May 21, 2006 – Under a sparkling blue sky Saturday, hundreds of folks – at least half of them children – watched the U. S. Coast Guard strut its stuff.
And some strutting it was, as the Coast Guard and its auxiliary kicked off National Safe Boating Week. One of the day's highlights was when a bright orange French-made Dolphin helicopter, hovering between the waterfront and Hassel Island, plucked a swimmer from the sea. In fact, it did three pluckings, or, more accurately, at-sea rescues.
"What you see today is easy," said Bob Armstrong, auxiliary president. "This is a nice, flat sea. Imagine doing that in 15- to 20-foot seas, with a 40-knot wind."
Armstrong said the French helicopter is "the best." A National Guard Blackhawk helicopter had been scheduled for the simulated rescue, but, Armstrong said, "It's being deployed to Iraq. They're making preparation now, so it couldn't come."
And a Falcon jet scheduled for a flyby couldn't make it either. "It was called off on a search-and-rescue mission," Armstrong said. "These things happen, you know."
Neither no-show dimmed the spirits of the about 1,600 folk, who took part in the day, happily munching on the free hot dogs and hamburgers served up by the Civil Air Patrol.
Young people on a tour of the 110-foot patrol boat Cushing were in awe. "Man, look at that," said one impressed youngster, "isn't that cool?"
Khari Elcock, 9, a Seventh Day Adventist school student, gazed wide-eyed with his family at the operation. Elcock had just completed a tour of the cutter, where he had been to the wheelhouse, the foredeck and the communications room. The wheelhouse got his interest. "How many motors does it take to run this?" he asked. "Two," was the answer, "two motors, two shafts."
Armstrong said Sunday that the Cushing has hosted about 340 tours.
The rescue was but one of a number of things that excited the youngsters Saturday as the day was highlighted by high-speed boat chases, safety demonstrations, and rescue boat tours.
Armstrong, said "What began seven years ago as a small demonstration of boating safety gear, is now the largest event of this kind in the Virgin Islands."
Saturday was also Armed Forces Day, and the services all had booths set up extolling the virtues of joining up.
One of the biggest draws was the Coast Guard, itself. The Coast Guard Academy is one of the nation's most prestigious schools. Four St. Thomas high school seniors will attend a Coast Guard prep school this year (See "Four Seniors Awarded More Than $1 Million in Coast Guard Scholarships").
Sean LaPlace, 13, a ninth-grader at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, visited the displays with his mother, Chrys Petersen, and younger sister, Analise LaPlace. "The tour of the cutter was interesting," he said, but LaPlace's real interest is the Coast Guard Academy. He and his mom picked up information available on the school. "It would be a wonderful opportunity for him," she said. "It would," LaPlace agreed, with a big smile.
The commanding officer of the Cushing, Lt. John M. Fiorentine, stood on the cutter's foredeck, graciously greeting his visitors. The youngsters were impressed to meet the actual skipper. One of them looked at him quizzically, however. The skipper is 27 years old. "Isn't that awfully young to be commanding your own boat," he was asked.
"No," said. Fiorentine, with a smile. "Most of our crew is young. The oldest is a machinist chief who is 40." Fiorentine commands a crew of 17, along with two academy cadets.
A Coast Guard academy graduate, Fiorentine, who has been skipper for two years, joined the service when he was 17. He is stationed in Puerto Rico and he loves it. "This is the best duty in the U. S. Coast Guard," he said.
He said duty on the cutter is about 75 percent immigration control, 15 percent counter narcotics work, and 10 percent search and rescue.
Back on the dock, the Charlotte Amalie High School drill team put on an impressive show, while singer Brian Bell performed.
Suddenly, there was an announcement. "Everybody wave," an officer announced. "The helicopter is going to do a flyby. Show them your appreciation, yell and wave," he commanded as the orange aircraft made one speedy, swooping sweep of the harbor and was on its way.
Mark Kuszewski, 5, needed no encouragement as he waved wildly at the flying machine. "Wow," he said, "I like choppers!" His dad, Mike Kuszewski, agreed. "That's why we're here today," he said.
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