Coast Guard Station Menemsha patrols during Operation Dry Water
Photo by Christy Aumer
Sunday afternoon was overcast and the prospect of rain hung over Vineyard Sound as a five-member crew from Coast Guard Station Menemsha set out on patrol, part of Operation Dry Water, a stepped up weekend effort by the U.S. Coast Guard to promote safety on the water and curb drinking while boating.
The Coast Guard 25-foot "response boat, small" (RB-S), powered by twin Honda four-stroke 225 hp engines, skipped like a pebble across the water. A couple of miles out of Menemsha the Coast Guardsmen approached a recreational fishing boat that came to a stop. The RB-S came neatly aside the boat occupied by a man and his young son.
"When was the last time the Coast Guard boarded your vessel?" Boatswain's Mate second class Robert Decker asked the fisherman, standing by the helm.
Senior Chief Jason Olsen, Officer in Charge, Station Menemsha, said Coast Guard crews will ask boaters the last time the Coast Guard boarded their vessel to see if they were stopped recently. If the Coast Guard boarded the vessel and the safety gear was recently inspected, it could expedite the boarding, he said.
"We want them to continue to enjoy their day," Mr. Olsen said. "But we will find out if they did indeed have a safety inspection, and when."
The Coast Guard always completes a safety inspection prior to dealing with any other issues, to ensure the safety of the boarding team as well as those already on board the vessel, he explained.
Coast Guard Seaman Dillon Helms and Machinery Technician third class Chris Shiels boarded the boat and introduced themselves to the man and the boy. They checked to ensure that the boater carried the required safety equipment for that specific vessel. That includes the appropriate number of life jackets, flares, and a fire extinguisher.
On board the Coast Guard boat, Mr. Decker notified Station Menemsha of the time and location where the crew had stopped. He also gave the boat's registration.
Similar to the police stopping a driver in a motor vehicle, the Coast Guard provides the information and waits to learn about previous stops, violations, along with dates and times.
During a safety inspection, crew members also look for signs of alcohol use. For example, empty alcohol containers, a strong smell of alcohol, or slurred speech by boaters. "You start to put two and two together," Mr. Shiels said.
Following their inspection of the vessel, Mr. Helms and Mr. Shiels returned to the Coast Guard boat and said, "0-0," meaning zero warnings and zero violations.
"Have a nice day," Mr. Decker said to the fisherman and his son with a kind wave.
Mr. Helms and Mr. Shiels then completed a report of the boarding that could be added to their files.
The crew settled back in the boat. "Want to go to Cuttyhunk?" Mr. Decker asked.
No one objected, and the crew set a course for the westernmost island in the Elizabeth chain, which divides Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound, keeping an eye out for more boats. At the helm, Mr. Decker skillfully navigated through the choppy waters.
Mr. Decker said people are usually friendly and don't offer much trouble.
For Boatswain's Mate Third Class Johnathon Goeckel, it would not be unusual to see a familiar face. Mr. Goeckel is originally from Edgartown and has been in the Coast Guard for three years.
In total, the crew stopped and checked only five boats during the Sunday patrol, in part because not many people were on the water. Senior Chief Olsen attributed the scarcity of boaters to the poor weather. "It definitely pushed people off the boats," he said.
All five boats that the Coast Guard stopped passed their inspections with flying colors. No boaters were found in violation. From the Coast Guardsmen's perspective, the mission was a success.
"Safety is the bread and butter," Boatswain Mate Third Class Michael Luongo said. "We want to keep our presence known, get our faces out there, and promote boating safety."
A shared bond
Throughout the trip the crew bantered among themselves. "We'll get ice cream when we get back," Mr. Decker told Mr. Shiels.
The camaraderie the five-person crew shares was unmistakable. "Sometimes, it's like having ten brothers," Mr. Decker said with a smile. He admitted there are frustrations, but mostly the station crew members share a unique bond with each other, he said.
Back in Menemsha, the crew received friendly waves from beachgoers anticipating the sunset and people fishing along the jetties that guard the entrance to the Menemsha Creek and the harbor. The crew made a quick stop to fill up with fuel before returning to the Coast Guard pier, where the more rugged 47-foot motor life boat remained docked and ready for action.
Mr. Decker said being in the Coast Guard is great. He said he enjoys the tempo of the Coast Guard, as well as being able to help people and educate them about being in the water.
"I like that I never know what I'm going to do next," he said. "One day it's the busiest day ever, and the next is fairly relaxed."
The 28-year-old from Boxford has been in the Coast Guard for nearly eight years, stationed in Menemsha for one.
Drinking while boating is legal, as long as it's under the legal limit. Boating under the influence (BUI), according to a press release, can result in fines, jail, and loss of boating or even driving privileges.
According to the Operation Dry Water web site, 17 percent of boating fatalities are a result of alcohol use. Mr. Olsen said alcohol-related incidents are not rare on Martha's Vineyard, but he believes people are getting more responsible about boating safety.
"Just having boating safety classes is helping reduce fatalities," Mr. Olsen said. He added that boaters should consider taking U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boating courses.
Mr. Olsen said Operation Dry Water isn't necessarily a hunt for drunk boaters, but more importantly a way for the Coast Guard to be a presence that will deter illegal and unsafe behavior, like drinking over the legal limit.