Your safe holiday is their mission

The volunteers help the Coast Guard with search and rescue and vessel inspections for Labor Day, a huge boating weekend.

Published September 4, 2006


- Dunedin Coast Guard Flotilla 11-10 will present a safe boating and seamanship program from Sept. 13 through Oct. 11. The program meets from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays for nine sessions. The program will be held on the second floor of the Dunedin Marina main building, 51 Main St., and will cover subjects including tying knots and navigation. The $40 cost covers all materials. Most insurance companies offer discounts for graduates of this program. The next program will be Oct. 23 through Nov. 20. Call (727) 595-2415 or (727) 736-1191 for information and reservations.

- The Clearwater flotilla will offer an eight-lesson program on basic coastal navigation from Thursday through Oct. 2. The program meets from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays at the Clearwater Sailing Center, 1001 Gulf Blvd., Sand Key. The program is open to adults and youths. Call (727) 469-8895 or visit a0701101.uscgaux.info.

Going boating today? The U.S. Coast Guard has a plan to keep your Labor Day safe, and it's calling on a select group of volunteers to help with this, one of the biggest boating weekends of the year.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary consists of volunteers who aid the agency in all of its duties except those involving military activity and law enforcement, said Chief Warrant Officer Randy Ryan, the commanding officer of the Coast Guard station at Sand Key. Their primary duties include search and rescue, vessel inspections and teaching free boating safety classes.

"They provide not only great service to us at the Coast Guard but also to the public," Ryan said of the auxiliary, which has a national membership of more than 30,000.

This weekend, auxiliary volunteers will assist the Coast Guard with search and rescue missions, provide boat safety inspections and staff the radios at the station at Sand Key.

With that support, the Coast Guard will be able to focus on maritime law enforcement, including watching for drunken boaters and those speeding through "no wake" zones.

All auxiliary members must go through boating and water safety courses. But to be qualified to respond to search and rescue missions this weekend without the presence of the actual Coast Guard, auxiliary members must also have completed training and certification that parallels tests required of regular guard members.

Locally, less than 10 percent of the 250 or so auxiliary members patrolling the gulf from Clearwater to Hudson qualify for the assignment, called Operation Excellence.

Kevin McConn, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Tarpon Springs Flotilla 11-9, will be patrolling the waters at Sand Key this holiday weekend.

His certification included a simulated rescue mission and a 24-hour evaluation period by a Coast Guard petty officer.

For the simulated rescue, McConn and other auxiliary members were dispatched from the base amid a strong storm and choppy seas to find and tow ashore a boat that the Coast Guard had anchored about 5 miles out into the gulf. They were graded on how fast they located the boat, stabilized the situation and returned to shore.

"It was tough," McConn said. "We were not aware of the type of emergency, the severity or the amount of time we had to complete the mission. They just ring the buzzer, and off we go.

"It's serious business," he said. "That (Coast Guard members) trust us is quite an honor."

Since being certified, McConn has helped the Coast Guard on numerous search and rescue missions, including 12 or 13 this past Memorial Day, another big boating weekend.

Along with the rescue missions, the auxiliary offers safety courses to help educate boaters.

Kelly Baker of Holiday has received both forms of help.

In October, Baker and her family were returning to dock their boat in the mouth of the Anclote River when they got caught in a deep wake of a passenger ferry. The force of the wake shot Baker, 37, into the air, and she landed on the front of her boat, breaking her wrist and fracturing five ribs.

McConn was cruising the area and saw the accident. He was able to place her wrist in a splint before she was taken to the hospital.

Just as important, Baker said, McConn brought a calming reassurance to a panicked situation.

"You never expect for something like that to happen ... but it does," Baker said.

And the assistance didn't stop on the water.

The Bakers were inexperienced boaters and decided later to take a safety course that she had heard about. In a welcome twist, her instructor was McConn.

Baker, an instructional assistant at Sunray Elementary School in Holiday, said this is the lesson: Take the safety course before you go boating.

McConn, 46, who is a firefighter and paramedic for St. Pete Beach, said he simply hopes that Labor Day will be free of rescue missions.

If it isn't, though, he and his colleagues will be ready.

"Serving the community is what I do," he said. "It's my whole life."