Any day at Eckerd College campus in St. Petersburg, Florida, you can find students walking to class or studying by the water’s edge. You may see one or two look at their phones when a text comes, jump up and rush away. They are not late for class or a hot date, but off on a rescue mission as part of an elite and unique volunteer marine search and rescue team known as EC-SAR.
The team, formed in 1971, provided a safety component to the beginning waterfront program at Eckerd, where activities such as canoeing and sailing were growing in popularity. Originally known as the Florida Presbyterian College Search Safety and Rescue Team, between 1971 and 1977 the crews were constantly waved down by boaters in need. The director of the program realized they had stumbled onto a much-needed niche and convinced students to try opening their services to the greater Tampa Bay area for a one-semester period. The enormously successful result has evolved the program into one that draws students from all over the country to join what is now known as the Eckerd College Search and Rescue team.
This volunteer program is open for any degree-seeking undergraduate Eckerd student. It is completely voluntary in nature, earning no hours toward a degree. Termed ‘co-curricular,’ it complements any degree program by being a part of Eckerd’s dual transcript. One transcript is academic, while the other lists things such as clubs, community service, research, etc. To enter the program, students must complete only a swim test. Prior boating experience is not required.
Ryan Dilkey, a college and program alumnus and coordinator of EC-SAR, explains there is a required basic training that takes about nine months, the equivalent of two semesters, to complete. The curriculum, amassed over a four decade period and taught by himself and another full time instructor, covers boating safety, seamanship and crewing the deck. Once mastered, those skills are built upon with technical rescue training such as surf rescues, medical response, boat fires and sinkings; and a nautical aspect including charts, navigation and piloting. In the first years, students put in 6 to 8 hours a week. For the third and fourth years, members may devote as much as 20 hours a week, depending on time of year and training cycle. Dilkey points out, academics are the student’s first priority; the program is second. Dilkey and the college will work with student volunteers to maintain their class schedules, work, and studies and will schedule training to be as accommodating as possible. Everything else is up to the student to fit in.
Today, 45 to 50 rotating student volunteers are on call 24 hours a day from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m., 7 days a week. After each 24 hours on call, a student is off for 48 hours. On call team members must be within a 5-minute response time of the boats. Dilkey says that means they need to be either on campus, at the grocery store across the street or at Taco Bell, “pretty much the three things a college student needs to survive,” he says. A matrix of class schedules is set up so students will not be called while in academic classes.
The EC-SAR team responds to around 600 calls each year, 50% of which come directly from boaters. Last year the number was 641, and the record is broken every year. Calls include non-emergency services such as assisting boaters that are ‘broken down,’ fuel transfers (fuel put in vessels is the only service they charge for) and full-blown search and rescue missions. The team covers about 500 square nautical miles, an area overlapping 3 coast guard stations, and touching 26 municipalities.
The program is funded through a variety of sources. The college pays for staff. Creative fundraising efforts request vendor sponsorships, community and alumni donations, and welcome donations from people assisted on the water. There is an annual yard sale (occurring on March 14th of this year), attended by 1,000 people or so. Donation and resale of boats is also a source of funds – if the boat doesn’t fit the needs of the team then the tax-deductible gift can be sold. These sale boats can be seen at www.eckerd.edu/waterfront.
The normally 4-boat fleet, now reduced to 3 (one needs repairs exceeding its replacement value), includes 19- to 26-foot center console fishing boats outfitted for search and rescue with: tow screens to protect the crew, medical gear, jumper cables, extra fluids for boats in need, portable fire fighting pumps (doubling as dewatering pumps for sinking vessels), a series of towing setups for pulling grounded vessels, for towing astern and alongside, and radars and chart plotters for night searches. The third boat is a highly modified life boat donated by the Boy Scouts of America.
These college volunteers are not only earning Eckerd College degrees, but also graduating as full SAR team members with a wealth of knowledge, work experience, a sense of service they could not gain anywhere else and a great experience for anyone who loves the water.