OCEAN CITY — Ocean City--A block off the Boardwalk, at the corner of Philadelphia and Division streets, you can check the weather at a glance.
If there's a storm expected, the Coast Guard will be flying a flag to indicate a storm, and its severity. One red pennant is a small-craft advisory; two is a gale. One red flag with a black square in it is a storm. If it's two, better pack your suitcase: That's the Coast Guard signal for a hurricane. No flags? No storms in sight.
The flags are a tactile reminder of the Coast Guard's main concern: safe boating in Ocean City's waterways.
"We run more 'search and rescues' out of Ocean City than any other station," says Senior Chief Bob Bennington, who supervises the 28-member multi-mission station.
"Ocean City is Maryland's second-largest city in the summer. When anything is going on in the city, we're involved in it. It all spills over into the ocean and the bay."
Today marks the opening of National Safe Boating Week, which runs from June 5 to June 11, and this year's theme is "Boat Sober," says Chief Bennington.
Last year, there were 20 arrests for "BWI" -- boating while intoxicated, says Chief Bennington, and the Coast Guard intends to be vigilant this year, as well.
"It's really something we've enforced in the past, and we're going to do it this year more than ever," he says. "It's traditional to get your boat, some bait, ice and beer. It's not our intention to harass, but we're going to monitor people who boat erratically."
Drunk boaters can be prosecuted under federal law, which sets 0.10 as the blood-alcohol level where impairment can be presumed.
The Coast Guard is equipped with the same type of Breathalyzers carried by law enforcement on land, and has a marine version of a sobriety test.
"If you blow positive, you will be arrested and have to appear before a federal magistrate," says Chief Bennington.
Federal fines can run as high as $1,000 for those convicted of BWI or negligent operation of a boat, he says.
Boating while drunk is also against state law, Chief Bennington says. Although the Coast Guard doesn't have enforcement powers under Maryland law, Coast Guard members can detain a boater until the Maryland Natural Resources Police, who enforce state law on the waterways, can be summoned.
"You can expect to see us out there, trying to make sure Ocean City's waterways stay safe," Chief Bennington says.
Enforcing sober boating is only one part of the Guard's work, however.
By May, the Coast Guard had already run 117 SAR (Search And Rescue) missions for the year (the Guard's record-keeping year begins Oct. 1, Chief Bennington says). The calls included missing people, overdue/found people -- fishing enthusiasts who stay out later than their spouses anticipated, prompting calls to the Coast Guard -- swimmers in trouble, disabled boats, three parachutists who landed in the water instead of the sand, and even one downed kite, which the Guard recovered.
Even on a weekday, the Guard's communications center was busy. Radio traffic was steady and the phone rang regularly.
"If it's a waterborne problem, we're the coordinators," says Chief Bennington. "We follow it all the way through to a safe end."
Each call for help or enforcement is assigned a case number, and gets its own manila folder with a picture of a Coast Guard cutter on the front. A station log is kept by the watch officer, who monitors the radio traffic (including Channel 16-FM, the distress frequency), the weather from the National Weather Service and answers the phones.
And even indoors, there are constant reminders that the Atlantic is always out there.
"I'm sorry, he's under way right now," Seaman Brian Jones tells a caller seeking a particular member of the Guard -- the marine version of "he's out of the office."
When the Coast Guard goes out, each boat carries two or three members, each equipped with a full complement of water safety gear as well as a 9 mm Beretta and a collapsible nightstick. In the winter, when the water temperature can approach or fall below freezing, members of the Guard wear heavy wet suits with flotation devices attached. All clothing is the Guard's trademark bright orange.
Orange and blue stripes identify each boat, as well as a Guard-assigned number. Only boats of 65 feet or longer (called cutters) are given names.
The Ocean City station must be ready to send two boats out at any one time, says Chief Bennington. Its fleet includes several small craft, as well as a 44-foot motor lifeboat designed for heavy weather.
"There's always somebody out there in the storms," says Chief Bennington, who's been in the Guard for 18 years. "We're capable of operating in 25-foot seas with that boat."
The Ocean City station monitors and patrols all of Chincoteague Bay, as well as Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight and Assawoman bays.
"Anybody from the Virginia line to the Delaware line to 50 miles offshore, we respond to," says Chief Bennington.
Does he anticipate a busy season? Always.
"I think we'll have a lot of boats out there."