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On Watch - Vin Pica

The informative and entertaining “From the Captain of the Port” columns in WindCheck are written by Vincent T. Pica, II, the District Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary’s First District Southern Region.

Vincent T. Pica, II“I grew up in Westchester County, New York, and boating on Long Island Sound was always a part of my life,” says Vin. “Canoes, rafts, sailboats, motorboats…if it floated, we were on it. My friend Marty Boorstein started me on set and drift and things of that nature, and we’re still very close friends. My first boat was a 17-foot Sea Hunt called Maruna after my children Mariel, Rudi and Natalie. I had a 46 Ocean that I took from Maine to Florida, and a 43-foot Robertson and Caine sailing catamaran. My current boats are a 25-foot Parker that I do Coast Guard work with, and a 38-foot Robertson and Caine cat.”

“I joined the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary after 9/11. I was in New York City, and it polarized my thinking about serving my country in an environment where men were plotting to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. I didn’t think that writing a check to the Red Cross was enough so I called my good friend George Casey, who at the time was a 3-star general in the U.S. Army. I said, ‘I’ll quit my job and move to Washington to make copies or coffee so you can send the soldier that’s doing that job now to get these guys.’ George said, ‘As much as I appreciate that, the Army doesn’t have a program for you, but the Coast Guard has a volunteer arm and you’re a licensed Master.’ Happily, a young lady answered the phone when I called the Coast Guard’s New York City office. She said, ‘Mr. Pica, I don’t think we have anything for 47-year-old men.’ I said, ‘That’s the second time I’ve heard that today. Please find somebody with grey hair and tell him there’s a lunatic on the phone who wants to work.’ She called back a couple days later and said, ‘We do have a program. It's called the Auxiliary.’”

“The three components of U.S. Coast Guard forces are Active Duty; the Reserve, who become members of Active Duty when called out of reserve; and the Auxiliary, the non-military arm. The Auxiliary was created by an act of congress in 1939 in preparation for World War II. An Auxiliarist can do anything that he or she is trained to do to Coast Guard standards that doesn’t require a weapon. We cross-train with on-the-water partners including fire departments and police departments. When something happens that requires a large search and rescue flotilla we’ll be out there, typically in our own boats, as part of the mission. Privately owned Auxiliary vessels, which are certified as what we call operational facilities, must meet USCG standards every year. There are about 65 line items that you either get right or you don’t get underway.”

“The First District Southern Region comprises eastern New York including the Hudson Valley up to Canada, Long Island, Connecticut, Vermont and northern New Jersey. The Northern Region includes everything to the north and east including Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, and we all report into Rear Admiral Dan Abel at First District Headquarters in Boston. As District Commodore, I have four District Captains that help me manage that large expanse of water. Under those District Captains are 17 Division Commanders who oversee the Flotilla Commanders. There are about 95 flotillas, whose members do everything from teaching boating safety courses to responding to search and rescues and cooking in a gallery. Those calls come through Active Duty, and we’re there to serve.”

Many distress calls, says Vin, are made after mechanical breakdowns. “One of the most effective ways of avoiding that is asking for a free vessel safety check that the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary will conduct and certify that your boat meets U.S. Coast Guard standards,” he explains. “The inspection is entirely voluntary, and if your boat doesn’t pass the examiner will tell you what’s wrong, give you a cell phone number and say, ‘Call me and I’ll come back to complete the inspection so that you can display a vessel safety check sticker. Other common causes of search and rescues are running out of fuel or running aground. It’s essential to have a VHF radio aboard, and not just a cell phone. There might be other boats around you, but you probably won’t know their cell phone number.”

“We go to sea in a hostile environment, and avoiding collisions at sea and man overboard situations are the skipper’s primary concern from the moment you turn the key. The Auxiliary provides public education at very minimal cost. Completing the course certifies that you’ve met your state’s requirements as well as the federal requirements for boating safety knowledge.”

“My wife JoMarie and I have been married 38 years. We live in New York City during the school year and Westhampton in the summer. Long Island is full of wonderful ports of call, and we enjoy crossing the Sound to Mystic. Manhattan is another great place to go boating, and we’ve taken our boats up the Hudson as far as West Point. These are beautiful waters, and hopefully once a season there’s a moment when everything – the light, the water and the boat – is just perfect and you say to yourself, ‘This is why man went to sea.’”

Vin operates an online resource called Atlantic Maritime Academy (atlanticmaritimeacademy.com) “to certify that you are no longer just a private boat owner but that you become a private boat captain.” “I created it so that when questions come to me, such as from my column in WindCheck, I can direct that individual to the right place in the Coast Guard, whether it’s a vessel safety check, a public education class, or joining up. To be an Auxiliarist is a rare honor. It’s an opportunity to not just serve your country, but to have your country say, ‘Thank You!’”


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