Tom Loughlin and Kristi Mackey, shown at the Dunedin Marina, enjoy their volunteer service with the Dunedin Flotilla.
DUNEDIN – Kristi Mackey drives from Lutz to Dunedin and back twice a week to participate in U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary activities.
And she loves it.
“I sign up every single weekend. Everything that’s available,” said Mackey, who was raised on a sailboat and has been a boating enthusiast all her life.
From offering vessel checks and boating classes to participating in search and rescue missions, the Dunedin Flotilla, which has about 74 members, was awarded the most outstanding flotilla of its division for 2011 and 2012.
Most of the auxiliary members’ boats are 20 to 30 feet; one has a 65-foot yacht in the Clearwater marina. Some don’t own a boat.
Tom Loughlin, the division public affairs officer, was reluctant to join the auxiliary about eight years ago.
Some friends who had joined finally convinced him.
“Busting his chops,” is how Loughlin put it.
“I didn’t want to go out. I knew darn well it’s a bunch of old people wearing Spandex that don’t know what the hell they are doing. Preconceived notion,” he said.
Finally, he decided to go out on the water, “just to shut you up,” he told some auxiliary members.
As a guest of the Dunedin Flotilla, he was on one of two boats participating in man overboard drills and towing exercises.
“There was no goofing around,” he said.
Today, he’s hooked, traveling from New Port Richey to Dunedin to perform flotilla functions. Some can be challenging, such as a two-hour ordeal involving a boat crew that needed help in Hurricane Pass.
Loughlin said his shipmates threw a line to the crew, which included a mother, her children and a grandmother, who was scared.
But the boat in tow kept veering and eventually had to drop the line.
“I couldn’t get them to follow me. We finally caught them and got them back. I brought them in on what’s called a side tow. Other boaters are going by us wide open. Not fair to these people. It’s then I find out they had a jet boat. On a jet boat you have no steering whatsoever. I didn’t know that. I wasn’t smart enough to know that. I know it now,” Loughlin said.
The all-volunteer flotilla provides almost all the services that the Coast Guard does except law enforcement, Mackey said.
“We are out there doing safety patrol, checking the waterways if boaters run out of gas or have engine trouble, medical emergency. We also are checking navigational markers to make sure they haven’t been damaged; people run into them. We’ll mark them and get the positioning and radio them back in,” she said. “We do a lot of promoting of boat safety.”
Besides patrolling 10 miles of coastal waters, the flotilla also patrols inland waters, such as Lake Tarpon. Missions consist of safety patrols, search and rescues; standbys at Station Sand Key; C-130 aircraft day and night exercises; crew training and support for local events, such as boat races and triathlons.
They even use personal watercraft, which has to be accompanied by a “mother boat,” Loughlin said.
‘The Jet Skis are good; they will go out in tandem for search and rescue. They can (get to) areas that a boat can’t,” Loughlin said.
The auxiliary provides free vessel exams, in marinas, boat ramps, or backyards. Federal law requires boats to be equipped with life jackets.
“That’s the first thing we are checking. Do you have a life vest for everyone on board? And a lot of times they don’t,” Mackey said.
Day-night flares and sound-producing devices are among other required equipment.
Loughlin said anchors aren’t required under federal law, but it’s an important accessory.
“If your motor conks out, if you don’t have an anchor to throw over, you keep drifting wherever the good lord keeps blowing that wind and those seas,” Loughlin said.
About 700 people die in boating accidents annually; nine out of 10 of them drown, according to the United Safe Boating Institute.
The flotilla has 16 boating safety instructors. Seven classes have been held since July with 85 graduates. Many boaters have no training, which can lead to accidents and deaths.
“They have the sticks out there in the water that have red and green markers. They (some boaters) have no clues which side to go on them and what they mean,” Loughlin said. “That’s critical. You have some areas out there you go slightly outside the channel; you are going to run aground.
Flotilla members vary in ages, including a 90-year-old, and some, like Loughlin, join just to do something for their community.
“We have some members that not only don’t have a boat, but they don’t want to get on a boat,” Loughlin said.