VALLEJO, Calif. — Vallejoan Kristine Busse-Dohm felt compelled to join the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary after 9/11, while fellow Vallejoan Ron Nathan wanted to get back on big water after retiring from the Coast Guard after 31 years.
Reasons for joining the Auxiliary are likely as varied as the Vallejo Flotilla's 46 or so members, Nathan said. The group patrols in private boats — "a beautiful 38' yacht and a fast 36' cruiser, moored in Antioch and Benicia, respectively," he said.
"I wanted to serve, and this was one way I could do it," Busse-Dohm, 54, said. "The Army didn't want me back; said I was too old. The war would have to go to Pennsylvania Avenue before they'd call me back."
Also a former military careerist, Nathan, 60, said he missed life aboard ship, and joined the auxiliary in 2011.
"I like being on the water; the bigger the water, the better," he said. "It turns out, you can take me out of the Coast Guard, but you can't take the Coast Guard out of me."
Auxiliary members "do everything the Coast Guard does, except law enforcement," Nathan said. "Search and rescue, life-saving, towing, waterway security and marine environment protection. We respond to catastrophes and make the scene secure until (a higher authority) arrives."
Members also check buoys and channel marker placement for navigation purposes, do night patrols to ensure lights are working and codes are properly set, he said.
"It's fun. The camaraderie is superb. It's a very dedicated group," he said.
But one need not be retired military to join, and members include police officers, sheriff's deputies, fire fighters, a California Maritime Academy student, and others, Nathan and Busse-Dohm said. Ages range from 20s to 80s. The minimum age is 17.
"The main goal is recreational boating safety," Nathan said. "It's to educate people about the dangers so boating can be fun and tragedy free."
Almost anything can happen while under way, which is what Nathan said he missed most about the Coast Guard.
A former U.S. Army captain with a degree in hospital administration, Busse-Dohm said she once came face to face with a whale in performance of her duties.
"When Delta and Dawn the (mother and baby) humpback whales were in the Delta in 2007, and everyone — the Coast Guard, Fish and Game, Contra Costa County Sheriff, CHP — was out there working to save them, and the boat I was on, a big trawler called the String of Pearls, and the picture of this was in the paper, the whale popped up right in front of our boat, and basically said 'ha ha, I don't have to do what you want,' and disappeared underneath the boat."
The injured mother whale was eventually treated with antibiotics and the pair left the delta.
"I've seen some really strange boating accidents. Someone hit an anchor chain," said Busse-Dohm, who also teachers boating safety at Solano Community College through the Vista Program. "A man was out with two little kids in a runabout, and the engine failed, and he didn't know how to use oars so, he kept going in circles. It was pretty hilarious."
Auxiliary duty is often quite serious, though.
"I've done a lot of searches for people overboard. We've never found anyone alive," she said. "My worst story was the young man in the wave runner in Benicia who was hit and killed by a jet ski (in August, 2006). My husband and I were involved as liaisons to the Coast Guard, Fire Department, and the Police. That was so sad."
It was a reminder of some maritime truths, she said.
"Most boating accidents occur on perfect days, no wind, in calm water, because people are tired," Busse-Dohm said. "They have no lookout and underestimate the fatigue of spending a day on a boat. That's what it's all about; wear your life jacket. Most people drown in boating accidents because they're not wearing their life jacket."