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New boats, better response

One of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Portage’s new response boat mediums is seen in Dollar Bay Thursday. Crews have been training on the boat, which will start being used for patrols Monday. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

HANCOCK — The U.S. Coast Guard Station Portage’s newest vessel will be out patrolling the waters next week.

Officers have been training on a new 45-foot response boat medium, the first of two it will have on the water this summer. Starting Monday, the boat replaces the 47-foot motor lifeboat, which had been the last one in use at the Coast Guard stations on the Great Lakes. The station also has a smaller response boat.

The new response boats are faster and more fuel-efficient, giving the station more capacity to respond, said Maria Collett, officer in charge at Coast Guard Station Portage.

With a top speed of 45 knots (nearly 52 mph), the response boat is nearly twice as fast as the lifeboat.

“If it’s not urgent, we’re probably not going to exceed 30 knots just because that’s kind of how we define safe speed,” she said. “But if it is someone in extremis, then we can go up to 45 knots to respond.”

Based in Dollar Bay, the station covers territory around the Keweenaw Peninsula ranging from south of Ontonagon west to the Huron Islands, and extending as far north as the maritime border with Canada.

Even with faster boats, the best way for boaters to be safe is to be prepared. As the summer boating season starts, the Coast Guard has tips on safe boating habits, and ways to help boaters notify the Coast Guard and other sailors in case of an emergency.

Sometimes, emergencies result from poor planning, Collett said.

“It’s very different being in Portage Lake or inside Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor, but then they’ll take those smaller assets that are less capable, and they’ll push out into the big lake,” she said. “And if you’re not tracking the winds and the forecast, you can find yourself really outside of the capabilities of the vessel pretty quickly.”

Many boaters also head out on Lake Superior without the emergency gear they’re required to have.

Fire extinguishers are mandatory, as are flares. So are life jackets — one for every person on board.

“You’d be surprised the number of people who don’t use life jackets or don’t have them on board when they’re out on their boat,” Collett said.

Unlike a vehicle on land, people are allowed to have open alcohol containers. But as with driving, the adult navigating a recreational vessel cannot exceed a blood-alcohol level of 0.08.

In two years here, alcohol consumption hasn’t been a factor in any of the search and rescue operations Collett’s undertaken.

“Other units that I’ve been at, it’s a major issue,” she said. “I think it’s really dependent on the climate and environment where you’re at. I think we have a pretty mature, responsible community.”

People can also encounter problems such as a dead battery or running out of gas. To ensure a faster and accurate response, they can also buy a personal locator beacon, which activates an emergency frequency.

If people use those, they should also make sure to get the beacon registered, Collett said.

“We’ll just get an anonymous activation saying ‘A mariner somewhere here is in distress, but we know nothing about it. We don’t know the name, phone number,'” she said.

Before people go out on the water, they should also leave a plan for what they’re doing, as well as contact information.

“That way, if heaven forbid, you do run into something — if your vessel capsizes, if you miss coming home on time you miss a call in — then we know where to go looking for you,” she said.

And the station has more area to cover. After a small Coast Guard station in North Superior, Minnesota closed a year and a half ago, its coverage area was split among Portage and the station in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

“This boat allows us to meet that expectation of coverage, whereas before we wouldn’t be able to do it on one tank,” Collett said.

Crews have been doing search and rescue training on the boat for the past month ahead of its debut on Monday.

That day, the station will also pick up the second response boat medium, while the motor lifeboat will be taken to the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School in Washington.

The training has included towing training, as well as close-quarters maneuvering. Instead of the old boat’s twin propeller system, the new response boat is jet-driven. It also has a docking mode, allowing it to move laterally.

“It’s a completely different platform,” Collett said. “I think it’s going to take some getting used to for the crew, but they’re doing amazing. They have kind of a narrow window to certify it on, but they did great with it.”

By the end of June, the station should be up to speed on training, and starting to push out more into the outer bounds of its operating area, Collett said.

“If boaters see us out there, you know, give us a friendly wave,” she said. “Or if they have any questions, if they want to do inspections ahead of time, or if they’re curious about the regulatory requirements for boats, they are welcome to call, come in, or even if we’re out on the water come alongside and we can talk to them about it as well.”

For updates, including new station personnel transferring here this summer, go to the Coast Guard’s Facebook page at facebook.com/USCoastGuardStationPortage.

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