The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boat motored slowly through Flathead Lake’s cold chop near Melita Island. The lake’s waters were still frigid enough in late June to quickly incapacitate anyone who wound up in the water.
Two men crewed the boat. Both in their 70s, both auxiliary volunteers. They played it by the book. And the book is about safety and saving lives. The men have little real authority out on the water. They cannot, for example, board a vessel or ticket a boater or tote firearms.
Still, even though it hasn’t happened yet for these two volunteers, they are trained and equipped to save lives.
That’s what it’s all about, said Kyle Boyce, 72, commander of the Kalispell Flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The Kalispell Flotilla includes all of western Montana.
For Boyce, the mission of the Coast Guard Auxiliary is serious stuff. He seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of how to do things right and every intention of doing just that. He doesn’t kid around.
For example, when piloting the flotilla’s powerboat, he slowly approached and then reconnoitered from afar the dock at the Walstad Fishing Access site to ensure the path to the dock was clear. This process took at least five minutes.
His colleague, Chris Roberts, 71, tackles the auxiliary’s tasks with an occasional hint of light-hearted humor. He also serves as the flotilla’s public affairs officer, a role that includes striving to recruit people to join the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Established by Congress in 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, whose motto is Semper Paratus (always prepared), has units in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam.
A key mission of the auxiliary and its flotillas is to promote and improve recreational boating safety.
The Kalispell Flotilla’s numbers have dwindled; it now includes just seven people.
Roberts acknowledged that’s a small group to try to cover the flotilla’s extensive territory and to conduct safety training and boat inspections and do patrol work.
Roberts said he finds the service work to be interesting, satisfying and fun and believes others would, too. Potential volunteers must be at least 17 years old and pass a background check.
On June 25, Boyce and Roberts docked at Camp Melita Island, a Boy Scouts of America camp near Big Arm.
Boyce talked about boater and water safety to Boy Scouts and Venture Scouts who will work with campers this summer at the 64-acre camp surrounded by water.
Roberts continued inspection of the camp’s fleet of boats, insuring they were equipped with the proper safety gear, running lights and more.
And then the two men climbed in the flotilla’s boat and motored out into the waters of Flathead Lake. They were followed by a boat from Camp Melita Island that was piloted by Luke Venters, a boat driver for the camp.
With Boyce piloting, Roberts tossed a boat fender off the craft and yelled, “Man overboard!”
Then, as Boyce piloted, Roberts kept him informed as he steered an approach to the “man” and then retrieved the fender from the water.
Then, Venters and the crew in his boat conducted the man-overboard drill. Boyce critiqued their performance, noting that one person in a boat should always point to the location of the person in the water and hold that point until the rescue is made. Otherwise, wave action can obscure the person in distress, Boyce said.
This drill was followed by a practice tow, with the auxiliary boat being lashed to and towing the “disabled” camp boat. Boyce and Venters communicated via a Marine VHF radio until the two boats were lashed side-by-side for a “side tow.”
Repeatedly, Boyce and Roberts returned to a key safety practice that helps stack the deck in favor of survival if an emergency situation arises on the water: Wear a life jacket, they said.
The men described the “1-10-1 Principle” associated with cold water immersion.
The cold shock phase, which occurs during the initial immersion, includes a deep and sudden gasp for air followed by hyperventilation. According to the 1-10-1 principle, the cold shock response passes in about one minute.
Then, after about 10 minutes, a person will gradually lose the effective use of limbs and fingers. Without a life jacket or something to hold onto, drowning is likely.
Finally, after about one hour, a person typically loses consciousness.
Roberts and Boyce said boating safety also includes avoiding excessive speed, being equipped with safety and emergency gear, letting friends and family know where they are headed and their expected timetable, and having enough fuel on board to cover an emergency situation.
Roberts said he enjoys working with the auxiliary because it offers a fun and meaningful way to provide a community service while also being on the water, an activity he said he loves.
And there is always the possibility of saving a life, Roberts said.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.
To inquire about volunteering with the Kalispell Flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, contact Chris Roberts at email@example.com or (406) 549-3090.