I went to the Coast Guard station in Muskegon, Michigan today to volunteer and train for boat crew member qualification. Besides training and fellowship, I had the chance to join the gold side on a patrol. I joined them in escorting a passenger vessel in the fog, and received lookout training in the most miserable viewing conditions imaginable. It was fun! 🙂
In the morning, I met with other Coast Guard Auxiliary members to review certain first aid topics (hypothermia, heat exhaustion, CO poisoning, fires and other maritime emergencies). A petty officer from Muskegon was kind enough to talk about and show the group a portable kind of aerial flairs (which USCG personnel carry, but Auxiliary volunteers do not). After this, we all enjoyed a very nice lunch and fellowship at a local restaurant. Upon our return, I joined another Auxiliary newbie in receiving some informal training on knot-tying by a gold-side (Coast Guard) newbie. It was very interesting to cross-train with a Coast Guard member, as both sides learned from each other. He showed me a few tricks, and I showed him a few of my own.
The highlight of my day was going on a patrol aboard a Coast Guard ship. Since they were carrying weapons, I was provided with a bulletproof vest to wear under my uniform shirt. This was the first time I saw a bulletproof vest in real life, and of course, the first time I wore one! It was much lighter than I expected, and quite comfortable to wear. Once I had all my equipment on, however, I realized why being in shape is a good thing. I was wearing a t-shirt, bulletproof vest, heavy cotton coat, PFD (life jacket), and a SAR (search and rescue) vest with survival equipment. Add the weight of the boots and the pants, and I gained quite a few pounds for the day! At least it wasn’t so cold as to wear Mustang survival suites, because those things are warm and heavy!
When we came out of the harbor, the entire Lake Michigan shore was covered in heavy fog. It was impossible to see past 10 meters. My job was to be the lookout for the starboard-stern side (90 to 180 degrees relative to the bow of the ship), reporting anything hazardous (such as other boats, rocks, or buoys) or suspicious to the helmsman. We waited for the Lake Express, a Michigan-Wisconsin car ferry, to come into the harbor to escort it. At first, I could hear it behind us, but I couldn’t see a thing. It was not until we approached the channel that I saw this monstrous ship behind us. I was amazed! This was the first time I saw the Lake Express up close, and all I could think about was, “Wow, that’s a huge ship!!!” We escorted it into its peer in Lake Muskegon, and then received some lookout training until the Lake Express was ready to depart for Wisconsin again. We escorted it back out of the channel and into the fog-covered Lake Michigan. After this, we patrolled Lake Muskegon for a while before returning to the station.
It was very interesting to experience first-hand the work of the Coast Guard, specially as it relates to public safety and merchant vessels. Someday, I am going to be in the pilot house of one of those merchant ships, and I’ll get to see things from a different perspective. What is so great about volunteering with the Coast Guard Auxiliary is that besides looking at the Great Lakes from a merchant marine point of view, I can also see things from the Coast Guard perspective. I believe that in the future, this will make me a better mariner and a better steward of the Great Lakes and the Oceans.