Auxiliary uses talking tug to teach boat safety

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Coastie the tugboat, one of about a dozen used throughout the U.S. for boating safety training.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

If you're at school picking up your kids, and you happen to see a talking boat, don't worry—you're not crazy. It's just "Coastie," the talking tug boat.

The local auxiliary, or "flotilla," recently built a replica of Coastie, an oversized toy tugboat that speaks and has eyes that move, much like the vehicles seen in the Disney animated "Cars" movies.

Coastie was first created by Mike Robeano, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Columbus, Ohio, who got the idea when he saw a robot called "PC," for "Police Car," at a Safety Day event. The original Coastie was built by Robotronics. There are now over a dozen across the U.S.

Jim Watson, the local Coast Guard Auxiliary staff officer in charge of operations, said their version of Coastie isn't an exact replica, but it's close.

"We've used it in the schools to teach second graders about boating safety—wearing your life jacket, swimming with a buddy, that sort of thing," he said.

So far this year, they have only taken Coastie to a couple of schools.

"This is our first year of doing this, so we didn't want to take on more than we could manage," he said. "The flotilla in Dare County has been doing it with their schools for several years and they've helped us with the program."

They also needed something to haul the boat in and managed to find a six- by ten-foot trailer off of eBay in Raleigh which they got for a very good price, Watson said.

"It's specifically designed to haul the boat to various activities like to the schools and public affairs events," he said.

Service members at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City helped the auxiliary to refurbish the trailer, repair some minor damage and paint it Coast Guard colors, Watson said.

"They helped us get it up to standards," he said. "The Aviation Technical Training Center shop and the paint shop helped us. They're very supportive of the auxiliary."

But Coastie is only one of many ways the auxiliary helps the local community.

About three years ago, Captain Al Keith USCG (retired), who oversees the Junior Leadership Program at Camden County High School, contacted them to put together something that would benefit the students in the program.

"We talked about what we could do to give the students some on-the-water training to go along with their classroom work," he said.

The program doesn't have a name, Watson said. "On-the-water navigation training is what we're calling it."

The CCHS Junior Leadership Program is one of only two in the nation. The other is associated with the Maritime and Science Technology Academy, or MAST, in Miami, Fla.

Watson said their navigation program, although sanctioned by the Coast Guard, is a purely local endeavor.

Students board a private boat at the Waterfront Park in Elizabeth City, and from 4 p.m. to about 7 p.m. they learn how to chart a direction from point A to point B, Watson said.

"They need to look at the chart and figure out a course, figure out how long it's going to take us to get there, and then we proceed on what they plotted and see how in reality it works out," he said.

Watson said they usually take four or five students on around five missions every spring beginning in late May or early June.

Watson, who has been with the auxiliary for eight years, has never served in the Coast Guard.

"We're a purely voluntary organization," he said. "Owning a boat isn't required, having been in the Coast Guard or any military organization isn't required. You just have to be interested in public service, be a U.S. citizen and be older than 17."