RUSKIN – Not everyone needs a license to get behind the wheel in Florida.
Although the state continues to lead the nation in boat ownership – and fatalities – boaters don’t need a license to drive. But thanks to a local, uniformed volunteer-component of the Coast Guard, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, boaters can learn boating safety and preparedness.
“People don’t know what they don’t know,” said Gary Mull, a member of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 75, which is based in Ruskin. “Ignorance kills.”
Florida law requires anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, to complete an approved boating safety class and obtain an education identification card. But that leaves many of those currently older than 26 years old without any boater safety training and out on the water.
According to Recreational Boating Statistics 2012 issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard, 75 percent of boating deaths are from drowning. Eight-five percent of those fatalities weren’t wearing a life jacket. And 70 percent of those involved in boat accidents never had any boater training at all.
So with the opportunity for South Shore residents to boat or sail on 400-square miles of waterway on Tampa Bay, not to mention the Gulf of Mexico, learning to navigate through them safely could be life-saving.
And thanks to Flotilla 75, which oversees Apollo Beach, Ruskin and Sun City Center, boating education classes and courtesy vessel safety checks are available.
New boater Ryan Farley, out for the fourth time with a newly acquired 1999 fishing boat his dad passed down to him, had the opportunity for a free safety check with Flotilla members at E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin.
“I’m glad they do this and spend time to educate people,” Farley said. “It’s good to know these things.”
The boat’s navigation lights weren’t operational and his emergency flairs had expired, so the boat didn’t pass inspection. He said he looks forward to getting those things fixed and obtaining his Coast Guard Auxiliary inspection sticker the next time he takes his boat out.
Of the several boating instruction and safety classes the Auxiliary teaches, the two most popular are About Boating Safely, an 8-hour class for beginners over three nights that costs $40, and Boating Skills and Seamanship, a 13-week program for new and experienced boaters for $60.
“The Coast Guard could not exist without the Auxiliary or (it would be) very difficult,” said Flotilla member Kevin Buckley. “They (no longer) have the manpower for inspections and safety classes.”
Boaters who take one of the classes receive a card and certificate and potentially save 10 percent on their boat insurance.
“If not for the Auxiliary, all these things wouldn’t be done,” said Flotilla Commander and retired Army Lt. Col. Guy Mandigo. “Unfortunately too many people don’t know we’re here.”
In addition to boating safety classes and vessel safety checks, Auxiliary members also conduct safety patrols on local waterways and assist the Coast Guard with homeland security duties. Created by an Act of Congress in 1939, the Auxiliary directly supports the Coast Guard in all missions, except military and law enforcement actions.
“I joined the Auxiliary for selfish reasons. I wanted to be a better boater,” said Mandigo, who had a 36-year career in the Army’s Special Forces. “After a year, I realized how important the Auxiliary was in the greater scheme of boater safety.”
But you don’t need a boat to join the Auxiliary. Any American citizen 17 years of age or older is eligible. There are no upper age limits or height and weight standards.
Flotilla 75 is always looking for new volunteers and currently meets at 7:30 p.m. the second Wednesday of the month at the Ruskin Senior Center, 901 Sixth St. SE. The unit is looking for a permanent facility to conduct classes and member training.
Courtesy vessel inspections are offered at E.G. Simmons Park, 2401 19th Ave. NW, Ruskin, the first and third Saturdays of the month and at Williams Park, 8749 U.S. 41 S., Riverview, the second and fourth Saturdays. Inspections take place from 10 a.m. to noon at the parks’ boat ramps.
Additional vessel inspections can be arranged by calling Bob Martellucci at (813) 938-5294.
For information on the boating safety classes or joining the Auxiliary, visit www.cgaux.org or call Mandigo at (813) 641-2488.
Elaine Speer is a freelance writer and can be emailed at [email protected]