Keeping order during busy Buoy 10 fishing season

HAMMOND, Ore. (AP) Matthew Carter, a retired public servant from the Midwest, dons his blue uniform and gets up at 3 a.m. on the weekends.

He heads from his home in Astoria, past lines of morning fishing traffic down to the Hammond Marina, where it's not unusual to see more than 400 boats filled with thousands of people launch in a single morning from that location.

Carter, along with other members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, spread out along Oregon and Washington launch points, manning the docks during the weekends of the annual Buoy 10 sports fishery near the mouth of the Columbia River, checking boats, directing traffic and passing out educational materials on navigation and safety.

The Buoy 10 season, which began Aug. 1, is popular among sport fishermen who are eager to catch salmon returning from the sea.

The Auxiliary is a smaller part of the active duty Coast Guard's overall Buoy 10 operation, which includes a full-court press by lifeboats, response boats, cutters and security officers operating jointly with Clatsop County Sheriff's Office Marine Patrol. The operation was unveiled in 2002, a year after the deaths of seven fishers during Buoy 10, and has helped prevent any fatalities since then.

"When you have such an event like this, it reflects on the town," said Carter, a member of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 64 based at Tongue Point. "It's a good way to be an ambassador to your town."

The Auxiliary, similar to its other ventures with the Coast Guard, provides education, inspections and a presence to boaters, filling the gaps in manpower for its active-duty counterparts.

"I don't think it would be anything like it is," said Dan Cary, the coordinator for Sector Columbia River's Auxiliary flotillas. "The active duty doesn't have the personnel to put on the ramps like we do."

Hopping in Hammond

With four lanes to launch several hundred boats, Hammond Marina is seen as the busiest of all Buoy 10 launch points, with up to three Auxiliary members stationed there on weekends. The federal sequester, which affects funding, cut them from their usual seven-day-a-week schedule. Carter said his main goals are keeping the traffic moving, making sure boats are safe to take out on the water and making sure fisherman understand the waterborne "rules of the road."

Glen Wood, another Flotilla 64 member, is a retired air traffic controller. He said that last Saturday included more than 500 boats and 1,800 people launching at Hammond Marina alone another more than 1,500 people and 375 boats last Friday. The Auxiliary mans docks at Hammond, Warrenton and Chinook, Ilwaco and Cape Disappointment, Wash., every weekend during Buoy 10.

The Auxiliaries on the docks count every part of their operation people, boats, cars, information handed out. After traffic at Hammond dies off, Wood and Carter join fellow Auxiliary member Ron Hilburger in his boat for a patrol on the Columbia River.

Out on Patrol

"I tell these people about keeping out of the way of ships and putting their 'gork' plugs in," said Hilburger, an auxiliary member with Flotilla 62 at Cape Disappointment. The second in command to Cary, he's the liaison with the active-duty Coast Guard on the Buoy 10 operation. "Gork" plugs, he added, are colloquial for drain plugs, keeping boats from going "gork, gork, gork" as they sink in the river.

Hilburger is a retired nuclear medicine technologist who lives in Portland and owns a home in Warrenton. He outfitted his own 22-foot Alumaweld Intruder, the Betty B (named after his mother), to patrol the waters, tow boats and haul in people from the water.

He's training to become a coxswain in the Auxiliary and is one of three boat owners in the Lower Columbia who uses their vessels for patrols.

"It's the ocean to Coffee Pot Island (near Puget Island)," said Wood about the Auxiliary's patrol area.

The Auxiliary patrol watches for unsafe behavior, such as boats fishing in the navigational channel between the green and red buoys, helps make way for larger vessels and calls in the Coast Guard when needed. Members perform minor search-and-rescue operations, such as bringing gasoline to boats that are stranded. Members check in with Air Station Astoria every 30 minutes and relay emergencies to active duty units.

"Education is what saves lives," said Wood, reminiscing about a previous weekend this year where he saw a man and his family nearly mowed down by a passing barge. "Some people out there get stupid."

Rule 9 of the Coast Guard's navigational rules states that "a vessel engaged in fishing shall not impede the passage of any other vessel navigating within a narrow channel or fairway." Hilburger and others said it's their most useful piece of advice.

Wood said patrols will continue at about four to six per week before slowing after Buoy 10 ends Sept. 3 and dying off entirely for the winter.

Working with the Coast Guard

"The activity is starting to pick up," said Cmdr. William Gibbons, head of the operation for the Coast Guard. "The Auxiliary has had more than 3,000 contacts over the last week."

Every patrol the Auxiliary does, every operation on the docks, it approves with its liaisons at the active-duty Coast Guard, keeping tabs on fuel and other costs. Although the federal sequester has cut the Auxiliary's part in Buoy 10 from seven days a week to three, said Gibbons, it hasn't greatly affected the Coast Guard's overall operation.

In addition to the Auxiliary, the Coast Guard cutter Fir patrols regularly during Buoy 10. Coast Guard Vessel Boarding Security teams ride daily along with Clatsop County Sheriff's Office Marine Patrol boats a response to the sequester's limit on operations to talk with boaters and board vessels. And Station Cape Disappointment patrols and remains on standby for emergencies.

Gibbons said a quiet year is a good year and it's certainly been a yawner. Out of more than 8,000 boats contacted during Buoy 10 this year, only one has had its voyage terminated by the Coast Guard. Out of 30 search-and-rescue cases related to Buoy 10, there have been no major injuries.

"They're such huge contributors to the local community," said Gibbons, referencing Buoy 10 and the Auxiliary's other operations. "They carry the load, as far as commercial vessel safety inspections."

As the Buoy 10 fishery winds down with the start of September, the fish and the Auxiliary operations migrate upriver nearer to Portland, other flotillas take up patrols.

Hilburger said he'll move the Betty B up to Portland to take part in those operations. He's one of four commercial fishing vessel safety inspectors along the North Coast operating throughout the year from Westport, Wash., to Newport.

Carter and Wood, as part of Flotilla 64's mission, will continue assembling aids to navigation at Tongue Point that are used along the river to mark navigational hazards and entrances to ports and other channels. Carter also trains Guardsmen to operate forklifts.

The Auxiliary, more than 30,000 strong nationally, will continue its free vessel safety checks, boating courses and other operations.

Information from: The Daily Astorian

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