Learn the ropes from U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers — 10 classes cost just $80

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

Sailboats crossing in Santa Monica Bay Photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki

Sailboats crossing in Santa Monica Bay
Photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki

There are few more disconcerting sights from a boat than to have a vessel head straight toward you with no sign of veering off.

I once faced that situation while sailing south out of the marina. Another sloop on port tack didn’t seem to care that soon we would collide head on. I swerved and yelled “Starboard!” at the top of my lungs. The other skipper didn’t alter course by a single compass point, giving me a wave and smile as he kept going in his ignorance.

That was one sailor who would have benefited from taking the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary’s informative Sailing Skills and Seamanship Course. The next session, starting Sept. 12, happens over 10 consecutive Monday evenings at Del Rey Yacht Club. The whole course (including materials and refreshments) costs just $80, and those who complete it may be eligible for boaters’ insurance discounts.

Unlike the rigorous system of written and on-the-road testing needed to earn one’s driver’s license, there are no legal requirements for somebody to become skipper of a watercraft. That’s a problem, because you can’t walk away from a boating accident.

Established by Congress in 1939, the Coast Guard Auxiliary is an all-volunteer force that counts educating the public about recreational boating safety among its most significant duties.

“While the regular Coast Guard is out saving people and arresting druggies, we are educating the public about how to avoid being rescued or arrested. The Coast Guard tells us that every rescue we prevent through public education is as important as every rescue they make,” said member Allen Bakalyar, skipper of a Catalina 25.

“All the volunteer instructors are local boaters with years of diverse experience — people who have crossed oceans, some who have grown up in Marina del Rey, people with different points of view. It’s not just one guy droning on and on every week,” he says.

The course also emphasizes local boating lore, which includes sharing knowledge about hidden hazards such as the tanker field off El Segundo, the submerged Santa Monica breakwater, the old outfall for the Hyperion Treatment Plant, Catalina reefs and shoaling near the Marina del Rey breakwater.

In addition to the upcoming sailing skills class, the local Coast Guard Auxiliary also offers a Boating Skills and Seamanship course for power boaters and a Weekend Navigator course teaching GPS, paper chart and dead reckoning navigation skills.

And then there’s Suddenly in Command, a single-day seminar for couples with an imbalance of boating skills.

“That is not a healthy situation. What if one of them falls overboard? So we try to get that team to work together so both are capable of handling the boat, operating the radio, calling for help, learning how to turn the engine on and off,” Bakalyar said. “We find that the significant other becomes more a part of the activity, enjoys it more, participates more and is a more effective crew member. And that’s a much more productive, rewarding experience for both.”

Classes tend to be small, allowing moments of individualized instruction and plenty of time to address specific questions.

“If they are going to Catalina for the weekend and they’ve never picked up a mooring before, we’ll stop the class and go over the procedure,” Bakalyar said.

And volunteer teachers get the satisfaction of knowing that these classes help not only those who take them, but everyone their students will encounter on the water.

“We’re honored and happy to teach the classes,” Bakalyar said.

The first session of the next Sailing Skills and Seamanship Course is from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12, at Del Rey Yacht Club, 13900 Palawan Way, Marina del Rey. Email abakalyar@socal.rr.com to register; RSVPS are preferred but students can also show up on day one with the $80 fee (cash or check) in hand.