Area elementary school kids are always pleasantly surprised when a uniformed member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary shows up to speak to their class.

Education about boating safety is the USCG Auxiliary's primary responsibility and given the region's large number of waterways, school classrooms are a handy place to educate students about boating safety.

While choosing the right life jacket and how to stay safe when aboard a boat are valuable topics for boaters of all ages, they are especially so for youngsters. That's because the sooner youngsters learn those boating safety lessons the more likely they will be able to enjoy what Coast Guard Auxiliary members hope are years of outings on the water.

Whether it’s a routine Saturday fishing trip aboard the family bass boat or a surprise ride aboard the neighbor’s new pontoon, boating safety measures matter.

That’s a theme promoted by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in schools and other instructional sites where the organization’s courses are taught.

Lucille Vogel is a public affairs representative with U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 16-01 in Elizabeth City, one of three flotillas in Division 16 of the auxiliary's Fifth District Southern Region. The other three are Flotilla 16-02 in Plymouth, Flotilla 16-04 in Cape Hatteras and Flotilla 16-07 on the Outer Banks. 

Vogel said the organization is authorized by federal law to augment and support U.S. Coast Guard operations. The auxiliary has no policing authority, Vogel explained. It's instead a diverse group of civilian volunteers honored to help serve their nation on its waterways. 

“Boating safety is our priority responsibility and augmenting the Coast Guard in its many different responsibility," she said. "We promote boating safety through public education courses and presentations civic organizations."

Auxiliary members also train for and conduct water safety patrols and air patrols, Vogel said. They also conduct free recreational boat safety checks.  

"We also train to do aids-to-navigation checks to help keep our waterways safe,” she added.

Prospective auxiliary members must be must be a U.S. citizen, at least 17 years old and capable of passing a security check. 

Flotilla 16-01 in Elizabeth City includes 32 members. Like other flotillas, it includes trained members who visit boat dealers, marinas and boating stores to pass out informational pamphlets and fliers about boating safety. 

Vogel noted another important task of the auxiliary’s trained inspectors: completing free, vessel safety inspections on an annual basis. Life jackets and throwable life preservers are checked to ensure they meet Coast Guard specifications.

“Vessel navigation lights are checked for proper operation," Vogel said. "Visual distress signals such as flares are (checked to ensure they're) within date and lights are operational. When a vessel passes the safety inspection a sticker is put on the vessel with current year on it."

Educating the public is an ongoing effort since new boaters are entering area waterways all the time. Keeping boaters aware of essential equipment aboard their boats save lives each year, Vogel said. 

There are auxiliary units located in the 50 states of the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.