Volunteers a crucial factor in safe boating

By Emily J. Minor

On a hot summer morning, the temperatures already topping the 80-degree mark at a little after 9 o’clock, key members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 54 have reported for duty.


They’ve checked the boat from bow to stern, distributed the five life jackets, reviewed the day’s assignments.

Today, it’s an aid-to-navigations mission, a volunteer outing of great importance because it helps keep the water safe for boaters. These guys are looking for everything from disabled markers to an oil sheen on the water to a sailboat that’s sprung free from its anchor.

They’re looking for anything that’s not right — like the plastic grocery bag someone
deliberately placed over a channel marker. The crew sees it the minute they set off.

“I believe in service,” says Coxswain Otto Spielbichler, 79, from Boynton Beach, a
retired university teacher who’s been volunteering with Flotilla 54 for 21 years.

“For me, it’s a way I can do some useful things for the benefit of my community and my country.”

The U.S. Coast Guard has been around since 1790 and operates under the Department of Homeland Security, although during conflict its services can be transferred
to the U.S. Department of the Navy. The Coast Guard has maritime jurisdiction
in both domestic and international waters. And according to numbers from last
summer, there are 42,000 men and women on active duty, 7,500 reservists and
30,000 auxiliary volunteer members.

Sixty-five of those auxiliary volunteers are right here, working the shorelines of Manalapan, Gulf Stream, Hypoluxo Island, inspecting and assisting from the C-15
Canal in Delray Beach to the Southern Boulevard bridge in West Palm Beach.

“I wanted to get into something where I could become a participant and help others, and boating seemed to be a natural area,” said crew member Bruce
Parmett, 79, who sold outdoor entertainment equipment, then boats, before he
retired to Boynton Beach.

The auxiliary members have an odd combinaton of power and lack thereof. They can’t arrest anyone. They can’t write a ticket. But they can talk to a business owner
about the crumbling pier surrounding an outside deck. They can approach a boat
and remind the captain that everyone on board needs a life vest. And they can
inspect, inspect, inspect until the cows come home: bridge lights, channel
markers, abandoned vessels that have appeared seemingly from nowhere.

Each inspection requires either paperwork or a phone call to the U.S Coast Guard station.

In this case, it’s the U.S. Coast Guard Station Lake Worth.

Auxiliary Commander Jerry Schnur has been around boats most of his life and says his Flotilla 54 men and women take what they do very seriously. Being out on the
water isn’t fool’s play — and the volunteers are constantly reminding boaters
of that.

Things can go wrong, very quickly. That’s why Schnur thinks the boating safety classes they offer on the last Saturday of the month are so important.

“We’ve really been trying to stress our classes these last few months,” he said.

Volunteer members patrol in uniform, but use their own boats. (They get reimbursed for the fuel.) They get specific assignments and must always radio in, several
times, with their duties and their location on the water. At SunFest, the
flotilla works the water, and they’re there during Fourth of July events along
the coast.

And the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that has everyone worried about contamination off the Florida coast? They haven’t seen anything, Schnur said, but they recently
got a list of environmental consultants who can train auxiliary members on how
to handle the oil, if the pollution reaches us.

All that means more time off and on the water, of course.

“It’s really a way of life,” says Schnur, 82, of Lake Worth. “It requires a very big commitment.”

Jerry Mullinax, the chief warrant officer at the Lake Worth station, says they couldn’t keep the waters as safe without his auxiliary volunteers.

“I’m not surprised at the number of people who volunteer,” he said. “I’m surprised at the quality of people who volunteer.”

There are electricians, doctors, teachers. Everyone from lawyers to carpenters.

“We have some retired CEOs,” Mullinax said. “Some of these people can buy and sell you 10 times over. They could be somewhere else, enjoying the sunny sands, and
they’re not.

“They’re still working for their country.”

Local Safe Boating Classes

Flotilla 54 offers a safe boating class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the last
Saturday of each month. The cost is $36, pre-registration is required and bring
a sack lunch. The course is taught on land and is offered at the auxiliary
office at Boynton Beach Boat Club Park, 2010 N. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach.
Call 561-966-2158 for information.

About Boating Safety is offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary of Boca Raton at the headquarters building at Spanish River Park on A1A. 9 am-5 pm. Boating safety class teaches requirements for boaters under 22 years old to obtain a Florida boating ID card. $35. 391-3600.

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