Station Emerald Isle: Treasured gem of the Crystal Coast

Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki

Stepping out the back door of Coast Guard Station Emerald Isle is like stepping into a postcard, no matter the time of day.

In the mornings, the sky unfurls in an endless breadth of pale blue silk. Three boats sway gently, ropes creaking, their orange rub rails mirrored almost perfectly in the smooth water below.

In the afternoons, the sun blazes brightly, sending bits of golden light winking across the waves. The pier comes alive with the thud of boots, the cheerful shouts of people in blue uniforms, the metallic crunch of ratchets tightening bolts and the hiss of brushes scrubbing non-skid.

Perhaps the sunsets at Emerald Isle offer the most picturesque displays of all, with a silhouetted American flag  dipping gracefully down the flagpole against a backdrop of blushing pinks and fiery reds.

Each time I stepped through the station’s back door and took in the sprawling lawn, the tidy pier, the swaying boats, I had to remind myself that this is more than a beautiful slice of paradise – it’s a place where Coast Guardsmen work tirelessly and make sacrifices in order to rescue people in dangerous, often life-threatening situations.

Upon taking my first boat ride with the Emerald Isle crew, I quickly realized that it’s not only people that the unit serves, but local wildlife, too.

The engines of the 24-foot Special Purpose Craft-Shallow Water boat roared upon ignition, then purred contentedly as we pulled away from the pier. We glided past Dudley Island as we headed north through the main channel, passing droves of little shorebirds bobbing about on the sand. Stately brown pelicans stood in uniform ranks, stretching their wings and turning their beaks in our direction.

As we wove our way into Hawkins Bay, two fins suddenly arced through the water near the stern, startlingly close to our boat. I scrambled excitedly for my camera, but the Emerald Isle crew members just smiled calmly.

These beautiful creatures are their neighbors; Atlantic bottlenose dolphins zig-zag across these waters as often as the Coast Guard boat crews, conducting their own mysterious patrols and missions.

When the boat slowed, the dolphins approached and lapped us in unison, swatting the water with their tails. At one point, they streaked close enough to nudge the bow, though they swerved at the last moment. Even the calm crew perked up at this; apparently, the dolphins don’t usually swim close enough for the Coasties to reach out and touch.

We made our way toward the Cameron Langston bridge, the crew chattering about other encounters with local marine life, most notably sea turtles. Because Emerald Isle is a designated sea turtle sanctuary, Coast Guardsmen at the station sometimes get the chance to release rehabilitated sea turtles back into the wild.

From their smiles and animated voices, it immediately became clear to me that working with turtles is one of the things the Emerald Isle Coasties enjoy the most.

Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler McGuinness

Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler McGuinness

Reminiscent chatter about sea turtles tapered off, and after a thoughtful pause the coxswain named their new mission: conduct a safety boarding on the boat up ahead.

The Emerald Isle crew conducts an average of 500 boardings each year, and I could see it in the way the crew worked together, wordlessly communicating with little nods and gestures.

One person deftly tied fenders to the starboard side of the boat while another retrieved the bulky plastic boarding kit, then radioed the station to update them on the plan. By the time the white smudge in the distance became a clearly defined boat, the crew was fully in business mode.

From initial greeting to departing handshake, the entire boarding only took about 15 minutes.

The boarding officer inspected all the boaters’ safety equipment, checking labels on life jackets and gauges on fire extinguishers, all the while striking up friendly conversation with the couple aboard the boat. The boarding team member’s pen flew over a pad of carbon paper as he completed the proper paperwork, a task he had clearly performed countless times before.

As we peeled away from the little white boat and set the course for home, it occurred to me that safety boardings are one of the most direct avenues through which Station Emerald Isle personnel reach local boaters.

Every time a crew member steps onto a local mariner’s boat and extends their hand, they also extend a wealth of information that could very well one day save that mariner’s life.

Beyond imparting those messages to citizens, the Emerald Isle crew is ready to protect and defend local civilians and themselves, should the need arise. During the training sessions and discussions I witnessed during my brief visit with the station, I realized that law enforcement is a mission the unit takes very seriously.

After such a long day on the water, I half-expected the crew to be bleary-eyed and sluggish after waking up early for boat checks the next morning. But they trotted up and down the pier, hopped sprightly from boat to boat and chattered eagerly about something unexpected – soccer.

Physical fitness is an integral part of Coast Guard life; most units work out together, not only for fun, but because their jobs require them to maintain high levels of strength and endurance.

Some Coast Guard units gravitate toward one activity, a sport to which the entire crew becomes fanatically devoted. There are basketball stations, hockey cutters, running sectors and volleyball districts.

As for Coast Guard Station Emerald Isle, the only sport in existence is soccer.

The entire crew plays soccer together three times a week, sometimes more. Only a few of the Emerald Isle Coasties have any prior experience playing the sport, but that doesn’t stop the entire group from galloping up and down the lawn, head-butting the ball and sprinting wildly to chase down wayward kicks.

Laughter rang out across the station’s grounds, and even though half the crew was now off-duty and free to go home, they lingered for “just one more game,” and then another.

As I watched the group of Coast Guardsmen scramble from end of the makeshift field to the other, bits of soggy grass and mud flying in their wake, I realized that I wasn’t just watching a Coast Guard unit exercise together – I was watching a family spend time together.

As Station Emerald Isle became a postcard-sized image in my rearview mirror, I thought about what makes this unit special.

The lines between the station and the surrounding waterways, beaches and towns are blurry, and it is difficult to imagine the breezy little community without Station Emerald Isle, and vice versa.

With only 20 people assigned to Station Emerald Isle, the Coast Guard team is small but proficient, a tight-knit and talented family capable of upholding the trust of their local community.

The station is more than a fixture there. It is a symbol of safety and strength, a treasured gem on the Crystal Coast.