Coast Guard Auxiliary to patrol NH lakes
Nearly 40 years ago, Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. threatened court action to keep the Coast Guard off Lake Winnipesaukee.
Today, state officials are welcoming the extra eyes from the Coast Guard Auxiliary on the big lake this summer.
"I think New Hampshire relies on our volunteer corps probably more than any other state because of what we do is local, locally controlled with limited government dollars," Executive Councilor Chris Sununu said Friday.
Volunteer members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary plan to use their own boats and fuel to watch for boaters in trouble or acting erratically. They also will offer boater education.
"We're basically there to do our patrols along with New Hampshire Marine Patrol," said Sean Skillings, staff officer for public affairs for the Coast Guard Auxiliary's Northern New England sector.
Marine Patrol Capt. Tim Dunleavy said a boating summit held last summer with various groups, including the Coast Guard Auxiliary, discussed ways to promote boating safety.
"They will act as any other citizen out boating with their family might be," said Dunleavy, the liaison with the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary. "To give us a call if they see something they deem unsafe or needs attention by the Marine Patrol."
Dunleavy said the auxiliary won't be able to pull over boats.
"The Coast Guard Auxiliary doesn't have law enforcement authority," he said. "Their mission is to promote boater safety, to assist those boaters who might be in distress for any reasons and to make themselves available for courtesy boat inspections and general safe boating practices."
Skillings, who lives in Milton, said the auxiliary will pay for its own fuel.
"It's not going to cost the government anything because we're going to use our own boats," Skillings said.
Thomson stood firm
In the mid-1970s, then-Gov. Thomson fought off attempts by the Coast Guard to patrol Lake Winnipesaukee.
"It was a sovereign state lake, it wasn't an ocean, and he said, 'We will take care of our own people up here,'" recalled his son, Peter, who served as his father's chief of staff. "The Coast Guard was going to move in. He said, 'Now wait a minute. This is a lake in the state of New Hampshire, and we will take care of it.'"
Gov. Thomson in December 1975 called the Coast Guard's action "a blatant usurpation of the sovereignty of our state," according to a Union Leader article. (See related article above.)
He said the state's boating program risked losing an estimated $120,000 because the state couldn't collect fees for boat registrations and boat plates.
In 1975, the Coast Guard said it would assume jurisdiction over the big lake, Lake Winnisquam and the waterways connecting these lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The Coast Guard determined the lakes were "navigable" waters and thus fell under Coast Guard authority.
Then-Attorney General David Souter, later named to the U.S. Supreme Court, helped persuade the Coast Guard to back down. The issue also surfaced during the 1976 GOP presidential primary with President Gerald Ford and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who later became President.
Gov. Thomson, in his autobiography, "Live Free or Die," said he instructed the attorney general to file suit against the Coast Guard.
"These arbitrary and uninformed bureaucrats of the Coast Guard could some day mistake our thousands of winter fish shacks, called 'bob houses,' as ol' fashion two holers and want to sue us for polluting our lakes," he wrote, referring to outhouses.
Not ceding enforcement
Last week, Gov. Maggie Hassan's spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said the state wasn't ceding enforcement to the feds.
"The responsibility for enforcing boating laws on New Hampshire's lakes lies with the New Hampshire Marine Patrol at the Department of Safety. The auxiliary group is a volunteer organization who provides boater education or voluntary inspections to boaters who request those services, and their members are not enlisted members of the Coast Guard or federal employees. The auxiliary group has no authority to enforce New Hampshire boating laws."
Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern agreed.
"My understanding is that the NH Department of Safety's Marine Patrol has responsibility for enforcing our boating laws, not any federal entity. The NH Marine Patrol has enlisted civilian volunteers to help with voluntary boater education efforts for years," he said in an email.
On a prime summer weekend day, Marine Patrol might have five or more officers out on separate boats watching over thousands of boats, Dunleavy said. Towns bordering the 72-square-mile lake often have a police or fire boat available for emergencies.
"The only difference between them and a recreational boater: When they're on the water, they put out their placard and they're out in a uniform" to answer questions and watch for trouble, Dunleavy said. "They're not competing with any of the marinas or tow services on the lake."
Skillings expects there will be three boats out about eight hours a day May through October. They are private boats belonging to auxiliary members who live along the lake.
"We're still working out the schedule," Skillings said.
Dunleavy welcomed the extra observers.
"It's not costing the state. It's not costing the federal government. It's not costing the taxpayers, and yet all of them are benefiting from their availability," he said.
Tom Young, owner and president of Melvin Village Marina on Lake Winnipesaukee, has been selling and renting boats on the lake since he and his family bought the marina in 1981. Young said the auxiliary patrols "couldn't hurt," but he credited the law requiring boaters to pass a boating safety class with improving safety on the water. The license is required for vessels with more than 25 horsepower.
"It didn't make everyone a better operator, but it made everyone more educated than they were. I had to take the course, and I learned things in the course that I hadn't thought about for years. ... I don't see some of the stupid things going on that I used to," he said.
At Goodhue & Hawkins Navy Yard in Wolfeboro, general manager Steve Durgan was unaware of the details of the new auxiliary patrols, but recalled when Gov. Thomson maintained that the Coast Guard did not have jurisdiction on the state's lakes.
"I've been quite busy getting boats in the water to know much about this," he said, "but I'd like to hear what the ghost of Meldrim Thomson would have to say."
Union Leader Correspondent Larissa Mulkern contributed to this story.