Our Protectors

We don’t usually think about them until we need them. And by that point, we really need them. Police, fire, search and rescue, U.S. Coast Guard, advocates for children—they all step in at times of crisis.For some, like those who fight wildfires, the work is intensely physical. For others, like search-and-rescue, it can be highly specialized—picture rescuing someone on a rock ledge with ropes and a litter. Or our protectors might need a high degree of technological and psychological knowhow, like the police detective and children’s advocate who help protect kids from online predators and other criminals. In many cases, whenever our protectors get dressed for work, they are preparing to put themselves in harm’s way to help people they probably don’t even know. On the next pages, we profile some of our North Sound protectors to find out how, and why, they do what they do.

In a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol video, two weary young men cling to an overturned canoe in the Puget Sound. As a U.S. Coast Guard response boat coasts up to them, the soaked and scared canoers start to sink. One is quickly grabbed out of the water and put into the boat, but the other is pulled away by the current. Just as his head dips below the surface, he is snatched up by Coast Guard crew.

The 2014 rescue is terrifying to watch, but the U.S. Coast Guard in Bellingham performs rescues like this routinely. World-class boating, SCUBA diving, kayaking, and unique marine life attract thousands of visitors and residents to the Puget Sound and its surrounding waters. But even to someone experienced in the outdoors, the ocean can be unforgiving and dangerous. To help keep boaters, fisherman, and community members safe, the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed in Bellingham at 28 Bellwether Way at Squalicum Harbor Marina, keeps watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

According to U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer Jason Tessier, Bellingham’s Coast Guard station serves primarily as a search-and-rescue station. They monitor coastal waters from the Canadian border at Point Roberts south to Deception Pass in Anacortes, and west through the San Juan Islands.

“Our main job is to serve the public in a search-and-rescue capacity, but we also do law enforcement like drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, criminal law, and also recreational boating safety,” Tessier says.

This includes educating and supplying boaters with the knowledge and equipment necessary to be as safe as possible. Unsure if your boat is fit to sail? Reach out to the station. “They are more than willing to come by and do a vessel safety check. It’s purely for educational purposes and is entirely free,” Tessier says.

The station was commissioned in 1999 and there are currently 37 personnel that call the station home. For sailing to rescue missions, they have two 45-foot response boats Boat Safety, Rescues, Drugs, Border Are Challenges for Coast Guard and two 29-footers. The larger crafts are designed to handle rough weather and can carry more equipment while the smaller boats are designed for shallower depths and hold up to three rescuers. While the Coast Guard does use helicopters, the nearest air station is in Port Angeles. If a helicopter is necessary, the Coast Guard will usually work with the local fire departments.

Petty officer Patrick Joyce has been at the Coast Guard station in Bellingham since 2015, but has already seen his fair share of rescue operations. Over a year, they handle anywhere from 125 to 175 cases. The busiest time of the year is between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but those numbers fluctuate.

“When I first got here we were getting called almost two or three times a day for a couple of weeks,” Joyce says. “But, last summer I went out maybe five times over the whole summer on search and rescue cases.”

Burning boats, capsized vessels, lost kayaks, and heart attacks—the Coast Guard has seen it all. Anyone who enjoys the ocean is encouraged to educate themselves with the proper techniques, equipment, and knowledge to ensure a safe and enjoyable time at sea. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard will continue to watch over and protect.

Five tips on water safety

  1. Keep up with safety. Update old life jackets if any are old or broken.
  2. Contact the Coast Guard with any questions regarding rules, safety, or weather.
  3. Listen to NOAA Weather Radio for updates on small craft warnings, etc.
  4. Put your name and phone number on kayaks and canoes. They are easily blown away or lost!
  5. Reach out for safety exams.
United States Coast Guard, Bellingham
28 Bellwether Way, Bellingham

To continue reading Our Protector feature series, click here for the next story.

"To help keep boaters, fisherman, and community members safe, the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed in Bellingham, keeps watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week."