A life of service on the sea

Brandon Sanford, with Coast Guard Station Charleston, gives a boarding report to a family visiting from Charlotte after assessing the safety equipment on their rented boat Tuesday. The Coast Guard patrols the ocean to enforce mariner law and educate boaters about safety.

Brandon Sanford still remembers the moment he decided to join the Coast Guard.

He was 21 years old, his mother had just beaten cancer and Hurricane Katrina had struck the Gulf Coast. Sanford, a restaurant manager in Spokane, Washington, at the time, watched the Coast Guard’s extensive rescue and response efforts unfold and knew there was something more out there for him.

“I wanted to be a part of something that was challenging me while also helping others,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference.”

Fast forward nearly 10 years, and Sanford has done just that. He joined the organization the November after the deadly hurricane and now saves lives and educates boaters at Coast Guard Station Charleston.

Sanford, a boatswain’s mate third class, was part of a crew that responded to a boat that ran aground on Shutes Folly in late April, killing one and injuring two. The incident is just one of many that he and other members of the search-and-rescue station have encountered this year. The crew has responded to 64 search-and-rescue calls so far this year, assisting 40 people and saving 28.

“It’s been a busier summer,” said Tucker Gleason, a boatswain’s mate second class, at the Charleston station. “You never can predict when someone’s going to go out and their boat’s going to capsize.”

Despite an active season, Gleason, 29, who also responded to the Shutes Folly call, estimated that search and rescue accounts for 15 to 20 percent of their job. Everything else revolves around boater education, safety and emergency preparedness.

The officer in charge, Chief Petty Officer Justin Longval said law enforcement is a huge part of what the Coast Guard does, but it’s different than police agencies.

Personnel can pull over any vessel in its waters without probable cause, which is called boarding. It allows them to check a boater’s compliance with the law and assess their safety equipment. The boarding can result in a warning, but its purpose is geared toward informing the public, Longval said.

“It’s not based on, ‘What can we find you doing wrong?’” he added. “We are your neighbors. We are your relatives. We are the people on the water with you. We have a vested interest in the folks that we share the water with.”

A crew of five launched a 45-foot response boat at the station Tuesday to do some boardings for the day. Relatively early in the trip, they stopped a family of four visiting from Charlotte. Just like a police stop, the response boat had blue lights on the top to warn the mariners to slow down for the boarding.

The crew members pulled their vessel alongside the family’s, introduced themselves and explained the boarding process. After that, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Travis Rogers, 36, boarded the family’s boat and began checking to make sure there were enough life jackets, the right safety equipment and registration.

It was a friendly process. As Rogers spoke to the driver, two children watched in awe and a woman on the boat made conversation with other crew members. Rogers talked to the man about the life vests on the boat while Sanford filled out boarding paperwork.

The vessel was a rental, so a short time later, Sanford gave the family the paperwork and they were sent on their way.

“Safety and education are key when we’re out here,” Rogers said. “That way, if they are in distress or in peril, they know how to get themselves out of a bad situation.”

He recommended that mariners take advantage of a free vessel safety check offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary to make sure boats are safe and to help making the boarding process go more smoothly. The Auxiliary also offers boating safety courses in Charleston for $25.

Coast Guard Station Charleston has 35 active-duty personnel and 36 reservists and is a 24-hour operation. The station works for and with Coast Guard Sector Charleston, but is its own entity.

Longval described his workforce as very young, dynamic and diverse and said the organization offers recruits a unique ability to have a lot of responsibility as a lower-ranking service member.

“We recognize that young men and women bring value to the service their first day on the job,” he said. “When you can say, ‘My leadership believes in me,’ that goes a long way.”

Not that there aren’t older personnel, it’s just that usually, Rogers said, “the older people are letting the younger people do the jobs because they’ve had the experience.”

“If you want the responsibility, the Coast Guard will give it to you,” he added.

Longval said he tries to empower his staff and make Station Charleston “the coolest place to work.” Personnel work 48 hours on and then have 48 hours off and work every other weekend. Most are cross-trained to do a number of jobs, but there is also a less-public “machine behind the scenes that feeds what we do,” Longval said.

The station, located on Tradd Street is fairly large. There is a garage for maintenance, a cafeteria, living quarters, a lot of very large buoys that the Coast Guard is tasked with refurbishing and more.

At the dock are two 29-foot and two 45-foot response vessels, each with its own capabilities, Longval said. The station’s area of responsibility runs from McClellanville to Saint Helena Sound and up to 50 miles offshore.

Longval said crews from three to five, or sometimes more, are required to be off the dock and en route to a call within 30 minutes, although it’s often much quicker. Each Coast Guard vessel also has a certain requirement for the gear that they have to carry.

Steven Stockman, 22, machinery technician third class, was with the Coast Guard for four years and in Charleston for 21/2 years. Tuesday was his last day, but he said it was a bittersweet feeling to be leaving the service.

“It’s cool to not know what you’re getting into each day,” he said, adding that it’s also a great feeling to be a part of an organization that is so committed to helping people.

Of course with the good, also comes the traumatic. Gleason recalled giving first aid to the person who died in the Shutes Folly incident and described it as the most intense moment of his career.

To counter those experiences, he said, is the camaraderie and support the service offers.

Each Coast Guard member at Station Charleston has a different story to tell, favorite part of the job or most memorable experience. All members have the desire to better the communities they work for.

“Locally, I like trying to bring agencies together to reach their full potential to use their marine resources,” Rogers said.

It’s the relationships he’s built as a liaison to the fire departments and police departments that he enjoys most. It’s training and passing along his knowledge to see that Johns Island, North Charleston, Charleston and Mount Pleasant, to name a few with fireboats, can better serve alongside the Coast Guard.

Seaman Taylor Clark, 23, who has been in the service for almost a year, said he joined to try something a little different, travel and get an education. It also was important to him to serve others. His first and only rescue since joining was in the spring when he helped two people whose sailboat was stuck on the jetties.

“That was the first time since I got in the Coast Guard I felt like I was able to help somebody and make a difference,” he said. “I like that feeling.”

Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.