier.”
It also frees up their manpower to perform other functions like maintenance and training, he said.
Several auxiliary volunteers have been trained to serve as communications watch standers in Woods Hole. They answer telephone and radio calls from recreational boaters, local fishermen and Coast Guard units; monitor and respond to emergency channels; issue weather and sea condition alerts; and operate as key team members of Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations when needed. At Station Cape Cod Canal in Sandwich, auxiliary also play an important role as communication watch standers. With 58 members, they also run the boating education courses and perform vessel checks.
The volunteers are the public education wing of the Coast Guard. Between 150 and 200 boaters take one of three boater education and safety courses taught by the auxiliary. Boaters, or prospective boaters, can choose an eight-hour basic boating course, an eight-week navigation course, or a 10-week boating safety and seamanship class.
A continuation of its public information mission is its vessel safety inspection program on recreational boats. These are voluntary and done while at dock and the auxiliary checks for working navigation lights, bilge pumps, flares and proper number of life jackets. Last spring the auxiliary checked 250 boats in the Falmouth area.
“We know it’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to the number of boats in the area, but we are making a difference,” Commander Gasdia said.
Executive Petty Officer Pennington agreed.
“We know that the number of search-and-rescue cases have decreased in the last few years and that is absolutely because of the auxiliary. They have really ramped up their vessel checks that are having a positive impact and educating boaters,” he said.
More vessel checks, more people taking education classes.
Station Woods Hole, located near the Steamship Authority on Little Harbor Road, monitors boat traffic in Buzzards Bay, Vineyard and Nantucket sounds. Its focus is on search and rescue—a busy job with the notoriously treacherous Woods Hole passage, law enforcement and escorting ferries. Executive Petty Officer Pennington explained they will use their 110-foot cutters to go a hundred or so miles offshore to popular fishing grounds, where they ensure the commercial fishermen are staying under, not over, their catch limits.
“These caps are in place, so future generations will have the same sustainability we have now,” he said.
They also work to deter acts of terrorism aimed at ferries. The attacks can hold up hundreds of passengers.
“Because of the Steamship Authority’s status as high-capacity passenger vessels, there’s a risk associated with that many people on a boat,” Executive Petty Officer Pennington said. They will escort the ferries from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard and back, a duty they perform randomly.
“If someone is watching, chances are they would be deterred if they saw us out there days in a row. It’s about prevention,” he said.
The auxiliary has shrunk to about 25,000 members, down 10,000 in 10 years. That is due, in part, to its aging population and lack of outreach, Commander Gasdia said. Many had previously served in the military or had an affinity for sailing or boating.
“We’re generally older, retired, white and male,” he said, a fact he would like to see changed.
He would love to see more women and young people join and thinks perhaps they could be recruiting better.
“There’s not a time commitment requirement and you don’t have to jump on a boat,” he said. There is a need for cooks, public affairs officers, interpreters and other positions.