By Lara C. Chapman

Every Saturday morning, Patrick Wheeler, member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary of Venice, performs what he calls his “patriotic duty” at the Marina Boat Ramp Park located on Venice Avenue. According to Patrick, his mission is clear: help boaters ensure their crafts comply with federal boating regulations—ultimately making the waterways of Venice a safer place.

The 79-year-old native of England decided 10 years ago that his project in life was to educate boat owners about vessel safety on the waterways. “I feel it’s my duty to perform a vessel safety check (VSC) for both new and experienced boaters because I want them and their boats safe,” says Patrick. “And, in turn, I get the satisfaction of helping people.”

But the challenge, Patrick reveals, is that many boaters refuse a vessel examination. As a volunteer, he can’t make boaters participate in a VSC or enforce boating safety rules; however, he can (and does) award decals to those in compliance with federal and state requirements. And tempting as it may seem, Patrick does not label boaters dangerous or incompetent for rejecting safety checks. Instead, he humbly chalks it up to bad timing. “It seems as though boaters are always in a hurry at the launch ramps,” he says. “But I remain courteous and professional as I explain the many benefits of having proper safety equipment on board. And while some boaters still say no to a VSC, others are grateful for the free service I provide.”

Established in Congress in 1939, the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary has 30,000 members provide services such as vessel safety checks, harbor patrols, safe boating courses, search and rescue, and marine environmental protection. The voluntary servicemen and women, known simply as “auxiliarists,” volunteer more than two million hours to help keep the waters safe for boat operators and their families. And as a result of 9/11, auxiliarists now work with Homeland Security to help prepare for and respond to a terrorist attack on our national waterways. But just as important, members of the Auxiliary, including Patrick, have helped save countless lives through vessel safety checks and education.

One recent Saturday morning I ventured out to the Marina Boat Ramp Park to catch a glimpse of Patrick in action. Wearing a navy blue operational dress uniform and armed with a clipboard and pen, Patrick stood at attention as two unsuspecting boaters scurried to the launch ramp and lowered their pontoon boat onto the Intracoastal Waterway. “Are you gentlemen in need of an updated vessel safety check decal?” He politely asked with a British accent.

At first, the duo hustled about their duties and declined Patrick’s request; it was obvious they were in quite a hurry. But after some gentle prodding by Patrick and a few irksome sighs from the boat operators, an agreement was made and the inspection began.

One by one, Patrick called out each item on the safety checklist as both men fumbled through various compartments in search of the requested object. Was the boat’s registration number permanently affixed to each side of the forward half of the boat? Yes. Did the boat have both registration papers and documentation numbers? Yes, and yes. How about personalflotation devices and working navigation lights? Affirmative.

“How about your flares?” Patrick asked, going down the checklist. “Have we got those?”

I watched while the boaters climbed over seats and searched frantically for the items. As the minutes continued to pass, it was clear that flares—or any other type of visual distress signals—were not on board.

“Okay,” said Patrick, not missing a beat, “what about your fire extinguisher?” A look of relief washed over the boaters faces as they nodded and produced a small fire protection device. Patrick grabbed it and took a long, thoughtful look at the gauge. “This extinguisher is no good,” he said. “You’ll have to get a new one.”

At that point, the boaters failed to meet federal and state regulations. But all was not lost, according to Patrick. If the boaters came back within 24 hours with flares and a working fire extinguisher, the highly-coveted VSC decal would be theirs. In the meantime, they were free (although not recommended) to roam the world–renowned waterways of Venice.

“A VSC is not a law enforcement action,” Patrick said to me. “No official report of boaters in noncompliance is made to any law enforcement authority. But make no mistake, having a decal attests to the fact that the boat is in line with federal and state requirements.”

As an Auxiliary member, Patrick can’t stop boaters from operating a vessel in violation—but the United States Coast Guard can. “Another important part of my job is to help prevent boaters from receiving citations from the Coast Guard,” he said. “Not only do I want them safe on the waterways, I aim to save them money!”

To be sure, Patrick’s patriotic duty is saving lives—and saving pocketbooks—on the lakes, rivers and coastlines around the Gulf Coast of Florida.

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