The United States Coast Guard plays a leading role in the safety, security and stewardship of the San Francisco Bay. This multi-mission, federal agency’s hands-on expertise with vessels of all types and search and rescue operations, also puts them in a great position to share helpful tips and information with potential Water Trail users.
Recently, we visited with the Director and members of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) team. The group was co-located with the USCG Sector San Francisco Interagency Operations Center, and local Station, in between San Francisco and Oakland in a strategically central site on Yerba Buena Island, “under” the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
On January 8, 2014, we visited the U.S. Coast Guard Sector and Station San Francisco. This Sector, part of the larger District 11, serves a large area of the West Coast, north and south of San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento Delta, and as far east as the Tahoe Basin.
The first stop on our trip, that was arranged by Thomas Boone (Training, VTS), was the Vessel Traffic Service areas where USCG personnel monitor and help manage commercial ship traffic.
Commercial ship traffic entering the Bay is monitored from 38 miles out. Speed and position data are tracked closely as they approach and cross under the Golden Gate Bridge.
There were a few paper charts on the walls. However, these charts were largely being phased out in favor of sophisticated software and graphics display technology.
We watched as operators manned large color monitors, and listened to up to 5 channels at once, to ensure ferry boats, tanker ships, cruise ships, and many other types of crafts were operating within designated traffic lanes and guidelines. While they may not have been able to spot smaller, human-powered craft on this scale, it was a comfort to see the great care and coordination being taken with the larger vessels.
The command and control operations and Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) personnel at work, combined with operation ready rooms in the same building, exemplified the United States Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus ("Always Ready"). As part of this readiness, local, state and federal inter-agency communications and cooperation was also evident.
Communications were ongoing with the bar pilots who were accompanying large tankers into the Bay. Other government agencies could also be conferred with. For example, local ferries could be contacted to help pick up kayakers, windsurfers and boardsurfers or sailers in distress.
Last, but not least, we were impressed to learn that in addition to all their usual daily operations that includes watching for terrorists, drug smugglers and ne'er do wells, the Coast Guard also monitors thousands of permitted events on the water each year (regattas, races, Alcatraz swims, etc.).
What Happens When a Call Comes In?
Lt. Jeannie Crump (Public Relations, Vessel Traffic Service) explained what might happen when a call comes in to the command center.
If a recreational boater calls in for help, calls get logged, prioritized and routed to the closest Station. Station San Francisco may get the call and send a response boat out, depending on the location and circumstances. (There are also response boats stationed at other points in the SF Bay. Station Golden Gate often deals with situations out in the Pacific, beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, and is perhaps the busiest Station on the West Coast.)
If the weather is good, the sun is out, and a kayaker is stuck on the mudflats (at low tide) and the tide is due to come back in within an hour, they may stay in communications with the caller but not send someone out. They consider the situation. If there is bad weather, imminent danger and the person's cell phone is running out of battery, that situation would be handled differently, Crump explained.
Sean E. Kelley (Director, Vessel Traffic Service) agreed with Crump, and also mentioned Prevention Through People, a group whose efforts resulted in videos and resources to help ensure boaters were better prepared. (See also Additional Resources section at the end of this article.)
After lunch, we walked across a lawn to the dock area. It was a slightly overcast day, with no rain in sight. This month marked the third year of drought on the West Coast, while the Eastern U.S. had recently been hit with record cold and snow.
Weather conditions do matter in this line of work. Heavy fog, or heavy wind or seas can create challenges for boaters of all types. And many rescue situations result from a combination of lack of preparation and change in weather conditions.
Moored in the dock outside were two USCG Cutters (ships over 65 feet in length), and two smaller, newer Response Boats: a 25-foot boat that could access shallower waters in the Bay, and a larger 45-foot boat, involved in (and well prepared for) search and rescue and other operations.
We met Christopher Martin (Engineering Petty Officer, EPO). He kindly invited us to take a closer look.
Equipped for rough weather, the 45-foot Response Boat was impressive. It was stocked with an infrared camera system (that might allow them to “see” a person, or animals, in the water at night), and many other modern features, allowing for speed, comfort (for survivors). The new boat also allows for quick and easy access to engines (which need to be checked at regular intervals during operations and drills).
“We’ve been able to cut time considerably for engine checks with these new boats. We can check engines from computer screens now” (inside the cockpit, rather than opening large watertight hatches in 20-foot seas and crawling into small spaces with hot engine parts.)
The boat also was designed to right itself quickly if rolled over in heavy seas. Fortunately, heavy seas are rare inside the Golden Gate Bridge; however, that doesn’t mean the agency doesn’t receive several search and rescue related calls each day, about windsurfers, kayakers and other small watercraft owners who were having issues.
Activity on the dock had a precisely organized feel to it. USCG personnel boarding boats were decked out in bright orange and black body suits that would keep them relatively warm, dry and buoyant for training operations on/in the water. And, every line (rope) with tightly coiled in place. (It was the type of impressive efficiency that inspired me to better organize my life when I got back home.)
“We’re always training, operating and maintaining,” said Martin, echoing the Always Ready motto.
In addition to maritime security and safety, the USCG also responds to and maintains reports on oil spills and environmental hazards, and is involved in estuary clean-up efforts.
VTS Director, Sean E. Kelley, recalled recent efforts to clear the 100-foot tug Respect that had sunk near Alameda. "In addition to demolish and recycle efforts, there was old fuel and other substances to deal with."
Please don't spill anything in the water, Lt. Jeannie Crump added. "We have to respond to every call, and that takes money and time -- time we might be able to spend on a rescue or other important operation."
Kayakers, windsurfers and boardsurfers, and the occasional swimmer spending time in the water, will likely appreciate these efforts.
- Carry/Wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD)
- Know before you go - check tides, conditions
- File a float plan - let a friend or family member know where you’ll be
- Make sure kayaks, other crafts have adequate lighting at nighttime
- Call the USCG command center to report emergencies or spills
- Give tugs a wide berth - to avoid being affected by “prop wash” (100 yards minimum)
- Kayaks, windsurfers and other human powered equipment need to yield to larger ships (who can't see smaller crafts) in certain areas; so familiarize yourself with vessel traffic and shipping lanes in the area. (See also Rules 5 and 9.)
When Martin was asked about what misconceptions people might have about going out onto San Francisco Bay, he suggested that, in addition to normal preparations, people remember how cold the water is in the Bay. Being in the water, even for several minutes can be an issue. This is why having PFDs on (for those 12 and under) or readily accessible onboard (for adults) at all times (according to Federal law) is so important.
Martin also put in a good word for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. “They’re fantastic, and they help us a lot,” he added.
- Boaters, Boat-builders - Regulations (Boating Safety Resource Center)
- Rules 9 and 5...Rules to Live By, SF Harbor Safety Committee
- San Francisco Harbor Safety Brochures
Note: Special thanks to Thomas Boone (Training Asst.) and VTS for making this visit and interview possible, and to Galli Basson, Water Trail Planner, and Ann Buell, California State Coastal Conservancy Project Manager, who have worked to make the Water Trail a reality.