NEW ORLEANS - Down in the Louisiana Bayou lies one of the biggest swamps in the country. It’s full of alligators the size of a small automobile and mosquitoes as large as a muffaletta.
Unknown to most, the Coast Guard patrols what are known as brown waters, protecting the waterways and educating the public to be safe out on the water.
When a Big Easy mariner sees a Coast Guard response boat pass by, they approach the crew and give them the finger ... The index finger that is, giving Coast Guard Station New Orleans props on being No. 1 in having the most boardings in the Coast Guard.
Station New Orleans completed the most boardings in the Coast Guard during 2012 with 1,881 boardings. The boardings are performed with the intention of assuring the safety of the boating public. The boardings educate the boaters and help remind them to keep these things on board and keep their boat in check.
"The Coast Guard does boardings to determine that all vessels are operating safely," said Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth Cholak, a boatswains mate at Station New Orleans. "We want to ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations."
During the past three years, the station has averaged about 100 search-and-rescue cases a year. In 2009 and previous years, the station had 300 to 400 search-and-rescue cases a year. Station New Orleans presence on the waterways has shown to promote safe boating to a wide area.
"We do small vessel security boardings on the Mississippi River and the Barataria waterway and throughout the region. We have a lot of recreational boaters out there, our area of responsibility is 7,500 square miles," said Cholak. "That's a lot of boat traffic out there that we board. That's why we have so many boardings; it's because there are so many boats out there, we try to get underway as much as possible to make sure we are fulfilling our duties."
The area of responsibility, which is roughly the size of New Jersey, includes Lake Borgne, Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas.
A few times a year the station comes together and organizes a time to do boardings in mass numbers to make sure the public is safe out on the water.
During Operation Safewater, held on Memorial Day weekend, the station went underway to board recreational boats. "Memorial Day is one of the first days of the year people take their boats out on the water. Just by numbers alone of how many boats are out here and being early in the year, it’s very likely for something to be wrong and maybe they haven't tested their boat," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey Argyle, a boatswain’s mate at Station New Orleans.
Before the crew gets underway they take the proper precautions using the Green Amber Red assessment and outfit themselves with the proper safety equipment for law enforcement.
The crew goes out with body armor, flashlights, pepper spray, handcuffs, expandable batons and a Sig-Arms P229 .40-caliber hand gun. The equipment is used as means to enforce federal laws and ensure the safety of the crew.
Using the GAR assessment, they examine the crew selection, crew fitness, environment, weather and event complexity.
Unique to this region of the Coast Guard, the station often has to trailer their boats to reach those areas due to the narrow and spread-out waterways.
Upon getting underway, the response boat crews ask boaters to pull over to the side of their boat in a safe open location to board them and perform safety checks.
When the Coast Guard boards a recreational vessel, there are many safety checks done to assure the safety of its passengers.
"Some of the things we look for is the amount of life jackets on board, there needs to be the same number of life jackets as there are people on board. We also look at fire extinguishers making sure they are operating properly." said Cholak. "We also look to see if the boat has any sound-producing devices. We determine if they have a Type-IV throwable life cushion or life ring. It depends on the size of your vessel. It has to be over 16 feet for us to enforce that."
The station also looks at the boater’s registration information, making sure that the people driving it are the owners and checking that all children under the age of 16 are wearing their life jackets. Children under the age of 16 are required to wear a life jacket at all times by state law.
"Some of the most common violations are not having a working fire extinguisher or a throwable life saving device which will usually be a life ring or square seat cushion. People usually have a fire extinguisher on board and then forget about it; two or three years later and it expires. They just know they have a fire extinguisher but don't look at it every time," said Argyle.
At the end of a boarding the boater is given a “golden ticket,” which lets other law enforcement agencies know they were recently inspected. The station is not alone when keeping watch of the waterways; together they work and learn from local agencies.
"We have 17 parishes in our area of responsibility, and we look to each parish to share knowledge,” said Cholak. "The parishes give us area of responsibility knowledge because we can't go everywhere, and they help us interdict other vessels and teach us the parish’s way of enforcing their law."
Though the station is No. 1 in the Coast Guard, the only number the crew members count are the lives saved from their boardings.