Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . Full and By . We need the USCG Aux;we don't need wanna-be water cops

We need the USCG Aux;we don't need wanna-be water cops

2008 September 26

I wish Patrick O'Brian could have been there. It was his kind of day.

The late author had described the stirring seascape we were seeing in hundreds of chapters of the Aubrey-Maturin British Navy sailing epics. He would have called our wind a "topgallant breeze," strong enough to daub the dark blue seas with brilliant whitecaps, but not too strong for a square-rigger to set every sail in its inventory, including those that flew from the topgallants, the lofty spars above the topmast.

We were, in fact, in the company of a square-rigger, the 198-foot brig Niagara, a reproduction of a warship that had fought heroically in the War of 1812. She surged through the waves with a stately grace, sails brimming with the breeze that blew urgently across the her port quarter, a creamy bow wave rolling beneath her incredibly long bowsprit.

I wasn't aboard the Niagara. I wasn't even sailing, but I was doing the next best thing-driving the SAILING photo boat while a photographer captured sailing images that would prove to be utterly glorious. Our brawny 20-foot Apex RIB put us just where we needed to be to record the arrival of a visitor in full regalia, a wind-driven time traveler, from the great age of sail. Aboard the Niagara, passengers waved, a few crewmembers struck salty poses, everyone seemed caught up in the enjoyment of the rare gift of perfect sailing conditions.

For us, the romance of the moment didn't last, thanks to the rude croaking of a loud hailer: "Get back, move back, you must stay 100 yards away from the ship." The order came from a powerboat carrying men in blue uniforms, displaying a flashing blue light and a diagonal stripe and crossed anchors insignia on its hull. The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary had arrived.

I pointed out to them the obvious-that we were taking pictures and were no threat to the 300-ton ship. They repeated the warning. We went about our business. Soon another Auxiliary boat with blue light and blue suits arrived to bark the same order. This time my explanation resulted in the Auxilarists maneuvering their boat, deliberately, it seemed, into the path of our photos.

We got great pictures anyway, but the experience left me wondering: Has someone changed the Coast Guard Auxiliary's reason for existence? It always was to help boaters, not antagonize them. It certainly never was to restrict the freedom of journalists or anyone else on the water.

The Auxiliary has a fairly rigorous training program for its volunteers. Those who accosted us must have skipped the class on public relations, not to mention the one where it is explained that they have no authority to order anyone to do anything.

Remember when the Coast Guard-the real Coast Guard-had a PR problem of its own? That was when the agency was sent to the front lines of the war on drugs and ordered to board pleasure boats more or less indiscriminately-mom and pop might just be carrying bails of reefer in the bilge of their Catalina 25. It wasn't long before the image of Coast Guard members changed from saviors at sea, the beloved "Coasties," to something more sinister. The Coast Guard fixed that (it didn't hurt that the ridiculous boarding-without-reasonable-cause policy was abandoned) and today, even though they routinely wear body armor and sidearms, the men and women of the Coast Guard are as a rule courteous and respectful in their contacts with the (non-threatening) public.

It was refreshing to observe that demeanor following our unpleasant encounter with the Auxiliary boats. Summoned by the frustrated Auxiliary patrols, a regular U.S. Coast Guard vessel, one of the aluminum 25-foot Defender class boats with the bright orange flotation collars, manned by a crew of buff young guys, approached us (without a flashing blue light). I was a little too far away to be sure, but I think the smiling Coast Guardsman who hailed us was rolling his eyes at the antics of the Auxilarists. In any event, we had a friendly chat, after which he extended a wish that we have a nice day on the water. We zoomed off to take more pictures. Later his station e-mailed us to ask if they could get some of our tall-ship photos.

There is more than a bit of irony in the Auxiliary acting like bad cops while regular Coast Guard members are the good cops. The Auxiliary, whose primary mission is supposed to be to reach out to recreational sailors and powerboaters with practical help on the water and other good works, has long been regarded as a means to enhance public esteem for the USCG.

By now readers who are members of the Auxiliary are doubtless in a state of high dudgeon. I learned how sensitive people can be about criticism of the Auxiliary when SAILING published a letter last spring from a reader who offered this advice: "To all you military-rank, insignia-festooned Coast Guard Auxilarists, please leave the professional marine police work to the qualified, experienced and trusted pros."

A subscriber who is a longtime Auxiliary member and, incidentally, a friend of mine, reacted to the letter with such rage that I thought he might exercise the nuclear option and cancel his subscription. He didn't, but I'm pretty sure he's still mad.

If my criticism of several misguided Auxilarists volunteers inflames other people that way, well, all I can say is, settle down. I'm an admirer of the Auxiliary-the foolish behavior a few of its members notwithstanding.

I recognize that the Auxiliary is essential to the Coast Guard's mission. The USCG is habitually underfunded and over stressed by a job description that changes by political whim and could not effectively manage the parts of its work that involve boating safety and education and, to a lesser extent, even search and rescue, without the help of the 30,000 members of the Auxiliary.

All of us who find pleasure in boats should appreciate their efforts to educate those who join us on the water. I've seen Auxilarists spending weekends, gorgeous days when the rest of us are having fun sailing, patiently conducting advisory safety checks to help boat owners understand safety equipment requirements. I've seen Auxiliary volunteers at major sailboat races, working with courtesy and skill to keep the starting area clear of spectator boats.

Maybe the Auxilarists we encountered expected to be involved in some similar traffic control. They were present for what had been billed as a parade of tall ships. As it turned out, the rough sea state kept would-be spectators in the harbor, and the only boats around the Niagara, besides the Auxiliary and USCG vessels and the SAILING photo boat, were a small sailboat reaching to and fro in the lovely breeze and, a half mile away, the tall ship Pride of Baltimore II.

I can't imagine what the crews of the Auxiliary boats were thinking in trying to impose an unnecessary rule they must have made up for the day. Maybe in the absence of a parade to patrol they just felt the need to assert some authority. I guess they forgot-they don't have any of that. By law, the Auxiliary's work is limited to supporting the Coast Guard's civil functions and does not include any enforcement responsibilities.

The USCG Auxiliary has a lot of good work to do. It does not include playing water cops.