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When Accidents Happen on the Water, the Coast Guard Is There

Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Sitting in the shadow of the Oak Island Lighthouse, the U.S. Coast Guard Station keeps a watchful eye.

Sporting a staff of more than 40 officers, Coast Guard Station Oak Island, positioned between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, is as much a reassuring beacon for those on the water as the flashing light emitting from the tower 150 feet above it.

And while a boater never wants to have to summon the Coast Guard for help, Petty Officer Michael Pate said they are a valuable resource to have when putting one's life in the hands of the unpredictable sea.

"Being in this profession, it teaches you that you have to respect the ocean, whoever you are," Pate said.

Like their brothers in blue on land, the Station Oak Island officers are the federal law enforcers of the ocean, patrolling the coastline from New Inlet to Little River at the South Carolina border and 50 miles offshore.

The station is one of two USCG posts in Southeastern North Carolina, the other being Station Wrightsville Beach.

But the Caswell Beach property has its own decorated history, stretching back to before the lighthouse was completed in 1958. (The main building was destroyed in a fire in 2002.) Until the 1930s, the property was the sole home of a U.S. Lifesaving Station, which, along with the Revenue Cutter Service, was merged into the Coast Guard on Jan. 28, 1915.

Working four-year terms, officers stationed in Oak Island come from up and down the East Coast.

Georgia native Pate is an avid saltwater fisherman who had the drive to find a place in law enforcement. Virginia-born Petty Officer Tom Leggett grew up near a USCG training station and joined the Coast Guard in the days after 9/11 having spent years as a commercial fisherman. New York-bred Petty Officer Todd Murray spent his childhood on the water and dovetailed it into a career.

For many in the Coast Guard, the water is a second home.

Anything Can Happen

During the height of summer, and even in the off season, the USCG gets calls for everything from dive accidents and boat collisions to health scares and boat fires.

At Station Wrightsville Beach, Petty Officer Eric Tucker said about 45 calls a year are "star calls," a term used for severe rescues.

"Pretty much anything that can happen on a boat does happen and has happened," Leggett said.

At Station Oak Island's disposal are two 47-foot vessels that can handle pretty much anything the ocean can throw at them, and two 29-foot boats, which are faster-moving and cut best through calmer waters.

Leggett said distress calls often come from people who are poorly prepared, be it from lack of supplies or unattended boat maintenance.

"You would be surprised how many people don't have enough life jackets and fire extinguishers and go out in the ocean," Leggett said. "One of the first things that always gets my attention are children on board without life jackets."

Unlike other North Carolina posts, Station Oak Island is designated a "heavy weather unit" for its capabilities in handling rough sea conditions.

"When other stations are kind of shut down because of their limitations, that is when we step in and respond," Pate said.

Station Wrightsville Beach, which covers the area from Surf City to Snow's Cut Bridge, is a small-boat station, limited in its abilities for ocean rescues. But Tucker said the station rarely encounters weather that requires them to hand off a rescue.

"We can respond to anything in 10 foot seas or 30 knot winds," Tucker said. "But we go out as far as we can. We also have aviation assets (helicopters) that can be brought in."

Tucker said the two stations coordinate on certain rescues, depending on who can respond the quickest.

Downtime

When call volumes are low at Oak Island and Wrightsville Beach, the officers perform patrols on the water, conduct recreational boating safety and fishing law enforcement and handle routine maintenance on boats and equipment. On occasion, they also security missions that can include escorting vessels.

"That's one of the awesome things about this job," Pate said. "You come to work every day and you don't what is going to happen."

Pate said much of the law enforcement conducted by the Coast Guard is similar to their counterparts on dry land, with a few notable exceptions. While police need probable cause to stop a vehicle, the Coast Guard does not need such cause to board a vessel if it suspects violations or wants to check registration and adherence to federal regulations.

Leggett said this "cold hit" is when some people might see the Coast Guard as an aggravation or beach day buzz kill.

But, members of both stations agree, the Coast Guard patrols the waters to make sure everyone makes it home safe.

On the water, Pate said, anything can happen to anyone.

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