Ready to jump on board

An auxiliary of volunteers helps perform many essential duties for the U.S. Coast Guard

June 18, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

When the alert went out on the airwaves that Philip Merrill was missing after a solo sailing trip in the Chesapeake Bay, Chris Jensen headed out immediately on his 21-foot sailboat Marta to help search for the philanthropist, publisher and former diplomat from Arnold.

Jensen searched from the mouth of the West River to Columbia Beach and didn't get home until 3 a.m. Sunday, assisting the U.S. Coast Guard and Maryland Natural Resources Police in what would prove a fruitless search.

A Shady Side resident and longtime merchant mariner, Jensen was one of many searching for Merrill in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a group of volunteers directly affiliated with the Coast Guard service members who make up the active duty and reserve.

The auxiliary members - a group of volunteers 4,300-strong in the area that includes Maryland, Washington, Virginia and North Carolina - can perform nearly every function of the active-duty Coast Guard except law enforcement and combat roles.

They go out on search-and-rescue missions, fly aircraft to look for environmental spills and perform free safety inspections for boaters upon request. Some members even help inspect containers that come into the port of Baltimore. They also listen to radio distress calls and get official orders from the Coast Guard.

Many of their expenses, including gas while boating or flying a plane on a mission, are reimbursed. Other than that, their work is unpaid. "At a certain point, you want to be part of the action, you know?" said Jensen, 55. "If you don't like the way things are going, get out there and do something about it."

Jensen said that after being trained in search-and-rescue techniques by the Coast Guard, he saw how stretched some of the service members were, and it became "sort of hard not to be involved."

For the Regensburgs of Sandy Spring, the auxiliary is a family affair. Jim Regensburg and his wife, Marky, are actively involved in patrols and radio calls, often for 20 hours a week or more. Their son Max, 6, likes to go around their house wearing the Coast Guard Auxiliary hat that goes with Jim's uniform.

"I joined two months before 9/11, and when that happened, it made me feel that it would be a very important public service," said Jim Regensberg, who works as the director of the National Public Policy Research Institute.

Jim Regensberg, who owns a 19-foot motorboat, said he thought he would be "fighting terrorism, but I've been more involved in the search-and-rescue aspect. When you have a chance to save someone and you're trained to do it, it's a very rewarding feeling."

Jim Regensburg, who listens to most radio calls in a small room with a map of the bay, said the craziest calls come in on Saturday nights.

Sometimes, it's innocuous - a boater sailing at night with poor navigation skills who gets lost. Because of the way the radio signal comes in, Regensburg can help lost boaters pinpoint the location. Other times, the calls are scarier, especially if one comes from a child, which means an adult could have been injured or fallen overboard.

Clarence Caesar, the commander of a "flotilla" or unit that patrols the Herring Bay, said he got involved after retiring from an enlisted career in the Air Force and feeling bored. Caesar, 73, said he spends about 35 hours a week serving the auxiliary, much of it spent in Annapolis at the Coast Guard radio station.

"You would be surprised about the number of people who go out in boats and don't have the least idea what they're doing," said Caesar, who has no boat of his own but goes out aboard vessels owned by others in the flotilla. "I really enjoy helping Maryland boaters and being able to give them all kinds of assistance."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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