OXFORD — For recreational boaters, the sight of a distinctive orange-belted U.S. Coast Guard response boat elicits a range of emotions — from fear to anger, from impatience to relief.
But safe boating is what Coast Guardsmen are aiming for. Those stationed at tiny Station Oxford keep watch over miles of waterways, from northern Tilghman Island to the Little Choptank River on this side of the Chesapeake Bay, over to Chesapeake Beach south to Calvert Cliffs on the western shore.
And in an effort to prevent search and rescue operations, they spend a lot of time during prime boating season educating boaters, often paying unannounced visits, or boardings, to accomplish that mission.
A new chief on board
On Aug. 4, the station celebrated the 229th anniversary of the Coast Guard and officially welcomed its new chief, who took over on June 28.
A native of northern New Jersey, Boatswain’s Mate Chief Petty Officer Owen G. Earl, 35, lives in St. Michaels with his wife April, a former K-12 specialty school principal, and their 8-month-old son Liam. The new station chief has an authoritative bearing yet speaks quietly and smiles easily.
Although an enlisted Guardsman, Earl is officer in charge of the station and a 14-member crew.
Also occupying his small office are a couple dozen challenge coins and several plaques thanking him for his service, models of boats on which he’s served over his 17-year career, from New York, to Florida, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and Oregon.
“I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate my crew’s efforts and what they’re doing out there on the water,” Earl said. “They make it easy to go to my bosses up at sector. (When they ask), ‘What did you guys do this weekend?’ I tell them to grab a cup of coffee; it might take a little while to explain all of the stuff that my crew did.”
The station was established in the early 2000s after moving from a barge at Taylors Island. It shares a campus with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The small complex at the end of South Morris Street on Bachelor Point is called the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory.
“Our own little slice of heaven,” Earl said, smiling.
Station Oxford is housed in a modular building with offices, command center that is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and separate quarters for men and women crew members. Two 29-foot response boat smalls are perched at the end of a dock on the Tred Avon River. A large garage that can accommodate one of the response boats for maintenance and repairs, and two jet skis for the crew to use on their days off also are housed there.
Stations like Oxford have boats that do search and rescue cases and law enforcement boardings, said Lt. Alfred E. “AJ” Betts, Enforcement Division chief with U.S. Coast Guard Sector Maryland-National Capital Region based in Baltimore. Station Oxford is among seven that report to the sector.
Safety education a priority
Education is a major part of the station’s mission. “We can’t expect that everyone’s an expert in boat operations, so that’s why we’re here to help educate the public, help people with boating safety, help people know whether they’re in a distress situation and what help they might need,” Betts said.“Working with the public is one of the most beneficial parts of the job as a Coast Guard officer or officer in charge,” Betts said.
In late May, the Coast Guard focuses much of its mission on promoting boating safety, starting with Safe Boating Week. “We dovetail that into another longer op period,” Betts said. “As a sector, we completed over 900 recreational boater safety boardings in late May through June. Station Oxford did 44 of them over Memorial Day weekend. They were out there all weekend promoting the message of boating safety.”
Coast Guard law enforcement operates differently. When it comes to recreational boating safety, the Coast Guard doesn’t need “probable cause” to board a vessel. “We can do a boarding just for boating education purposes,” Betts said.
The Coast Guard doesn’t work on a quota system. “Our authority is different,” Earl said. “We train our crews to be proactive and take the initiative to board boats and educate the public,” he said.
Earl said that one of the reasons he likes the Coast Guard’s style of law enforcement is that there is no typical encounter or operation. “It’s one of the reasons I tell my crew, ‘Don’t be robots out there. Engage the people. Talk to them,’” he said.
“We did some boardings during the Tred Avon fireworks, and we met some incredibly interesting people and talked with them,” Earl said. The event took place during his first days as station chief, and he boarded one of the boats to observe his crew. “Everyone on board their eyes were wide, it was just so quiet. And I just look at them and go, ‘So how’s everybody doing? You guys all right?’” Earl said jovially. “And the next thing you know, we had a great interaction.”
That relationship — even friendship — with the community was demonstrated during the 35-day government shut-down that began in late December 2018. The wider community was “outstanding” in helping Oxford Guardsmen stay afloat financially, Betts said.
“The community really stepped up for the Coast Guard,” Betts said. “Food donations that were just through the charts” along with items like gas cards, diapers and baby wipes.
“For such a small town to give that kind of support … it’s just amazing,” Earl said.
Who you gonna call?
Earl stressed that recreational boaters shouldn’t hesitate to call the Coast Guard if they encounter a problem.
“If you think, ‘Hey, I’m not necessarily in distress, but something’s not right,’ call the Coast Guard,” Betts said. “We’re here to help. We can put out a broadcast for a marine assistance request, or MARB.”
The MARB goes out to commercial salvers, as well as to the general public, with a location of the vessel. A good Samaritan or a commercial salver can respond with help or a tow.
“If no one responds within 10 minutes, then the Coast Guard has the opportunity to go out and bring you in,” Betts said. “That’s for non-distress cases, but if it’s a distress case, we’re going out. We’ll work with MNRP (Maryland Natural Resources Police), we’ll work with whomever the local (emergency responders) might be, (especially) if they’re in the water already and they’re closer. We’ll call them, but we’ll still launch.”
“We have what’s called the Blue Force Tracker that lets us know what law enforcement assets are on the water using AIS (automatic identification system), so we can decide, okay, this sheriff’s department is on the water and we’ll call them,” Betts said.
“Let’s say a boat is broken down,” Earl said. “We have to go through a process to determine if we’ll tow a vessel in — and this is where people may become a little frustrated with us. It’s not so much that we don’t want to do that, but I just need the community to remember that if I put a boat crew out there to tow your boat in and you’re not in any immediate distress, what happens when all of a sudden, I get a call halfway into us towing you back to a pier that there’s a boat sinking and there’s people on board going into the water? I can’t leave you out here in the middle of nowhere, but now I’m not able to respond to that true, major emergency. So we have to weigh those things very heavily before we take on certain missions.”
“If you find yourself in some sort of distress, you can call the Coast Guard,” Betts said. “We kind of help the public take away the guessing game of who they should call.”
“It’s not like calling 911 — it doesn’t have to be an emergency,” Earl said. “You can call us and we can tell you what kind of help you’re looking for.”
“We don’t want the perception that people can’t ask us questions,” Earl said. “That’s what we’re there for.”
“The Coast Guard can be reached on Channel 16 for any distress. Boaters can also call the command center which is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 410-576-2525. The command center is manned with people who have gone through a pretty rigorous qualification to be on those radios. That’s their main job,” Betts said.
Recreational boaters can still use “May Day” as a distress message. “It may seem old fashioned, but it is still used as a distress call and it’s an international language,” Earl said.
Augmenting the mission
Thomas Stokes of Easton is the division commander of three Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas that act as a “force muliplier” to help the Coast Guard from the Mid-Shore region up the northern end of the Bay. Nationwide, the auxiliary has about 30,000 members, but the Easton flotilla has 22 members; Stokes would like to see twice as many volunteers sign up.
The local flotilla works closely with Station Oxford, and reports to Annapolis, as well. During Thunder on the Choptank July 27-28 in Cambridge, the auxiliary assisted the Coast Guard in setting up a no-wake zone and reminded boaters to slow down.
Stokes, who retired as a lieutenant after 30 years with the NYPD in 2000, said that he and other auxiliary members are looking forward to meeting with the newest officer in charge to discuss his priorities.
In the meantime, he said the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, exists to help the Coast Guard keep the boaters safe with public education — teaching safety courses, basic seamanship, handing out information at public events and conducting free vessel examinations. The Easton flotilla alone does 150 to 200 vessel examinations a year.
“We used to do a lot more,” Stokes said. If a boater needs to change or add items or procedures, the auxiliary recommends, but doesn’t enforce or report violations.
Out on the rivers and Bay, Stokes said he sees safety red flags. “Alcohol is involved in greater than 75% of boating accidents,” he said. Also, even those who operate personal watercraft should follow navigational “rules of the road,” and be aware that their actions. Because of their speed and shallow draft, jet skis can create destructive wakes and disturb habitat and species in shallower water.
Stokes recommends that boaters, even stand-up paddlers and kayakers, practice simple safety procedures like wearing a whistle or carrying lightweight flotation devices (one type of fanny-pack PFD opens up when it hits the water).
While risky missions may be part of the work of Station Oxford — after all “Coasties” wear weapons as law-enforcement officers — during the summer months, helping boaters stay safe is paramount. Educating the public with recreational boating safety boardings helps prevent search and rescue missions in the long run, Betts said.
“That’s one of the reasons I love the Coast Guard,” Earl said. “Even though we may have those instances when we encounter drugs or stuff like that, it’s also great to have this other side — interacting with the boating public. And for the most part, we’ve had a lot of really great boardings, a lot of great interactions and feedback. That’s what I expect from my guys.”