Keeping watch on the water: The Port O'Connor Coast Guard
By BY DIANNA WRAY - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 29, 2011 at 6:29 a.m.
Updated Jan. 3, 2012 at 7:04 p.m.
PORT O'CONNOR - The boat skidded across the water of Matagorda Bay as afternoon patrol commenced.
The skies were gray, and a steady mist of rain drizzled down from the sky. The patrolmen huddled in the cabin of the boat, just behind Matt Hernandez, who piloted the boat.
The stormy weather made the water rough, and less-experienced sailors might have turned a bit green at the gills from the constant movement, but these guys don't flinch - they signed up for this, they do it every day when they head out on patrol.
The Coast Guard is the oldest continuous seagoing service in the United States. Alexander Hamilton established the first naval branch of the armed services in 1790 as a way to collect taxes. Since it's creation, the Coast Guard has been used as needed by the country.
In 1915, the modern Coast Guard was born.
When they're not on patrol, the Coast Guard personnel can be found at the station in Port O'Connor. The station is built in a circular shape reminiscent of a lighthouse.
The building can withstand hurricane-force winds, and the insides are filled with the works of the Coast Guard.
If a boat is reported missing, they are the ones who look for it.
If a ship is sinking or runs into trouble on the water, they are the ones who are called to rescue it.
They deal with exotic sounding problems like drug smuggling and piracy, and the more prosaic sounding federal fishing regulations.
There are more than 46,000 service members stationed all over the world. When they aren't making headlines rescuing people, patrol is one of the regular duties they perform.
Their day started at 7:15 a.m. when they gathered for breakfast in the mess hall of the station.
A crew of five spent the morning scouring the waters, while another crew took their turn in the afternoon. They are after a myriad of things: looking for boats to make sure they are following federal regulations, or looking for drugs and anything or anyone else who isn't supposed to be out on these waters. This is the Coast Guard equivalent of cops taking that casual patrolling stroll around the block.
Pelicans swoop overhead, and sleek brown backs of dolphins appear as they swim alongside the boat in the foaming blue-green water.
Coast Guard crew member Matt Hernandez stood at the helm of the boat, hands on the wheel, his brown eyes scanning the horizon meticulously.
When a shrimp boat or an oyster boat comes into view, all of the men eye the vessel carefully, looking for any signs of violations, checking to see if there might be any reason to board and check to make sure they are compliant.
The Coast Guard has also been entrusted with a bigger responsibility. Nothing was the same after the Sept. 11 attacks happened.
The Coast Guard was put under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, and, since then, they also have been charged with keeping the coastline safe.
"After 9/11, we were looking at a different world. Things changed. We didn't think that way before. But after, we were thinking about things like terrorists and much more vigilant about homeland security," Petty Officer E.F. Casey said. Seated at a mess hall table, he paused, looking out at the gray clouds rolling into the sky.
The change led to increased personnel, and a subtle change in the entire purpose of the Coast Guard, Casey said.
Still, much of their shift is spent on the less glamorous work of patrolling the waters. But the crew doesn't seem to mind.
Seaman James Bersani stood just outside the cabin of the boat, enjoying the wind and the salt water flying up in a brisk spray as Hernandez took the boat on its rounds at a brisk pace.
Bersani likes these patrols, but his favorite part of the job is the times they get to help people.
The rescue missions are what make his job worthwhile.
He was there the day a grandfather and grandson were rescued, and that moment, pulling someone from the water, from the edge of death, is what makes the job worth doing.
"Knowing you helped somebody, it just gives you a good feeling," Bersani said.