Don’t get caught without those life jackets

What you need to know before you get on the water.


Off Aquinnah, a vessel streaked across the sea against the distant backdrop of Gay Head Light. Petty Officer 2nd Class Joe Queen of USCG Station Menemsha throttled up, hit the response boat’s siren and blue lights, and bore down on the vessel. The older Mako 224 cut its engines when the response boat came alongside. Petty Officer 3rd Class Shaquille Reed asked the operator when he’d last been inspected.

“Never,” the operator responded.

Mr. Reed then politely informed the operator he was about to be boarded and inspected. Joshua Hughes, a petty officer 3rd class, hung a fender over the side of the response boat, and he and Mr. Reed hopped onto the Mako. Mr. Queen swung the response boat some 20 yards away while fireman Colby Storm radioed in their position and activity. Mr. Hughes and Mr. Reed went to work examining the boat and reviewing the operator’s paperwork. Ten minutes later they finished, and Mr. Queen came back alongside and collected them.

The inspection yielded no violations — a so-called “zero/zero,” for zero violations and zero warnings.

But not all boats on the water are so shipshape. Some mariners find themselves dealing with Coast Guard’s Violation Case Coordination Center after a random inspection turns up a safety violation like missing life jackets — boat safety items so essential that if they’re missing, an on-the-spot termination of a boater’s voyage can be ordered, Mr. Reed said. One way to ensure your boat is safely outfitted and will pass an inspection by the Coast Guard is to have it examined by the Coast Guard Auxiliary.


Save the hassle, get your boat inspected


The Island’s unit of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 11-9, has added two new vessel examiners to increase coverage for one of its staple services, free safety checks for recreational boaters. Vessel safety checks ensure that boats have proper emergency equipment and fittings and adhere to state and federal law. Upon passing a safety check, a boat receives a special decal, good for a year.

“By clearly displaying a Vessel Safety Check decal on the port side of the vessels, officials know the vessel was inspected by a certified Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel examiner,” Brien Hefler, one of the flotilla’s two new examiners, wrote in an email to The Times.

The safety decal makes it less likely that a boater will be boarded and inspected by local police, harbormasters, environmental police, or the regular Coast Guard, flotilla commander Tim Carroll said. But the decal is not proof against the Coast Guard boarding your boat, Mr. Carroll noted, as they have the power to come aboard whenever they choose and do so at random. Mr. Carroll added that violations of the regulation items covered in a safety check can range from $50 to $250.

“Vessel safety-check inspection includes checking that there are the correct number of personal flotation devices onboard, functioning and readily accessible, distress beacons such as flares are up to date, and functional and navigation lights are correct and operational,” Mr. Hefler wrote in an e-mail to The Times. Boats are also checked for wiring, bilges, engine condition, and the correct number of fire extinguishers, he wrote.

Should a boat not pass its initial safety inspection, its deficiencies are marked on a checklist given to and discussed with the boat’s owner or operator, Derek Teel, the flotilla’s other new examiner, wrote in an email to The Times. That owner or operator may correct the deficiencies and be reinspected, frequently the same day, he said. After passing reinspection, the decal is affixed.

To become vessel examiners, volunteers from Flotilla 11-9 take an online training course and exam. This is followed by at least five vessel safety checks that are supervised by a qualified vessel examiner and take place on the Vineyard, Mr. Teel said.

“Completing my first five vessel safety checks was a fantastic experience,” Mr. Hefler wrote. “Being part of the vessel safety-check program offered by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary offers a great sense of accomplishment and community service. It is also a great opportunity to enjoy being on the water and meet people from around the country visiting the Vineyard. What I enjoyed most was the chance for boater education, helping captains learn valuable safety information they may not be familiar with. For example, there is a free, automated radio check on channel 27 offered by Sea Tow. This allows boaters to automatically hear that their radio is working and gauge the transmission quality.”

“The Auxiliary Vessel Examiner Qualification is primarily oriented toward the safety inspection of recreational watercraft, including powerboats, sailboats, paddlecraft (canoes, kayaks, standup paddleboards, etc.),” Mr. Teel said. Larger vessels are inspected by the Coast Guard, he said.

Once an examiner is qualified, according to Mr. Teel, they can inspect recreational boats anywhere in the country. Examiners from the Island’s flotilla can inspect vessels anywhere on the Vineyard, but generally do so at one of the six town’s landings, ramps, or harbors.

“Although not preferable, we occasionally make house calls; the boat does not have to be in the water,” he said.

According to its website, Flotilla 11-9 is based on the Vineyard. The flotilla’s “area of responsibility includes portions of Buzzards Bay, Vineyard Sound, portions of the Elizabeth Islands, and most of the waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard.”

“It’s exciting to see new folks join the flotilla, and for members to share their time and skills with the Coast Guard and the boating public,” Mr. Carroll said. “I am proud to see two more members become qualified to provide vessel safety checks, especially since this outreach is essential to the boating-safety mission of our organization.”

With 30,000 members in every state and territory of the United States, the Coast Guard Auxiliary assists the Coast Guard in all non–law enforcement operations, Mr. Hefler wrote. Other auxiliary operations include maritime safety patrols, assists with search and rescue, and standing radio watch at Coast Guard stations. The auxiliary is an all-volunteer organization, and there are no time restrictions, he added. Members can volunteer as much or as little time as they want.

Coast Guard Auxiliary member Joe Berini told The Times in an e-mail that Flotilla 11-09 currently fields five examiners, has executed 38 vessel safety checks this year to date, and has passed 37 out of the 38.

Vessel safety checks can be scheduled through the Coast Guard Auxiliary website.