Coast Guard Auxiliary gather for GNATS

Imagine Oak Harbor without the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

From left, Coast Guard Auxiliary members Steven DeMaggio, past Captain; Peter F.W. Raiswell, Commodore District 13; and Richard Coons, District Captain - North, gather while classes are being taught at Oak Harbor Skagit Valley College. Dennis Connolly/Whidbey Crosswind

What Coast Guard Auxiliary, you might wonder?

For starters, the approximately 80 volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary officers that gathered at the Oak Harbor Marina and Skagit Valley College this past weekend for the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary District 13 Great Northern Area Training, or GNATS, as it’s called. They came from Washington, Oregon and Idaho to learn to be vessel examiners, get a CPR card and get qualified to use a defibrillator as well as attend a special Coast Guard-oriented workshop and hear the latest from a national training conference.

There are more than 750 members that patrol the Northern Area, which goes south from the Canadian border, covering the northern peninsula all the way down to Chehalis.

In addition to boat safety inspections, where Coast Guard Auxiliary members check to see if boaters have proper flares, spark arrestors, bilge pumps and running lights, etc.

Classes on public education, navigation, vessel inspections and others are offered, and it’s virtually free. There is a small fee to cover books and other public education costs.
Richard Coons, District Captain in the Auxiliary for the Northern Area said they can stay busy as volunteers.

“Some of us give thousands of hours, some hundreds,” Coons said. “We keep track of our hours and they are sent to Congress via the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard is credited toward their budget. Last year the Coast Guard saved millions of dollars and were credited 644,498 hours.

“We do everything that the Coast Guard does except law enforcement,” Coons added.

Nationally, the Coast Guard Auxiliary has about 32,000 men and women civilian volunteers who annually donate their time doing vessel safety checks, public education courses, search and rescue, maritime domain awareness operations and marine safety.

Joe Baney, a DSO-Navigator in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, teaches a class on Navigational Systems. Dennis Connolly/Whidbey Crosswind

In Oak Harbor on Saturday, they taught classes about operations, human resources, communications, marine science and computer systems to other auxiliary members.
There were sessions on boat inspection and repair both days and a member of the state department of Fish and Wildlife taught a class on invasive species.

Steven DeMaggio, a past captain-North Coast Guard Auxiliary, said training volunteers get is equivalent to Coast Guard training. The Auxiliary even trains regular members of the Coast Guard.

“For example, a 21-year-old active duty Coast Guard kid who comes from the Bronx and we send him out to Neah Bay, Washing-ton. We mentor him and work with him to bring him up to active duty standards in the water,” he said. “We go out with Coast Guard boats and offer our boats so the new kids can experience boarding or rafting up to a boat or towing a boat before the real event happens.”

Coons said the Auxiliary boats range from big inboards to little kayaks, which are great for going around marinas and checking out shallow draft areas.

As to why they do it – go through the meetings, pay for the uniforms, go to classes and teach search and rescue for free – the answers are numerous.

Some say they just want to stay connected to the water and the people who go out on it. Others say they want to help the Coast Guard, that it’s a good organization that deserves their help.

Richard Coons said it has to do with people.

“I believe in serving my community and my country,” he said, then went off to check on a class.