A version of this story originally appeared at Coast Guard Heartland and was written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega.
Down in the Louisiana Bayou sits one of the biggest swamps in the country. It’s full of alligators the size of a small automobile and mosquitoes as large as a muffaletta. Unknown to most, the Coast Guard patrols this area, known as brown waters, protecting the waterways and educating the public on safe boating practices.
Coast Guard Station New Orleans patrols 7,500 square miles of these waters – an area roughly the size of New Jersey, including Lake Borgne, Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas – and is credited with having the most boardings in the Coast Guard last year with1,881 boardings.
“The Coast Guard does boardings to determine that all vessels are operating safely,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth Cholak, a boatswain’s mate at Station New Orleans. “We want to ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.”
Before the crew gets underway they conduct a risk assessment and outfit themselves with the proper safety equipment for law enforcement. The crew goes out with body armor, flashlights, pepper spray, handcuffs, expandable batons and a Sig-Arms P229, .40-caliber hand gun. The equipment is used as means to enforce federal laws and ensure the safety of the crew.
Unique to the region, the station often trailers their boats to reach certain areas due to the narrow, spread-out waterways. Once underway, Coast Guard crews ask boaters to pull over in a safe open location to board them and perform safety checks.
When the crew boards a recreational vessel, there are many safety checks done to assure the safety of its passengers.
“[One] of the things we look for is the amount of life jackets on board; there needs to be the same number of life jackets as there are people aboard. We also look at fire extinguishers making sure they are operating properly,” said Cholak. “We also look to see if the boat has any sound-producing devices. We determine if they have a Type-IV throwable life cushion or life ring. It depends on the size of your vessel. It has to be over 16 feet for us to enforce that.”
The station also looks at a boater’s registration information – making sure the people driving it are the owners – and checks that all children under the age of 16 are wearing their life jackets as required by state law.
“Some of the most common violations are not having a working fire extinguisher or a throwable life-saving device which will usually be a life ring or square seat cushion. People usually have a fire extinguisher on board and then forget about it; two or three years later and it expires. They just know they have a fire extinguisher but don’t look at it every time,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey Argyle, a boatswain’s mate at the station.
At the end of a boarding the boater is given a “golden ticket,” which lets other law enforcement agencies know they were recently inspected.
The station is not alone when keeping watch of the waterways; together they work and learn from local agencies.
“We have 17 parishes in our area of responsibility, and we look to each parish to share knowledge,” said Cholak. “The parishes give us area of responsibility knowledge because we can’t go everywhere, and they help us interdict other vessels and teach us the parish’s way of enforcing their law.”
The station’s work in keeping boaters safe is evident by the decline in the number of search-and-rescue cases they perform. During the past three years, the station has averaged about 100 search-and-rescue cases a year. In 2009 and previous years, the station had 300 to 400 search-and-rescue cases a year.
For Station New Orleans, the number of boardings they complete isn’t the number that counts. It’s the number of lives saved from performing these boardings and keeping those who live and operate on the water safe.