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Coast Guard hunts trouble in July 4th calm


OCEAN CITY -- "I'm looking for something to do!" says Graham Bostic, scanning the waves as he pilots the Coast Guard patrol boat past the inlet.

There should be something to do, he explains -- it's Saturday afternoon, and the Fourth of July holiday weekend is traditionally a busy one for the Ocean City station of the Coast Guard.

"We'll go up the bay a little bit and get an idea of how much boat traffic there is -- I bet it's a lot," says Mr. Bostic, a boatswain's mate first class.

And it is.

Sport fishing boats and a sailboat or two are clustered in Sinepuxent Bay, waiting for the U.S. 50 drawbridge to open. Weaving among the boats are Jet Skis and Waverunners, the personal watercraft that have tripled in Ocean City in the past three years.

No trouble in sight, though; everyone is observing the no-wake rule. Mr. Bostic turns back toward the inlet and the dock.

one of many patrols the Coast Guard will make over the holiday weekend. The multimission station at Ocean City deals mostly with search-and-rescue missions, Mr. Bostic says, but anything -- anything -- can happen on the water.

Back on land, Mr. Bostic fills out the patrol boat log and smokes a cigarette before heading back inside, chatting with the other Coast Guardsmen working the holiday weekend. The talk is mostly of boats. Like many of the Coast Guardsmen, Mr. Bostic works on the water for a living, but he also spends most of his free time on it.

In the communications room, the radio traffic is a staticky constant, monitoring traffic from Cape May, N.J., down past Chincoteague, Va., to Cape Hatteras, N.C.

It's a little like a taxi stand, constant crackling, unfinished transmissions, interruptions and garble. But the Coast Guard members are quick to hear messages meant for them, easily finding their calls through the crackles and hisses.

The station's Labrador, Barney (short for Barnacle), is unbothered, sleeping right under the radio table. The only thing that rouses Barney, other than food, is the fire siren. Later this evening, the fire siren goes off, and Barney, cheered by the Coast Guard members on duty, heads for the front door and howls along with it.

At 4:55 p.m., a phone call necessitates a boat ride. This time, Boatswain's Mate Third Class John Roberts is up, and he and his crew members strap on Berettas before heading for the dock.

"We got a call from someone about 10 or 15 Jet Skis going crazy," he says as the boat gets under way.

"Coming up," he advises, and his two crew members, Boatswain's Mate Third Class Don Fulk and Machinist Technician Third Class Jason Jessup, reach for the rail by the wheel. It's short for "coming up to speed," and the boat leaps across the bay, banging across small waves.

At 5:10 p.m., the Jet Ski offenders are in view, and Mr. Roberts puts on the siren and the blue light behind him, slowing down and hailing the group with calm authority.

"Everybody come here and shut your engines off. Grab onto my boat," he says. They do.

"Here's the deal," he continues. "You can't operate these things at high speed within 100 feet of anything" -- and he nods toward a row of docks about 20 feet away. The Jet Skiers listen attentively as he explains that the Maryland Natural Resources Police can cite them for infractions. (So can he, but he's decided to warn them this time.)

"Just take it offshore," he ends, and the Jet Skiers move away -- slowly.

Although no one has been killed in Ocean City by a personal watercraft, there have been deaths in other areas, and both the Coast Guard and Natural Resources police are aware that improper operation can be fatal.

Heading back, Mr. Roberts and his crew decide to run a couple of "Delta Charlies" -- the Coast Guard's code for stopping a boat and making sure it is properly equipped.

The patrol boat pulls up beside the Fun Deck, a 21-foot pontoon boat with two couples aboard fishing. Mr. Roberts calls out, "Hey, cap'n" and one of the men turns around. So does one of the women, and she shrieks, drops her fishing rod and clutches her towel around her, glaring at Mr. Jessup and Mr. Fulk as they step aboard.

While they check the boat, Mr. Roberts pulls away and radios in the boat's registration.

Neither that stop nor the next one turns up any infractions -- both boats had the required number of life preservers, fire extinguishers and lights -- and Mr. Roberts starts for the station.

The holiday atmosphere is visible all the way back. Waterfront restaurants are packed. M.R. Ducks is having a "best body on the beach" contest that has drawn a crowd (and interested glances from the patrol boat). Cruise boats at the Angler are full, and boat traffic on the bay is heavy.

It's close to 6 p.m., and the temperature is dropping. Wisps of fog are visible in spots off the inlet.

"I smell a cookout," Mr. Jessup says wistfully as the boat pulls past a row of condominiums where someone is grilling Saturday supper.

Back at the station, it's chicken and french fries for dinner. The radio is crackling, mostly with New York and New Jersey calls. Traffic is clogging Philadelphia Avenue out front, the Boardwalk is a neon jungle, and the screams from roller coaster riders cut through even the radio noise.

A call about a stolen boat piques interest, and Mr. Roberts heads out again to look for the missing vessel, called Flowers. It's a long shot, and he doesn't find it, but it gives him the chance to take a look at the boat traffic just before dark. A stray Jet Skier is sent home -- it's illegal to operate personal watercraft after sunset -- but nothing else turns up. Darkness and a chilly breeze have sent most boaters home, and the patrol boat docks again.

An overdue vessel call -- a father who's taken his sons out fishing and was due in two hours ago -- causes a brief flurry in the communications room after 10 p.m. Mr. Bostic listens in as the communications officer questions the anxious wife. Mr. Roberts is paging the boat, on the radio without success. They're poised to head out when the boat is reported headed back to the harbor.

The radio crackles again, this time with the boat's captain confirming his arrival.

The adrenalin level drops, and the joking starts about how the captain is headed for real trouble at home because his wife's anxiety has now turned to anger.

"Yeah, she said we better come over and put him back together after she's finished with him!" says Mr. Roberts.

It's quiet into the small hours of yesterday morning at the station, but the missing vessel alarm lingers in the communications room, a reminder that one phone call, one radio transmission, can turn a slow day into a memorable one for the Coast Guard in Ocean City.

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