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Outer Banks Flotilla 16-07

 In Community, Features, Local Spotlight

U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Making Waves

Photos by Wes Snyder

The waters off downtown Manteo were growing more and more crowded last July as everyone eagerly anticipated the Independence Day fireworks.

Tom Mattingly and a crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary were among the 150 or so boats cruising the bay, albeit for business rather than pleasure. These volunteers were part of a small group tasked with perimeter guard around the fireworks barge.

So, when a 24-foot powerboat came screaming out of Shallowbag Bay and through the exclusion zone, their boat gave chase. The offending boater slowed, then crowed when he saw who had stopped him.

“It became obvious very quickly that he was drunk, and when he saw the Auxiliary sign on the boat, he started dropping F-bombs and saying, ‘Oh, you’re just old guys, you can’t do anything to me!’” Mattingly recalls with a smile.

The Auxiliary crew members kept the man engaged just long enough for backup to arrive. Perhaps he didn’t realize the Auxiliary boat had a radio…

“The guy kept screaming at me and finally I said, ‘Sir, you’re right, we can’t do anything to you. But they can,’º––” Mattingly says. “He turns around and there’s a 29-foot Coast Guard patrol boat with four heavily armed Coast Guardsmen on board.”

Score one for the good guys – and gals – who make up Outer Banks Flotilla 16-07. Roaming the waters of Southern Shores to Manteo, they support Coast Guard boats, run missions with C-130 airplanes and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters out of Elizabeth City, perform free safety inspections on hundreds of boats a year, and educate countless adults and students in boater safety courses.

Oh, and they also have a good time while doing it. This all-volunteer force has been known to hold recruiting drives and monthly meetings around happy hours.

U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Photos by Wes Snyder.

U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Photos by Wes Snyder.

“One of the Auxiliary’s founding principles is fellowship. We’re going to do valuable stuff in our community, but damnit, we’re going to have fun while we do it,” Mattingly says with a laugh. “We’re one of the few flotillas that has meetings with happy hour at Three Tequilas.”

Mattingly serves as the flotilla commander and became involved with the Auxiliary four years ago when he learned about it from a neighbor. He wanted to become a better boater, so he joined up – “and now I’m running the thing!” The Outer Banks flotilla has nearly 50 members, about 25 to 30 of whom are active participants.

Mattingly admitted that it’s mostly a “retired person’s gig,” as most of the missions with the Coast Guard take place during the week, although a few folks with flexible work schedules still find time to participate. A fair number of members are ex-military, but perhaps surprisingly, many of the members do not have long histories on the water.

Court Allen has only been in the flotilla about 18 months and was not a boater until he and his wife moved to the beach and took the boating class. Twice, for good measure.

“There are a bunch of people who are retirees who have come down here and learned from this really nice bunch of people,” says Allen, who worked as a graphic designer and now serves as a communications officer for the flotilla.

U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Photos by Wes Snyder.

U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Photos by Wes Snyder.

Kate Wilkins shares a similar experience. She’s now the flotilla’s diversity and inclusion officer, helping with community outreach, while her husband, Rob, serves as secretary.

“We took the boater safety class, and they just twisted our arms until we couldn’t say no,” she says with a laugh. “We used to be scuba divers, so to be out on the water and doing something we thought would be helpful is something we wanted to do.”

Kate is unique among the flotilla. While there are other women in the organization, she’s the lone female who heads out for boat crew missions with the aircraft.

“Being the only girl on boat crew, they have been very accepting and patient with me and I like working with them,” she says. “They’re always teaching. Keith is such a teacher…”

That would be Keith Berntsen, the Auxiliary’s most experienced coxswain. On this August morning, he’s in charge of a crew of four from the helm of his own boat, a 32-foot Chris Craft Scorpion with two 225-horsepower engines moored in the canal behind his Southern Shores home.

The Molly B IV goes on regular missions and actually was the one giving chase on July 4th: Berntsen has taken the steps to get his vessel certified as a Coast Guard Operational Facility with all the same safety and technical gear on board as the flotilla’s official UTL boat. For much of the summer, his boat was the only game in town – the Auxiliary’s USCG-assigned boat, UTL 279521, is a 27-foot Boston Whaler Conquest with twin Honda 150-horsepower engines that is usually based at the Martins Point Marina but was getting its engines serviced.

The mission this morning might sound exciting – rendezvous with a C-130 flying 200 feet overhead in the sound and pick up the gear it drops into the water – but it’s actually fairly mundane.

“Usually this is like bus driving,” Berntsen says. “We go out, pick up gear, go get gas, drop off the gear, come back home, have lunch and tell stories.”

In the middle of the Albemarle Sound, the radio crackles to life as the pilot lets the boat crew know he’s on his way. The four-propeller plane circles several times, then finally descends enough to drop a flare in the water. The smoke signal serves as the pilot’s target. For this mission, he’s dropping three tiny buoys the Coast Guard is testing, then several 40-pound sacks that simulate the ADR-8: Air Delivery Raft for 8, which would be dropped to a disabled vessel.

U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Photos by Wes Snyder.

U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Photos by Wes Snyder.

The boat roars into action after each drop, with crewmen using a hook to collect the sack and then reeling in all the line. Usually, the task IS routine. Until it isn’t, of course. Helmets are on board, for instance, for windier days when a gust might pick up a parachute and send the payload flying at the crew members.

Mattingly said the Coast Guard has calculated that the Auxiliary saves the branch some $1.5 million in fuel costs alone, because aircraft can be on station and working with Auxiliary boats in mere minutes rather than flying elsewhere. Auxiliary boats also allow the aviation crews to train with them, freeing up official Coast Guard vessels for other important missions.

It’s not uncommon for Auxiliary crews to do two C-130 training sessions a week along with one helicopter mission. Pilots need practice. Sometimes, the crew members agree with exasperated laughter, new pilots need a LOT of practice, and some missions have been known to go on longer than others until the gear drops an acceptable distance from the target.

As much fun as they have on the water with their active-duty Coast Guard colleagues, their principle mission remains boater safety and education. While the Coast Guard Reserve was founded in 1937 and then became the Auxiliary in 1941 with a primary mission of assisting the regular Coast Guard, the rise in recreational boating that took place after wartime shifted education to the forefront.

It’s a popular mission on the OBX. Ask any elementary school child about boater safety and you’ll likely get a story about Sammy the Sea Otter and Coastie, the remote-controlled boat. The mascot and machine make the rounds at fall carnivals, special events like the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, and regular school visits.

“It is a blast – they are into it,” Mattingly says of the kids. “The average age of my instructors is 75, but most of them are grandparents, so they relate to the kids, and we relate to them. Around here, all these kids, they’re in families that have boats.”

Are they listening to these Coast Guard Auxiliary members? You better believe it.

“A guy walks up to me at the Seafood Festival and says, ‘YOU! It’s YOUR fault! My son was in class when you came in to teach boating safety. We can’t leave the dock now unless we’re all wearing life jackets!’” Mattingly relays with a laugh. “I’m going, ‘Dude, that’s a win.’”

Steve Hanf has two kids in college instead of a boat, but successfully completed a Boater Safety Course last year at First Flight High School with his daughter. They even got the highest scores in the class!

Steve Hanf
Author: Steve Hanf

Steve Hanf is a former professional sportswriter who teaches the journalism classes at First Flight High School. The dormant Nike Running Club app on his phone offers a reminder of the seven half-marathons and one full marathon he completed … several years ago. 

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