Under Way Nov 2006 - Soundings Online

Under Way Nov 2006

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30,000 ‘extraordinary’ people waiting to help

30,000 ‘extraordinary’ people waiting to help

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a young man named Toby Ducote drove into New Orleans towing his father’s small aluminum jonboat behind his truck. Over the next eight days, Ducote rescued somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 people from their flooded homes. He worked 12-plus hours a day in conditions that were always trying and sometimes flat-out dangerous.

For his actions, Ducote recently was awarded a silver medal for extraordinary bravery from the Association For Rescue At Sea, a non-profit foundation that recognizes the most heroic rescues that took place the previous year.

Ducote is a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the volunteer, civilian organization that supports the Coast Guard in a host of missions, many of them related to boating safety. A pharmaceutical sales representative who grew up on boats, hunting and fishing with his father, Ducote joined the Auxiliary about four years ago. The 35-year-old father of two young sons, he says he became a member in large part because he felt it was time to give something back.

“It’s like a family, because everyone is there for the same reason,” says Ducote, who lives in a New Orleans suburb. “They love boats; they love the water; and they want to do something to make a difference. Everyone is here to give something back, either to the active duty or the community.”

I hesitate to say that Ducote is typical of any individual or group, given that his efforts in New Orleans far exceeded what is typically asked of anyone. But he clearly exemplifies the spirit and ideal of both the Coast Guard and its civilian volunteers. Authorized by Congress in 1939, the Auxiliary is a valuable maritime organization with laudable goals that include both boating safety and homeland security. Each year its members save hundreds of lives and instruct thousands of boaters on the ABCs of operating a boat safely.

Most of us know the group through its extensive network of boating education classes and through its Vessel Safety Check program, which conducts free stem-to-stern boat inspections. Both initiatives are to be applauded.

We share with this group of 30,000 volunteers the common goal of making our waters safer — that’s one of the main reasons Soundings entered into a boating safety partnership earlier this year with the Coast Guard Auxiliary Association, the organization’s non-profit arm.

I recently attended the Auxiliary’s national conference in Dallas, where I got the opportunity to interview Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard’s new Commandant. Allen is the tough, no-nonsense leader who received high marks in New Orleans last year after he was brought in to right the recovery effort left floundering by FEMA and Michael Brown, the organization’s director at the time. I asked the Commandant about the importance of the role the Auxiliary plays today.

“How do you describe a force-multiplier of 31,000 people?” asked Allen, a longtime Auxiliary supporter. He noted that the return on investment from the volunteer organization far outweighs the small stipend they typically get for food and fuel. “And in return for that we get the same kind of organizational performance that we do from our folks who are on active duty,” Allen says. “Just about anywhere they have a skill or talent, we put it to use. They’re extraordinary. I’ve been involved with them my entire 35 years in the Coast Guard. We couldn’t do without them.”

At the conference, I also met retired Coast Guard Capt. Bob Melvin, who recently became chief of the Auxiliary’s Department of Boating. Melvin flew search-and-rescue helicopters for the Coast Guard for more than two decades, taking part in scores of missions and saving dozens of lives.

After years of rescuing victims one or two at a time, he decided upon retirement to move to the “preventative” side of the church and reach thousands through education. “I thought, wouldn’t it be a whole lot more effective, easier and cheaper to teach people not to get in trouble in the first place,” says Melvin, 68, who lives on the Little River just south of Elizabeth City, N.C., where he owns a 21-foot center console, a kayak and two PWC. “For every 20 people you teach, I honestly believe you’ll keep one from being involved in a serious accident.”

Melvin mentioned two Coast Guard programs that we’ve written about in the past but certainly are worth keeping in mind. One is America’s Waterway Watch, which encourages boaters to report potentially unusual or suspicious activity to the National Response Center at (800) 424-8802. (For more information on the program, go to www.americaswaterwaywatch.org.)

The second one is titled, You’re in Command: Boat Responsibly and has four key initiatives: wear a life jacket, don’t operate a boat while intoxicated, take an education class, and get a Vessel Safety Check. The sizable number of preventable accidents and injuries that we hear about each week certainly speaks to the need for such a program.

For more information on the Auxiliary, including how to join, visit www.nws.cgaux.org .