With unofficial start of summer, Coast Guard Station New London helps keep boaters safe
New London ―
After a 20-minute boarding of a recreational vessel Monday morning near Noank, maritime enforcement specialist Efstathios A. Sklavenitis gave a hand signal to the 45-foot Coast Guard patrol boat to indicate he had wrapped up his inspection.
The patrol boat that had been drifting nearby pulled to retrieve Sklavenitis and Boatswain’s Mate Petty Officer Third Class (BM3) Jesse Medina.
Sklavenitis ― or Sklav, as the other crew members call him ― and Medina were the boarding officer and boarding team member for this particular stop. BM2 Matt Buccino, the coxswain this day, stayed in the pilot house of the patrol boat with Machinery Technician Petty Officer Third Class Ethan Ortner.
Ortner explained that Sklavenitis and Medina were checking for four main things: life jackets, a fire extinguisher, a sound-producing device such as a horn or whistle, and a Type IV throwable personal flotation device, meaning a square cushion.
Sklavenitis commented of the boater they stopped, who was on his way to Essex, “In my experience, he was spotless,” and he didn’t have a lot to teach the boater.
A few minutes later, they pulled up to a boater in a 20-foot center-console boat.
“Ooh, he’s got a dog! I like dogs,” Buccino said.
He joked, “I’m just going to do all boardings this summer on dog people. Nah, I can’t do that; that would be targeted.”
The four men, ranging from their early 20s to early 30s, were among the Coast Guardsmen working Memorial Day at Coast Guard Station New London. They were the ones on recreational boat safety patrol, doing what’s called “cold hits” by stopping some boats to check their safety equipment and educate boaters.
“I’m here to make sure you’re safe, so you can get back to your family at the end of the day and I don’t have to come get you,” Sklavenitis said. He loves when people say, “Yeah, I was boarded last year,” because they know how it’s going to go.
The patrols also involve checking the boat’s registration and doing paperwork.
Petty Officer Courtney Berry was the officer of the day on Monday, meaning she answers the phone and reports everything to station Commanding Officer Lt. Bradley Belisle, who reports to Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound Commander Capt. Eva Van Camp.
The area of responsibility for Coast Guard Station New London is about 370 square miles, extending from Watch Hill Point to Clinton. Operations at sea extend beyond Plum Island but not to Gardiners Island, and as far south as Duck Pond Point on Long Island.
Memorial Day to Labor Day is the busy season for the station, which means more search and rescue operations. But on routine patrols like the one Monday, Buccino said one of the most common issues is navigating and “knowing the rules of the road on the water. People think, ‘If I know how to drive a car I know how to drive a boat,’” but that’s not true.
He sighed as an approaching boat started turning the wrong way.
“Million-dollar boat, doesn’t even know how to drive it,” Buccino commented. “Must be nice, must be nice.”
Every day is different
Coast Guard Station New London has day workers who are in Monday through Friday, but since it operates 24/7, 365 days a year, others have a schedule of two days on, two days off, and every other weekend. They might be asleep at 3 a.m. but then an alarm goes off for an incident.
After the 7:30 a.m. boat check Monday to make sure nothing was missing and everything was working, Berry held a quick meeting that started with going over temperatures and wind speeds, and then went into a risk assessment for the day.
On other days, they have brought ashore people having medical emergencies and assisted the Navy with submarine transports. Berry and Buccino were among the first responders when a boat struck a breakwater in Stonington last August, killing two men.
Then there was the time last summer Berry responded to a call about a man unconscious on a boat adrift by Plum Island, and he was “ridiculously hung over” when the Coast Guard was able to wake him up. Asked if he knew where he was, the man said he had anchored in Guilford.
But the reality was he never threw the anchor over and had drifted to Plum Island.
BM2 Thomas Scott said he and his crew were in the right place at the right time when they were conducting a recreational safe boating patrol just north of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, by the Coast Guard Academy, mid-day on April 21. That’s when a crash of a home heating oil truck led to a large fire and fatality.
Scott said the Coast Guard established a safety zone and kept boats away, and they set up a preliminary oil boom before the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection arrived and put up a more serious perimeter.
BM1 Carlos Cabral said the station holds a debriefing session whenever personnel come back from a mission, especially if it involves people who have died.
“In the moment, especially as first responders, you do what you have to do, and then you come back and have to process what you, saw,” he said. But he said the Coast Guard is good about giving its people that kind of training.
For some, Connecticut is very different from other assignments.
Buccino, who grew up about five minutes from Coast Guard Station Manasquan Inlet in New Jersey, deployed twice to Key West, Fla. to help handle migrants seeking entry to the U.S. He said every day they were pulling anywhere from 20 to 300 migrants off small boats, while the translator might be sharing horror stories from Cuba.
“They think we’re the bad guys, but we’re saving them, if they’re out on that tiny boat,” Buccino said. He said for every boat they find, there are others that don’t make it, and “it’s hard to see it every single day.”
He talked about this as Sklavenitis and Medina finished the first cold hit Monday, and there would be four more after that. The first four had no issues, but the crew found on the fifth boarding ― a man and a woman with a dog on an 18-foot center-console ― that the fire extinguisher didn’t have a gauge or handle.
That meant the patrol boat had to escort them to shore ― in this case to Gales Ferry, and the pair was heading back anyway. The crew then returned to Coast Guard Station New London, for whatever else the day had in store.
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