A legacy of volunteer lifesaving

Coast Guard Auxiliarist Marlies Urban performs a man-overboard drill aboard a U.S Coast Guard Auxiliary Facility. Photo by Coast Guard Auxiliary PA1 Anderson Braswell

Coast Guard Auxiliarist Marlies Urban performs a man-overboard drill aboard a U.S Coast Guard Auxiliary Facility.
Photo by Coast Guard Auxiliary PA1 Anderson Braswell

Story by AUX Anderson Braswell,
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

Sept. 17, 1962 – At 1 a.m. on a stormy night, a sharp crackle came over the radio, “Mayday. Mayday. This is VA3-001…” The world’s first hovercraft had broken free from its moorings and was foundering with three men aboard and more than 250 gallons of highly-flammable aircraft fuel. A small crew of volunteers quickly launched a rescue boat from a nearby ramp to answer the call, braving rough seas to rescue all three victims and lash the hovercraft to a nearby seawall, which ultimately earned them a silver medal for bravery. Although this sounds like the dream for a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliarist, this call was answered more than 3,700 miles away by another volunteer lifesaving service – the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

The RNLI, or “Lifeboats,” was founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary. Appealing to the Royal Navy after witnessing numerous shipwrecks and loss of life near the Isle of Man, Scotland, Sir Hillary sought “eminent characters” in an attempt to form a national rescue organization.   This all-volunteer service established a network of lifesaving stations along the British coast, including sail- and oar-powered vessels volunteered for service by local citizens. Equipment, such as cork lifejackets, was purchased and provided by the national institution.

Twenty four years later in 1848, congress established the U.S. Lifesaving Service. Taking their queue from the RNLI, congress appropriated $10,000 for establishing lifesaving stations on U.S. shores complete with equipment. These lifesaving stations were also manned by all-volunteer crews consisting of local citizens. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson formally merged the U.S. Lifesaving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service to create the modern U.S. Coast Guard. On June 23, 1939, congress spun off the volunteer lifesaving service as the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and later renamed U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary on Feb. 19, 1941.

After the re-establishment of the volunteer service in 1939, the Auxiliary and RNLI once again walked similar paths in the years that followed. From May 27 to June 4, 1940, 19 RNLI vessels manned by all-volunteer crews made around-the-clock trips across the English Channel to evacuate the allied forces pinned to the beachhead in Dunkirk, France. Similarly, the volunteers of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary spent most of 1942 patrolling the eastern seaboard for sightings of German U-Boats. Known as Operation Drumbeat, the Kreigsmarine spent the early part of 1942 wreaking havoc on allied shipping, often within eyesight of the U.S. mainland. Later memorialized as “The Corsair Fleet,” Auxiliarists provided the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy with a screen of more than 170 small, maneuverable boats to keep watch along the coastline.

Today, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary operates more than 4,900 facilities with more than 32,000 volunteers and saves about 300 lives each year.   Auxiliarists teach boater safety courses to an estimated 135,000 citizens a year and perform safety inspections on more than 100,000 boats. The efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the RNLI  have been echoed by volunteers in Ireland, France, Norway, The Netherlands and Iceland, among others.

Since man first took to the sea, tradition has held he would provide assistance to fellow mariners in distress. For almost 200 years, thousands of men and women have volunteered their time and treasure, and at times risked their lives, to extend the helping hand to those in need. The seas are fickle and weather often changes with a moment’s notice, but one thing remains certain – the volunteer lifesavers remain always ready.