New Jersey Coast Guard ready for colder air, water temps


Story and Photos by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham

When a call for help is relayed to a Coast Guard station watchstander, the duty crew must have a response boat launched in less than 30 minutes. Before a Coast Guard boat leaves the pier, the crew must learn where they need to go, gear-up, warm the boat’s engine and verbally assess the risk of their mission.

Coast Guard responders are efficient in ensuring a quick response to a call for help, a task that demands additional training and preparation as Coast Guard crewmembers down the Jersey Shore anticipate winter water rescues.

“The environment we work in is dynamic year-round and as winter approaches, the complexity of working on the water greatly increases,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Fonseca, a boat operator at Coast Guard Station Atlantic City. “Although the number of search and rescue cases we respond to decreases during the winter, the time sensitivity significantly increases due to reduced survivability in colder temperatures.”

Coast Guard members prepare for winter weather long before air and water temperatures drop.

Fonseca said Coast Guard crews take training very seriously because before a response boat crew can save others, they must know how to protect themselves.

“Our primary job leading up to and during winter is to train,” said Fonseca. “There is no one thing a crewmember needs to be ready for winter on the water, but respect, self limitations and situational awareness are critical characteristics for Coast Guard boat crewmembers to embody.”

Farther up the shore, Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Henry, a boat operator at Coast Guard Station Manasquan Inlet, said first aid training is a critical part of their cold weather preparation.

“All our boat crewmembers receive first aid training,” said Henry. “As winter approaches, we highly stress the importance of our crew knowing how to respond to a hypothermic person, or a person who is unresponsive due to hypothermia.”

In addition to proficiency in first aid, Coast Guard boat crews are trained in maintaining and changing into cold-weather gear.

“When the water and air temperatures fall below 50 degrees we wear dry suits,” said Henry. “Before the dry suits are operational, we must test the suits by wearing them in the water for at least 15 minutes. During this time, we are checking to ensure there is nowhere on the dry suit water can leak in and expose our bodies to the cold water.”

Henry said even with dry suits on, being on the water in winter is exhausting.

“The dry suits keep us protected, but we still get cold,” said Henry. “The wind is harsh and wearing so much gear while driving or working on a boat is exhausting. As a boat driver, I closely watch my crew.”

Henry said when a crew is underway in cold weather the boat crewmembers rotate responsibilities, especially during a long search and rescue case.

“When a crewmember is fatigued, their alertness goes down and this can affect the mission,” said Henry. “We will not leave one crewmember exposed on lookout for the whole mission — crewmembers take turns. We want to perform at the highest level possible, no matter what the weather conditions are.”

Henry said preparation is important for all mariners during the winter. Commercial fishing boat crews go on the water year-round, but an unseasonably warm day may persuade a recreational boater to test their luck on the cold water.

“We highly recommended anyone who goes out on the water during winter to wear some kind of anti-exposure suit,” said Henry. “If you end up in the water, having that layer of protection can save your life. Every second matters when a person is in cold water. The high price of cold weather gear is justified if it results in saving your life.”

As part of their training, Coast Guard members constantly think about risk management. Henry said risk management is something all boaters need to consider.

Risk management means knowing your boat’s limitations and knowing your personal and physical limitations, said Henry.

Henry said there are many additional things boaters can do to increase their chance of survival during an emergency on the water.

“Have the gear to keep you warm and prepare for worst case scenarios,” said Henry. “Make sure someone knows when you plan to come back to shore, and have a reliable means of communication. Always check the marine forecast before you head out. Educating yourself can save your life.”

Henry said it’s important to remember even the most prepared, experienced mariner can face obstacles on the water, and when they do, Coast Guard station crews will be ready to respond.

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