“Coming up to speed!” the voice at the wheel of the 25 foot Key West center console boat shouts as the twin Yamaha 150 horsepower out-board engines roar into life, props churning the waters of Boca Ciega Bay into foam. The craft arcs as we brace amid the flying spray, hitting 28 knots…32 mph. It’s exhilarating–but this isn’t a joy ride.
For several hours on a drizzly afternoon, the “Sue-Sea-Q” becomes more than a pleasure craft. While privately owned by South Pasadena resident Tony Novellino, the boat transforms in purpose about eight times a month into a patrol vessel with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the uniformed, volunteer branch of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Auxiliary performs a wide variety of support functions except for military and law enforcement actions. It was created in 1939 by an act of Congress and answers to the federal Department of Homeland Security. The group saves lives, protects the environment and guards the nation’s shores, as well as the more mundane but vital functions of training and certifying boaters in safety and navigation skills, performing boat safety checks, conducting commercial fishing and vessel exams and much more. Seasonally, units also patrol regatta events including the Christmas boat parades sprinkled around the bay and assist in Tampa’s annual Gasparilla festival. There is also an air component; members of some divisions utilize private airplanes out of the USCG Clearwater facility.
Dockside, the crew reviews a rigorous check-list. Members pay for their uniforms and approved gear, while the Coast Guard covers fuel and other expenses while under orders. Most Coast Guard Auxiliary signage is displayed only during patrols. Safety and medical gear is stowed, electronics are tested and Novellino checks in with the Coast Guard station in St. Petersburg. The crew monitors radio channel 16, used for distress calls.
The patrol heads north from South Pasadena up the Intracoastal Waterway, under the Treasure Island Causeway, watching for anything out of the ordinary…a boater in distress, debris in the water, a violation of boating rules. “We advise. We don’t necessarily direct,” says Gilmore. “It’s a lot easier to inform a boater of a violation than to issue a ticket. We’ll pull a speeder over and educate.”
Across the nation, the Auxiliary has 16 Districts, with District 7 including Florida, Georgia and South Carolina plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Among this district’s six sectors is Sector St. Petersburg, covering west central Florida. Within that body, Division 7 serves Tampa Bay by means of seven flotillas, the most local unit desig- nation. The Sue-Sea-Q operates from Flotilla 7-8, designated as Pass-a-Grille, covering from Tampa Bay west to the Skyway Bridge south, out to the outer channel marker to the west, north to the John’s Pass bridge and associated Gulf beaches. Flotilla 7-8 has 23 members, compared to 70 with the St. Petersburg flotilla.
Coming about, the craft retraces its route and continues south into open water nearing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, maintaining radio loca- tion contacts with the Coast Guard. An abandoned sailboat, the latest example of a longstanding prob- lem in southern Pinellas waters, is called in. Clumps of floating coconuts appear periodically and are noted…they turn out to be from tree clearing operations along the channel.
“Clear to port; clear to starboard,“ Hoskin calls out. A member of St. Petersburg’s Flotilla 7-2, he trains aboard in multiple duties this day. Novellino, in his fifth year with the Auxiliary, was an executive with National Cash Register for 45 years in the New York City area. A boater all his life, without military service, he sees the group as, “a way to serve our community and country as long as I am able.” He is a recent past Flotilla 7-8 commander; Gilmore is its current commander.
Hoskin was a New Jersey high school teacher and sports coach while Gilmore, from Virginia, retired after 31 years in air traffic control supervision, in part at Dulles Airport. Hoskin smiles, “I enjoy every minute in the Auxiliary, except for the paperwork.”
Some 100 Auxiliary members from around the nation assisted in rescue efforts in the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey. According to Pat Prado, public affairs officer with District 7, no Auxiliary mem- bers were deployed locally during Hurricane Irma.
Over a lunch break at the Gulfport Marina provided by his wife, Tony Novellino illustrates why volunteering may not always be pleasant, even while it’s one’s duty. In recent years, he took part in two search efforts involving fatalities. On Oct. 5, 2015, nine-year-old Cameron Bullard was swept away from Pass-a-Grille Beach. His body was recovered near Shell Key Preserve two days later. This March a college student and charter boat mate drowned in Pass-a-Grille Channel. They were located within a week by private boaters. “We assist in locating the person, but we’re not allowed to touch the body, for forensics purposes” says Novellino.
There are joys, too, he notes. “There have been many exciting events where we’ve saved folks from hypothermia in the winter, even in Florida, or fought a fire on someone’s boat. It’s rewarding to help people.” Crews help boaters who’ve run out of gas, run aground, had a mechanical failure or need a tow to get them out of sea lanes until a commercial tow service arrives.
Recruitment is an ongoing process for the Coast Guard Auxiliary in regions like coastal Florida, where snowbirds form a significant portion of vol- unteers. “You can do eight hours a year or eight hours a week,” says Hoskin. Interested? You must be a U.S. citizen, at least 17 years old and pass a background check.
Learn more at www.join.cgaux.org.