May 16, 2004 – Under the first sunny skies in a week, a thousand Virgin Islanders gathered along Kings Wharf on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront to kick off National Safe Boating Week and mark Armed Forces Day in the territory.
Offering demonstrations and information about their roles in the community were U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary representatives; Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps drill teams from Charlotte Amalie High School and St. Croix's Central High School; members of the Civil Air Patrol, American Red Cross, National Guard, National Park Service and the Boy Scouts; and marine biologists from the University of the Virgin Islands.
The day's festivities included food, music, a raffle to benefit the auxiliary's education efforts in the territory, and simulated rescues and interdictions by Coast Guard, auxiliary and Police Department personnel — on the water and in the air with the aid of an HH-65 helicopter from the Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen in Puerto Rico.
National Safe Boating Week is an annual observance aimed at improving safety on the water through education. It's promoted nationally by the National Safe Boating Council and in the territory by the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
The local auxiliary offers classes in seamanship, performs safety inspections of vessels and rescues boaters in trouble, services which it funds in large measure through its annual raffle — held as part of Saturday's event.
According to the auxiliary's public affairs officer, Robert Armstrong, who coordinated the festivities, Saturday's gathering took about four months of planning and was the largest such observance ever held in the territory. "Four years ago, we had 40 people," he said. "Last year we had 700. We have food this year for 1,000, and we're not taking home leftovers."
Demonstrations included several simulated "good guy/bad guy" boat chases, a man-overboard drill and two appearances by the HH-65 copter. In the first, a swimmer was deployed to rescue a man in the water. In the second, the chopper was used in a coordinated effort to intercept a speed boat attempting to elude authorities, the helicopter cutting off the target's route of escape and forcing it back toward the St. Thomas inner harbor, where it could be boarded by personnel from two vessels operated by Coast Guard Auxiliary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Planning and Natural Resources Department's waterborne police unit.
Tours were offered of police, National Park Service, and Coast Guard vessels, including the cutter USCGC Sapelo, based in Old San Juan.
Also on hand was a seagoing gem, the harbor tug Superior, operated by Caribbean Tugs (formerly Immels Marine). Built in 1915 in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., the vessel served most of its career as a tug and icebreaker on the Great Lakes before being purchased and taken to Puerto Rico in the 1990s. It can generate 10 tons of bollard pressure for towing and can pump 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of water per minute on the strength of its diesel locomotive engine.
Caribbean Tugs acquired the Superior last year in part to have a vessel "on call" to provide firefighting service to the harbor, as there is no other provision for this service. In 1979, the ocean liner Angelina Lauro burned and sank at the West Indian Co. dock. St. Thomas currently has no government firefighting capability afloat.
Despite the difficulties of the transfer from fresh to saltwater, which has taken its toll in rust on the Superior, owner and pilot Gunar Luhta said he expects to get another 10 years of service from the tug. By that time, he hopes there will be money for a new fireboat.
UVI marine science staff and students set up a "touch pool" full of local marine life. "All the activities being celebrated today impact the natural history of marine life — anchoring and fishing being perfect examples," fish biologist Donna Nemeth said. "We need to continue to raise awareness of those above the water so they can have safe interactions with the ecosystems below the water."
Such awareness is gaining in the territory, Nemeth feels, as evidenced by the number of committed groups with environmental concerns and the success of outreach efforts with children. "The best thing to do is just put it out there for them to see," she said of the touch pool, surrounded by young children and not a few excited-looking parents.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, a former coordinator of Safe Boating Week locally when he was working with DPNR, stressed the importance of the ocean to life in the Virgin Islands. "It's good for us to understand our water resources," he said. "Virtually every dollar that comes to the territory is coming to us because of the waters surrounding us. We need more locals to be involved in water-related industries and activities."
WVWI Radio personality Sam Topp expressed gratitude to the auxiliary, of which he is a long-time supporter. "The least we can do is say thanks and support these people, who do so much through their education efforts and by offering their volunteer services to the community," he said, adding, "It's cool. Everyone can get involved. I love it."
Volunteer service also was showcased by youth groups at the event, who included JROTC and Civil Air Patrol members from the island's high schools. "We're here trying to make things run smoothly, help out with the barbecue and provide a little security," Jerome Hodge, a four-year CAP member and Sts. Peter & Paul High School sophomore, said. "Many people join to gain experience toward military service, but I just wanted to do something to help the community."
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