Always Ready: The volunteers of the local coast guard auxiliary

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IF YOU’VE SPENT ENOUGH TIME ON HILTON HEAD ISLAND, YOU’VE HEARD THE SOUND.

If you’ve spent enough time on Hilton Head Island, you’ve heard the sound. The distant thump thump thump of rotors beating the air, a barely audible drum line just barely audible over the sound of the waves, cars and other rhythms of a Hilton Head summer.

You’ve most likely heard that thump grow louder and scanned the skies for its source, finding it when a bright orange H-65 Coast Guard Dolphin bursts from over the tree line and makes its way to the water.

If you follow its trajectory, it will make its way past the shoreline to a small boat where, unless someone is having a bad day, you’ll witness one of the United States Coast Guard’s most dramatic training exercises: a helicopter rescue operation. With breathtaking skill, the H-65’s pilot will hover just 20 feet from the top of the boat while a crewmember is lowered to provide assistance and rescue.

And while the military precision of the pilot and the bravery of the guardsman making his way down to the ship by a thin line are to be applauded, those of us in the Lowcountry should be especially grateful to the volunteer awaiting rescue.

“If you ever go out in the sound and see the choppers working with the little boats, well, we’re the little boats,” joked Hal Blaisdell, flotilla commander for the Hilton Head branch of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Of course, playing the part of boater in distress is not the only duty the “10-11” is tasked with (it gets its name from the fact that it’s the 11th flotilla in the auxiliary’s 10th division). Not by a long shot.

“We do everything active duty does, we just don’t get paid for it,” Blaisdell said.

The auxiliary also performs routine safety patrols. The six boats in the 10-11’s flotilla are staffed by four to six sailors from a crew of 61 volunteers, and they patrol a stretch of water from Skull Creek down to Elba Island near Savannah — including every spit of water and land in between, from Daufuskie to the New River to Port Wentworth. “It could be 40 degrees outside with 20 mph winds, we’ll still go out there on patrol,” Blaisdell said.

It’s a dedication to boating safety that the 10-11 reinforces not only through regular patrols to check conditions of bridges and navigation buoys and scan for potential trouble, but also through boating safety courses and vessel exams.

And it’s not just boaters they’re keeping safe. The 10-11 also inspects ships as they come into port in Savannah. By helping the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit secure our shores, they’re keeping everyone in Beaufort County and beyond safe.

“We have guys that go out and gather information on where a ship has been, its crew, we’ll check the ship’s papers and engine room for compliance of various regulations … it’s a screening process,” Blaisdell said.  “When it meets a certain criteria, then (the Marine Safety Unit) will send an armed boarding party out to board the ship.”

And in the event that the worst were to happen — for example, if Hilton Head Island were be hit by a hurricane — you can bet that the 10-11 would be one of the first groups back. The group has a comprehensive plan for post-hurricane efforts from recovery to search and rescue, a selfless task for the group of volunteers.

“I’ll be coming back in when it’s all clear,” said Blaisdell, describing his task in the event of a hurricane. “When they let first responders back in, I would come in and set up the radio stations. If they need boats, we’d have coxswains that would come back in and take the boats out to check for obstructions in the water — sunken boats, obstacles to navigation, everything that comes after a hurricane or major storm … if the Coast Guard says they need people, we go.”

The United States Coast Guard’s motto is “Semper Paratus.” In Latin, the phrase means “always ready,” and the 10-11 lives that by that motto. What’s more, they’re always looking for volunteers. If you’re an American citizen and older than 17, and can pass a security check, there are opportunities for you. You don’t have to have a boat, but if you do, what better way to put it to use helping others?

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