Boating always has been one of America’s favorite pastimes and entered the sport arena in the early nineteenth century. Rowing and yachting races were among the most popular spectator sports through the 1930's. The wealth generated in post Civil War America, along with the growth of railroads, spurred the development of resorts, country homes, and the suburbs, all places to go boating. The Federal Government began to construct large dams, reservoirs, and lake systems during the Depression, adding waterways. With the development of the single opera tor motorboat and the outboard engine at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the number of recreational boaters skyrocketed. In 1939, the Coast Guard reported that there were more than 300,000 boats operating in Federal waters. In the previous year it had received 14,000 calls for assistance and had responded to 8,600 “in peril” cases, a record number. Boaters needed to be better trained in seamanship and Federal law. At the same time, civilian yachtsmen were pressing the Coast Guard to establish a volunteer arm of the service.
As a result of these demands, on June 23, 1939, the Congress passed legislation that established the Coast Guard Reserve, its volunteer civilian component, to promote boating safety and to facilitate the operations of the Coast Guard. Groups of boat owners were organized into flotillas and these into divisions within Coast Guard Districts around the country. Members initially conducted safety and security patrols and helped enforce the provisions of the 1940 Federal Boating and Espionage Acts. Then in February 1941, a military reserve was created and the volunteer Reserve was renamed the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Following America’s entry into World War II in December of 1941, recruits flooded into Auxiliary flotillas in a burst of patriotic fever. In June of 1942 legislation allowed Auxiliarists to enroll in the Coast Guard Reserve on a part-time temporary basis. Throughout the war, some 50,000 Auxiliarists constituted the core of the temporary Reserve membership. These reservists, along with newly enrolled civilians, performed coastal defense and search and rescue duties. They patrolled bridges, factories, docks, and beaches. They fought fires, made arrests, guided naval vessels, and conducted anti-submarine warfare. As their ranks grew, thousands of active duty Coast Guard personnel were freed up for service overseas.
Following the war, by 1950 the four traditional Auxiliary cornerstone missions of public education, operations, vessel examination, and fellowship had been established. The public education program yearly trains tens of thousands of boaters in seamanship, piloting, rules of the road, and weather, among other topics. Specially qualified coxswain and crew members conduct search and rescue missions in their own boats and support Coast Guard missions. Auxiliary pilots and air observers search for boaters in distress, floating hazards, pollution spills, and ice-locked vessels. Communications watchstanders handle distress calls at Coast Guard and Auxiliary radio stations. Vessel Examiners conduct Vessel Safety Checks under which recreational vessels are examined for properly installed Federally required equipment and systems.
During the past decades, the Auxiliary has continued to grow in membership which today totals more than 30,000 members in the United States and its territories. Training is held at every level from the flotilla to national training schools. Leadership and management training, award programs, and data management systems ensure a high level of professionalism.
Under legislation passed in 1996, the Auxiliary’s role was expanded to allow members to assist in any Coast Guard mission, except direct law enforcement and military operations, as authorized by the Commandant. Thus, Auxiliarists can be found examining commercial fishing vessels, flying in C-130 aircraft, working in Coast Guard offices, and crewing with regulars. The three components of the service, the Active Duty Coastguard, the Reservists, and Auxiliarists, truly constitute TEAM COAST GUARD.
In any given year, Auxiliary members work an untold number of hours, as they largely administer their own organization. In 1998, their assistance to the public resulted in 445 lives being saved, 12,760 persons being assisted, and a total value of $36.4 million dollars in volunteer services being provided for a wide range of specific missions. Since 9/11, members have been integrated into the Department of Homeland Security and perform a variety of port security functions. In 2006 on any given day, the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary averaged saving 1 life, assisting 28 people, completing 62.5 safety patrols, performing 299 vessel safety checks, educating 369 people on boating safety, participating in 100 Coast Guard Operational Support missions, attending 70 public affairs functions, and more. The 32,950 members of the Auxiliary field 4,971 vessels, 2,873 personal watercraft, and 226 aircraft and man 2,641 communications stations.
Over the years, Auxiliary programs also have kept pace with boating trends. Members helped implement the provisions of the 1958 Federal Boating Act. In the 1970's, they formed flotillas in sole-state waters to meet local demands for water safety. They introduced new courses such as those for sailors and personal water craft (PWC) operators as their numbers increased.
The U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary is the largest volunteer marine safety organization in the world and has fostered similar ones in foreign countries.