Volunteers assist Coast Guard

Auxiliary members train alongside professional officers

Posted: Wednesday, September 09, 2009

With complimentary cookies and Red Vines for the crew, 13-year Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers Mike and Noreen Folkerts spent their 36th wedding anniversary on the water Tuesday participating in emergency drills on Gastineau Channel.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"What better way to spend our anniversary?" Noreen Folkerts said.

Instead of a quiet getaway, they were training aboard their 37-foot yacht Noreen Kay with three other auxiliary members in tandem with 10 men of the professional Coast Guard aboard a 47-foot motor lifeboat.

"Oh, come on! Is this fun or what?" said Mike Folkerts.

The Folkerts were originally drawn to the Coast Guard because of a couple of boating accidents in which their friends had drowned.

"We decided this was one way we could teach people how to boat safer and actually rescue them on the water," said Noreen Folkerts, program assistant for the Director of Auxiliary Office. "It's just a total satisfaction knowing and having the capability of helping somebody and the fact that we can also assist the Coast Guard."

The Coast Guard Auxiliary is what the Coast Guard calls its "backfill," she said. They are volunteers who do everything except law enforcement and direct military action, which includes teaching boating safety and conducting free boating safety checks. They also are on call with the local Coast Guard station to help with office work, man the radio and train.

Coast Guard Officer in Charge Ryan O'Meara said the auxiliary helps the Coast Guard its daily operations.

"Like if we're busy running a search and rescue case 20, 30 miles out, and we can't get back here to help if someone is in trouble here, we can call them up and they'll run the cases for us," he said.

The auxiliary also helps during big water events, such as the Salmon Derby or Fourth of July, O'Meara said.

"When we do joint ops it benefits both people," he said. "(The auxiliary) augments our crew. ... They help us do courtesy inspections and spot-check boats and make sure they have all their gear on board, so it helps us out quite a bit."

Coast Guard fireman Anthony Utton, 21, said the auxiliary even assisted during the Snettisham power crisis.

"For a while there, when the electricity bill went up after the avalanche, they were bringing in food for us every Wednesday," he said. "When we were on duty, we wouldn't have to buy food; they'd come in and cook dinner for us. So they help us out a lot."

Although they're technically part of the Coast Guard, auxiliaries use their own boats and are strictly volunteers. The Coast Guard supplies the auxiliaries gear, fuel, supplies and some maintenance.

Juneau's auxiliary flotilla consists of five boats - Noreen Kay, Dock Holiday, Grand Slam, Jennie M and Missy - and seven jet skis.

"They're just an asset that we have at our disposal, and they have as many boats as we do in the area," O'Meara said. "Any complicated search and rescue case they have helped us on doing search patterns."

Sometimes the Coast Guard needs the auxiliary vessels so they have something to practice towing other than their own vessels. The change of pace is welcome with the role players, too.

"It makes a pretty easy job for us," said Mike Folkerts aboard his 37-foot Bayliner. "I love being distressed."

Meanwhile...

"Man overboard! Off starboard main!" yelled Coast Guard fireman Eric Bruster as part of the exercises aboard the 47-foot motor lifeboat.

Juneau's Jeremy Timothy, 31, looked a little nervous at the helm. He was training as a steersman, or coxswain, where the training can get fairly intense.

"We try to run them through the worst drills we can think of to see how he'll react and get his stress level as high as we can get it to see if he freaks out," O'Meara said. "As a boat driver on this boat, we have to do a million things."

"This boat is designed to go through anything, 20-foot surf, 30-foot seas, 50-knot winds, that's what these guys can drive a boat in," O'Meara said. "So we've to train for that, heavy weather. That's why we're nitpicking, because he needs to be perfect, not good, not OK - perfect. And he will be."

O'Meara stayed fixed on the flying bridge for the entire four hours giving pointers to the steersmen.

"I think I did good, but I have some little things I need to work on," Timothy said.

Due to crew transfers, the local Coast Guard station lost more than half of its qualified crew members this year.

"Normally we're operating with 22 qualifieds," O'Meara said. "This year we're down to four or five people per duty section, so I was looking at 10 qualified total for the unit. So these guys are standing a lot to duty with almost no relief, not to mention these guys have put up phenomenal hours and numbers."

O'Meara's men have approximately 1,880 hours under way, 60 search and rescue cases, several escorts and 560 boardings so far.

"What they have accomplished this year as far as the Coast Guard goes is amazing," he said. "It's just really impressive what these guys have been able to do. It's not us who gets it done, it's them."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kim.andree@juneauempire.com.



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