Right of passage

Posted on 03 August 2011

It was a sunny but chilly October afternoon when Coast Guard Auxiliarist Dale Kramer was presented with his coxswain certification and gold pin, the adornments that mark the right of passage when a man has passed all the tests, met all the requirements and has attained the rank of coxswain, the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s equal to captain.

This is something that takes a couple of years to achieve, and he accomplished all of this.

Dale worked very hard, took all the tests and performed all the operations that were given to him. Now, he can take a deep breath because he had achieved his goal.

Always having helped in his community, Dale had been searching for a way to help in a manner that suited him. While in the Army, his job was as a 5-ton wrecker operator and mechanic. Driving this emergency vehicle put him in the position of helping both Army and civilians who had come into harms way on the roads of Germany, by either an accident or a break down.

While living up north on the shores of Lake Erie, Dale was a volunteer fire and rescue man working with the Coast Guard and law enforcement there.

Now, living in southwest Georgia, on the shores of Lake Seminole, he wanted to help again.

Being an avid boater, the Coast Guard Auxiliary was the perfect answer, because their emphasis is on safety on the water. This was especially important to Dale because he had seen many dangerous situations unfold out on the lake and its rivers. Then, in recent years, there have been more and more accidents, even fatalities with some involving children. He felt there was a need for safety to be urged on the water.

Dale’s interest in the Coast Guard Auxiliary began by taking a boating safety course that was being taught by the auxiliary in Bainbridge. He took the class and scored high marks. The auxiliary members urged him to come to a meeting. He did this and liked what he heard. Since safety on the water is the main theme of the auxiliary, he would be making a contribution, helping to keep Lake Seminole safe. He signed up.

Becoming certified

First step after joining was to go through all of the training and testing that is necessary to become certified in Homeland Security. Next is to become a certified crewman.

Dale worked hard to learn the necessary skills toward this certification. A crewman helps the coxswain by taking care of the mooring lines and fenders when docking and getting underway. He also has to have an understanding of all of the safety and survival equipment on board. He needs to stand watch and be ever aware of the directions from the coxswain, especially during a search and rescue mission or a man overboard situation. A crewman needs to know how to use the radio and the navigation rules. In other words, he is the coxswain’s right-hand man.

Early in April of 2010, Dale earned the rank of crew. With this accomplished, he set his sights on the next goal, to become a coxswain. Dale always loved boating and being a coxswain was a natural progression. However, having this rank means that you have to undergo extensive training on the water and in the classroom. The subjects are taken right along side the young men and women who are in the regular Coast Guard. They train with you and you are expected to be able to perform as they do.

There are several lengthy written tests to be taken. At every opportunity, Dale studied his manuals. His navigation rule book was his constant companion. Search and rescue procedures were top most in his mind.

Being boat savvy

However, there is more than classroom training.

There is also boat savvy. Of course, this meant a lot more training on the water and these were “no room for error” type drills. These intense maneuvers teach the coxswain more ways to be able to help those who are in need. It also makes the reactions come like a second nature, for the coxswain is in charge of search and rescue operations and all of the responsibilities that go along with the job. The proper reactions can mean success or failure in your mission.

Dale participated in maneuvers that taught different types of towing for a disabled boat and how to make the right choice of which one to use.

The learning of the search patterns that are used when a boat is missing helped round out his on-water learning experience. Still more was needed to gain him his desired rank.

The next maneuver was to learn the proper way to retrieve a person who has fallen overboard. This requires split-second decisions as to where to position the boat and what type of ropes, life rings and other safety procedures are needed to bring the person safely aboard. This is especially tricky in rough water.

A coxswain also receives intense first aid training. He must deal with emergencies, from drowning to heart attacks to hypothermia and heat stroke, as well as someone cutting their hand on a fish hook.

Navigational aides, GPS and mechanical skills, such as knowing all about your boat engine, are all trained and tested.

Dale participated in all of this until it became a second nature to him.

Then the big day came.

A Coast Guard qualified examiner gave Dale his test. While he was piloting the boat toward the area where the maneuvers would take place, the QE asked him questions and Dale answered them correctly.

Several maneuvers were executed, but the one that was the most difficult is the one in which the boat in need of rescue is attached to the Coast Guard vessel at the hip. It is then maneuvered down a narrow channel where a difficult turn-around is executed. Then the disabled vessel is docked. A very tricky maneuver.

Dale’s QE asked him if he was ready to do this exercise. Dale nodded yes. He knew it was all or nothing. However, he was very confident that he could execute this maneuver. He had driven a boat since he was 10 years old and went out with his father on Lake Erie to fish.

As a marine mechanic, he had piloted all types and sizes of boats from a 10-foot jon boat to a 50-foot Scarab, catamarans to pontoon boats and runabouts.

As Dale’s crewman, and under his instructions, I attached the two boats together for the tow. He turned both boats toward the narrow channel. Then, when inside, he turned and maneuvered both boats toward the dock with the boat being helped turned to be on the side of the dock. Then, without faltering, he gently nudged the boat requiring help up to the dock site. He stopped the boat about an inch or two from the dock side. Then, the occupants tied up to the pier. Never did he hit the side of the pier with the disabled boat or lose control at anytime.

In 100-degree heat, so common in a southwest Georgia July, Dale earned his coxswain status. After three years of study, tests and practice maneuvers, in this trial by fire, he proved how well he could maneuver a boat. He had earned his rank.

Also, a part of becoming a coxswain is the encouragement from the fellow coxswains in your flotilla.

Commander Ed Zapata always had extra time to help Dale. Garland Pendergraph was helpful when the going got rough with the testing, and Bill Kitchens wanted Dale to make his dream come true so much that he came to Dale’s house all the way from Thomasville several times to give help and encouragement.

“When the going got rough, they were always ready to help and keep me going,” tells Dale.

Becoming a coxswain opened up many avenues that Dale can explore and further his training. The one which Dale chose was to become a vessel examiner.

In this capacity, Dale is able to check boats for potential problems that could result in an accident or hinder survival. He likes doing this because he can work very closely with the boat owners. He enjoys talking safety with them.

When Dale gives you this examination, he has a safety list to go by. All of the important items that are checked play a part in keeping the boater safe on the water.

Many boaters will call or come by the house to have their boats checked. They tell Dale that they feel they are safer and they are. Also, he tells owners to check with their insurance company because some offer a discount if you have a Coast Guard vessel exam.

Dale’s dream of helping boaters on our lake and rivers has come true. He has also received a ribbon and a medal for performing the rescue of a disabled boat with a medical emergency on board.

There is no end to training in the Coast Guard. It is updated every year because you need to have a specific amount of hours in training to keep qualified. It is continuous and necessary to keep you on your toes.

If you feel that the Coast Guard Auxiliary could be something you want to learn more about, contact Dale at (229) 861-3248. He will be glad to answer your questions.

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