Last fall Gary Smith, a coxswain and current vice commander with local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 3-7, responded to a call for help from a couple of boaters on the Missouri River who had made some bad choices and suddenly found themselves facing serious danger.
They had anchored their boat in the middle of the channel near the bridge and run down their battery while they were out. When they decided to head for shore, they found that their boat wouldn’t start, said Smith. Making matters worse, their boat was drifting toward a bridge abutment.
Luckily Smith and members of the Coast Guard Flotilla were out on patrol that day and noticed when the boaters flagged them by waving their arms in the air. It was difficult towing the boat to safety, Smith recalled, noting “there was a 20 knot wind and the current was about six miles an hour.”
That scenario is the perfect example of why anyone who plans to take a boat or other watercraft out on local rivers and lakes should educate themselves about boating and water safety. The lack of knowledge can be lifethreatening.
“A lot of folks go out in boats and don’t know how to handle them,” Smith commented.
On top of that, they often underestimate the potential dangers on the river, including how fast the current moves and can sweep them away.
Educating the public on these points and more through boating safety classes is one of the three primary responsibilities of the local Coast Guard Flotilla, said Smith.
The other two are courtesy vessel examinations and water patrols.
The group also visits local marine dealers to provide literature on boating safety for anyone buying boats or other watercraft.
Chartered During World War II
Coast Guard Flotilla 3-7 was chartered on May 5, 1942, in St. Louis in the midst of World War II.
“A group was needed to assist in the war effort by covering the Mississippi River south of the city of St. Louis,” said Smith, who gleaned information on the history from reading the minutes of past meetings.
“The group of 15 citizens met each week with the USCG representatives for training . . . In May 1943 St. Louis was hit by a disastrous flood and Flotilla 3-7 took charge of the Mississippi River south of the Mac-Arthur Bridge, evacuating personnel and livestock from the flooded sections of East Carondolet and Dupo, Ill.
“They worked in association with the Red Cross, the police, local fire departments,” Smith continued.
“During the war, many of the members became members of the Temporary Reserve. They met at SLUH and served weekly in the port security system.
“They were in the Battle of the Mississippi patrolling in picket boats, doing shore patrols, acting as sentries and assisting in maintenance of Aids to Navigation. They became standby crews and security guards on military shipping in the St. Louis harbor.
“As the war ended, members were demobilized from the Temporary Reservist program back to Auxiliary status,” said Smith.
Membership in the Flotilla fluctuated the first couple of decades, going from 15 to 25 to 18 to 22. The height of membership seems to have been 37 in 1973.
That’s also the year that one member, Joe Allgeyer, led the country in vessel examinations with a total of 1,035, said Smith, noting the Coast Guard had asked for an increase in the exams.
Membership declined significantly in the years that followed, to the point where a Coast Guard Auxiliary detachment that was located in Washington had more members than the Flotilla, so the Flotilla was relocated to Washington, said Smith.
Around 2008, the Flotilla was rebuilding with more active recruiting, holding multiple boating safety classes, conducting vessel exams and visiting local marine dealers.
The Flotilla won the Commodore’s Streamer for its boating safety and other activities.
“That was a first for the Flotilla,” Smith remarked.
In 2010, one member, Lee Jones, conducted over 100 vessel examinations.
Currently Flotilla 3-7 has 19 members and owns a 17-foot aluminum hull boat that the Coast Guard gave to it. It’s mainly kept in storage because it isn’t that useful for patrols.
Smith is the only member who owns a boat, and that is the one members use for patrols.
Four members are trained for patrols — one as a coxswain (the person in charge of the boat, its navigation and steering) and three as crew members.
That limits the number of patrols the Flotilla can do, said Smith.
“We try to get out three, four or five times each summer,” he said. “Sometimes we patrol during the week, but most are on the weekends, when more people are on the river.”
Safety, Exams, Patrols
Keeping people safe on the water is the primary concern of the Coast Guard Flotilla, said Smith, noting its top three priorities are focused on that — boating safety classes, vessel exams of boats and other watercraft, and on-water patrols to help anyone in trouble or needing assistance.
“We’re not there to help people who just run out of gas,” Smith remarked, noting boaters should follow “The Rule of Thirds” — use one-third of your fuel for going out, one-third for coming home and keep one-third in reserve.
In this area there are no commercial towing boats so people don’t have many options.
“The biggest problem here is people getting stalled on the river,” said Smith.
The Flotilla offers boating safety classes to educate people about how to be safe. These classes are a requirement for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1984.
Knowing how to navigate a river like the Missouri can be tricky, said Smith, noting the class covers ATONS or aids to navigation.
“We teach people what the markers mean, the different colors and shapes,” he said.
To further keep boaters safe, the Flotilla conducts courtesy vessel safety inspections. These are strictly informational, said Smith.
“We don’t give out tickets. We have no law enforcement capabilities,” he stressed.
“Some people worry that we’re going to give them a ticket, so they don’t get their vessel inspected, but we really just want to make sure they have the right safety equipment on board.”
Any type of vessel can be inspected — kayak, canoe, cabin cruiser, jet ski, wave runner . . .
“We check to make sure there are no fuel leaks, that the cut-off switch works if the person would fall off the vessel, to make sure they have life jackets . . . ”
People who can swim well enough may not like the idea of having to wear a life jacket, but at the very least they should be on board and accessible, said Smith.
“Statistically, 85 percent of drownings from boating accidents are the result of someone not wearing a life jacket or having one available,” he noted.
“Too many times they are stored away where you can’t reach them in time.”
New Members Welcome
A couple of weeks ago the Flotilla celebrated its 70th anniversary with a dinner and program in a meeting room at The Old Dutch Hotel and Tavern in Downtown Washington.
The group is trying to raise public awareness of its existence and the services it provides. Last Christmas members had a boat in the Holiday Parade of Lights in Downtown Washington and the entry drew lots of positive attention.
“People were surprised, I think, to see a Coast Guard boat in the Christmas parade,” said Smith. “Then they applauded us, and that surprised us.”
Membership in the Flotilla tends to be older, so the group is working to recruit new members, ideally a few younger people.
There are only a few requirements — you must be 17 years or older and pass a background check.
Training is provided.
Dues are $30 a year.
The Flotilla makes its money through classes like the boating safety class it offers both in short and long courses.
Meetings are held the third Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Buescher Frankenberg and Associates building on Elm Street in Downtown Washington.
The organization is open both to men and women.
For more information on the Coast Guard Auxiliary or to become a member of the Flotilla, people can contact Smith on his cellphone at 636-399-2566 or by email at email@example.com.