Recreational Boating Safety – Marine Safety Overview

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
Gold and Silver
People see Auxiliarists in uniform performing their duties and know that we are part of the US Coast Guard, but often that is as far as their understanding goes. We are the unformed civilian component of the US Coast Guard, and we support the Coast Guard in nearly all mission areas. Our uniforms differ slightly in that active duty Coast Guard uniforms have gold buttons and lettering, while Auxiliary uniforms have silver buttons and lettering. Auxiliary operational dress uniforms (ODUs) and caps clearly say “AUXILIARY” on them as well. Because of the differences in uniforms, we call the active duty arm of the Coast Guard the Gold Side, and the civilian component the Silver Side.

In our area of operation, the Gold Side and Silver Side are well integrated and work together side by side in many operations, including during our recent disaster, Hurricane Harvey. In addition to the distinctions above, the Gold Side members have primary responsibilities in most operations while the Silver Side members assist in those operations. One area where the Silver Side has primary responsibility is the Recreational Boating Safety area, which includes several programs such as the Recreational Boat Vessel Safety Check (VSC) and our on the water patrols, called Marine Observation Missions (MOM), our Aids to Navigation (ATON) Verifier program, and our Dock Walking program. If you have been reading this column, you should have a good idea of what the VSC program is all about. This column will give you an overview of some of our other Marine Safety functions.

Marine Observation Missions (MOM Patrol)
The goal of Maritime Observation Missions is to provide increased domain awareness by observing, recording and reporting findings to the Operational Commander. Auxiliary activity can be authorized in all activities or areas where the actions of the boating public/citizenry are not prohibited. Areas we observe include ports and waterways, vessels, land based infrastructure and targets and vulnerabilities. These are our basic Auxiliary patrols.

All of the patrol boats we use in our area are personally owned by Auxiliary members, but they have been specially outfitted and specially inspected to meet certain criteria for equipment, personnel training, and operational capability. The owners of these boats essentially offer their boats for use by the Coast Guard as needed. Once certified, the boats, as with Gold Side cutters and boats, are classified as Operational Facilities (OPFACs). All Auxiliary patrols are performed under Coast Guard orders and are directed by the Coast Guard. Boat crews for Auxiliary OPFACs undergo extensive training and certification almost identical to the Gold Side certification and training. The two certifications that can be obtained by Auxiliarists are Boat Crew and Coxswain (pronounced “cox-sun”). The Coxswain is the crewman in charge of the OPFAC and the mission, and is responsible for the safety of the crew and the OPFAC. The coxswain generally mans the helm, but can direct other boat crew members to operate the vessel. In our area of operation (AOR), one of our primary MOM patrols is in the Kemah and Clear Lake area, as well as Galveston East Bay and Galveston West Bay, and the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) as far east as Frozen Point. This area of Operation has a very high number of recreational boats operating in a relatively small area. The need is so great that the Coast Guard has tasked the Auxiliary with operating MOM patrols on weekends and holidays during the heavy boating activity season. These patrols are so important that we have designated the missions as the Virtual Boat Station (VBS). VBS missions involve many types of boater assists, including towing recreational boats with engine or sail problems.

Dock Walkers Public Affairs Support
Other Auxiliarists support the Marine Safety program through a public affairs activity known as “Dock Walkers,” where members visit fishing docks and marinas for the purpose of providing information on federal regulations and information on safe recreational boating. As a result of our dock walking activities, we are often asked to perform Vessel Safety Checks, but our main goal is to provide boaters with information. We also check moorings and shore connections and sometimes we are able to help boaters whose vessels are not properly secured or have problems with their shore connections. We generally have a supply of helpful pamphlets to hand out as well.

Aids to Navigation (ATON) Verifier Support
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ATONS in our area of responsibility. Many ATONs are permanently affixed to the ocean floor or on land, but many are floating buoys that are merely anchored to the ocean floor. They are attached to heavy chains and anchors, and are positioned where they can perform their individual functions. With our extremely high level of commercial ship traffic and sometimes extremely heavy seas, many of these ATONs are knocked loose and are either “off station” or worse: floating freely in the gulf. Although some ATONs are day beacons only, many are lighted beacons with different colored and differently flashing lights. ATON verifiers are specifically trained to check the exact GPS coordinates of ATONS and to verify their functionality as well as their location. ATON verifiers do not have to be boat crew qualified, but many are.

Although Auxiliarists go on specific ATON verifying patrols, MOM patrols also observe and report wayward ATONs. Just in case you do not know this, you should never tie up to or approach and ATON closely. Floating ATONs have enough free line that they swing around on a radius of as much as 100 feet. Although they float, they are quite heavy and can easily smash a recreational boat to smithereens. The picture shows me standing next to one of our floating ATONs.

Maritime Accident Investigations
Auxiliary members may assist in the Investigations department of the sectors after qualifying as Assistant Marine Casualty Investigator, Assistant Maritime Enforcement Investigator or Assistant Suspension and Revocation Inspector. In my flotilla we have two Assistant Marine Casualty Investigators. They investigate commercial vessel accidents as well as recreational boating accidents.

Marine Safety Units (MSUs)
Marine Safety Units specialize in port security, marine inspections, environmental response, maritime investigations, and waterways management. MSUs are generally located outside of base and sector facilities. We have an MSU at Texas City, and one of our flotilla members works at this MSU. Two of our Division 6 members were recently certified in Waterways Management. These members will be a significant help to the Gold Side in this regard.

Although there are several other areas in which Auxiliarists work hand in hand with Gold Side members, those Marine Safety functions listed above are the operations in which local members participate. In addition to Marine Safety, some of our members work as culinary specialists in base galleys, and can even work aboard cutters during operations at sea. Another area in which our local members work is as watchstanders. Watchstanders man the Coast Guard emergency notification system and track all patrols in their area of responsibility.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary and Coast Guard Active Duty personnel work together to make our areas of operation safer to navigate by providing routine patrols such as Marine Observation Missions and Aids to Navigation Verification patrols to ensure that our navigation markers and buoys are intact, in the right place, and functioning as intended. We provide other types of missions as needed, including air and water patrols.

[BC: Jan-23-2024]

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