When a boatcrew from Coast Guard Station Hatteras Inlet got underway Monday, it wasn't for search and rescue, drug interdiction, marine safety, or defense readiness - missions typically associated with the Coast Guard.
Yet, the day's unique mission was no less important — to deliver much needed medicine and pharmaceutical supplies to the island of Ocracoke.
Located on the southern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks, Ocracoke Island is only easily accessible by water; however, recent shoaling and the encroachment of sandbars have closed off ferry access from the island's nearest neighbor, Hatteras Island.
"The shoaling and channels here shift a lot, but this has been excessive shoaling, which has shut the ferries down," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Preiser, a boatswain's mate from Station Hatteras Inlet and the coxswain during the medical run. "At low tide I was reading three feet of water in the shallowest spot of the channel, and the ferries need at least four feet to run."
The trip to the Ocracoke Island Ferry Terminal took 15 minutes, and when they arrived, they were greeted by Cheryl Ballance, the administrative director of Ocracoke Health Center.
"Since the ferries can't run, we had to come up with an alternative," said Ballance. "It was an extreme hardship for people who couldn't get their medication refilled, like their blood pressure medicine or diabetes medicine."
Ballance received the medication and passed Preiser an identical container containing lab specimens and blood work destined for a medical diagnostic lab.
"It would be really difficult if we couldn't get our lab specimens off [the island], because the lab specimens help us write new prescriptions and make diagnoses," said Ballance. "The Coast Guard has always come through!"
The medical delivery endeavor was proposed by Steve Evans, owner and head pharmacist at Beach Pharmacy on Hatteras, who reached out to the officer-in-charge of Station Hatteras Inlet for help. After making a few phone calls, the plan was approved and the daily delivery trips commenced. The crew of the station took on the extra duty with a willingness and energy that speaks volumes to the island communities.
"It's a great thing," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Antonio Garcia, a boatswain's mate at Station Hatteras Inlet who has completed the medical run three times. "It has always been a pleasure of mine to do something for the community, to be a part of it. I volunteer a lot on the side. I've always just tried to get to know as many people as I can while helping out my neighbors whenever possible. It is just how I look at it, and now I get paid to do it."
The southern ferry terminals to the North Carolina mainland remain open; however, using the Coast Guard's shallow-draft small boats significantly reduces delivery times and enables the Coast Guard to monitor the depth of the channel during each transit.