Auxiliary inspector Richard Tome explains the routine boat inspection to boat owner Alicia Shabazz.
TARPON SPRINGS – It was a busy Saturday morning June 28 at the Anclote River Park, just across the Pasco County line, when Coast Guard Auxiliary inspectors arrived to conduct free boat inspections. The inspections serve not only to educate the boat owners about what they need for the safe operation of their vessels, but it could also help them avoid a fine if they are stopped by the authorities while on the water.
The inspections are a big part of what the Auxiliary does and they are a highlight in this, the 75th year of the Auxiliary’s existence. Anyone who operates a boat along Pinellas County’s coastline has no doubt seen Auxiliary members on patrol or come into contact with the Auxiliary through a safe boating class or the periodic inspection.
At the Anclote River Park, Alicia and Lahkim Shabazz were in line to launch their vessel when Inspector Richard Tome offered to do the free safety check. They accepted, Alicia said, because it is important.
“Safety first,” she said. “Not everybody knows what they need to safely operate their boat.”
The Shabazz couple, along with their two children, had driven over from their home in Lutz to spend the day on the water on the beach side of Anclote Key. They were anxious to get going but didn’t mind the delay for the inspection.
“This ramp is very busy so we have to wait anyway,” said Shabazz. “We passed the inspection; the only thing wrong is that our flares are outdated and we’ll get new ones as soon as we can.”
Next in line were Jeff Thomas and his family from Odessa. Thomas, who had his dad Bob along for the ride, was planning to spend the day on the sand bar just offshore. He didn’t mind having his boat inspected either.
“This is a great thing. It is important that people have all the safety things that they need,” he said. “I just bought the boat recently and it came with a Coast Guard safety kit, so I had everything that I needed.”
As for boating itself, Thomas said his experience so far has been good.
“We go out at least a couple of times a month,” he said. “It has been a great experience so far. You can do this in Florida all year long.”
Inspector Mike Vaughn said despite the long lines and the boaters anxious to get into the water, for the most part they were polite and willing to have the inspections.
“We can’t make people have an inspection,” he said. “We offer it to them and explain that it is free and they can decide. Today, most people agreed to the inspection and everyone was polite. That isn’t always the case, but today it was.”
Vaughn and the other inspectors on scene that day all belonged to a Flotilla, in this case the Tarpon Springs Flotilla, part of the Auxiliary’s District 11. Other Flotillas, or local units, in the district include Madeira Beach, Clearwater, Dunedin, New Port Richey and Hudson. Flotillas in St. Pete Beach and Gulfport belong to a different district.
The Public Affairs officer for District 11, Tom Loughlin, said an Act of Congress created the Coast Guard Auxiliary in 1939 and is the only Auxiliary attached to the Armed Forces.
“The Auxiliary can’t carry arms or be deployed into combat operations,” he said. “We do conduct patrols and help people who might have run out of gas or people over board or a sinking vessel. Our big thing is the boating safety and we conduct classes and the inspections.”
The Coast Guard Auxiliary is no small organization. Just over 31,000 people are members of the Auxiliary, almost as many as those on active duty with the Coast Guard. Loughlin says anyone can join the Auxiliary as long as they meet two requirements.
“You must be a U.S. citizen and you must be at least 17 years of age,” he said. “You can join to be an instructor or an examiner and you can choose to stay on land, all we ask is please contribute to the operation. We have some people who are so active you can’t believe it; they contribute thousands of hours a year.”
Those hours are taken up with members helping boat owners with such things as tying the correct knots, the proper use of lines, safe fueling methods, radio operations and state and federal boating regulations.
Back at the boat ramp inspector Richard Tome reminds boaters of the need to have all their safety equipment on board.
“The waters around here are patrolled by the Coast Guard, the Sheriff’s Office and the Fish and Wildlife Office,” he said. “If a boater is stopped by any of those agencies and something is missing or isn’t working, they could be subject to a fine. It makes sense for them to have our complimentary inspection, and the owners are receptive to it.”
Tome and the other inspectors, or examiners, might not have wanted to get up early on a Saturday morning to conduct the inspections but, according to Loughlin, their involvement in the Coast Guard Auxiliary has other perks which make it worthwhile.
“We’re not necessarily a social club but that is one of our cornerstones, getting together,” he said. “This is one big family; these members become your second family.”