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Sail & Power Squadrons: Having Fun, Saving Lives

Pompano Beach’s Monthly Raft up Lake Boca. Courtesy of James McEntee

Florida is a boater’s paradise, with approximately 8,250 miles of tidal coastline, 1,700 miles of rivers and streams, and 3 million acres of lakes, but for the unprepared, it can also be a boater’s nightmare. Nationwide, eighty percent of boating fatalities are attributed to individuals who did not receive any boating education. Which is why Marshall Bellin, commander of the Pompano Beach Sail and Power Squadron, isn’t exaggerating when he says, “This class really can save your life.”

Bellin is talking about the American Boating Course, a basic boating safety class which fulfills the 2010 Florida mandate requiring anyone born on or after January 1, 1988 to have a valid Boating Safety Education ID Card to operate a motorized vessel of 10 horsepower or greater. This class is one of more than 25 classes available through Pompano and the other 14 squadrons which make up the United States Power Squadron’s District 8, covering an area from Sebastian Inlet to Key West. All classes are taught by volunteer members and are open to the public for only the cost of materials.

“Education is an important part of what we do,” notes Joan Wallin, a member of the Key West Sail and Power Squadron. It isn’t just limited to classroom instruction.

Sail & Power Squadrons: Having Fun, Saving Lives :Volunteering at Dania Beach Marine flea market. Courtesy of James McEntee
Volunteering at Dania Beach Marine flea market. Courtesy of James McEntee

There is the Practical On-the-Water Training Seminar, a weekend course which includes actual experience in boat handling, perfect for new boat owners or anyone who doesn’t feel confident maneuvering around obstacles or backing into a slip. And because a part of boater education is knowing how to equip your own boat properly for safe operation, the Power Squadrons also perform annual vessel safety checks free of charge, identifying common problems such as defective life jackets, malfunctioning horns and navigation lights, fire extinguishers that need servicing, and flares that are out of date. Armed with this information, boaters can make the necessary fixes before tragedies occur—and avoid receiving a ticket. Other safe boating events and demonstrations include a high tech fire simulator which allows participants to practice the correct use of fire extinguishers, and the popular Paddle Smart program for paddlers of all ages.

“It is always a thrill to see people learn something new,” says Bellin, who counts the time he spends teaching USPS courses among his most rewarding experiences.

In fact, many active Power Squadron members like Bellin began as students and found they enjoyed the camaraderie of other boaters. While education is an important piece of the overall mission of the USPS, so is socialization. From Pompano’s Thirsty Thursday to Key West’s sunset potluck, each squadron offers frequent opportunities for members to get together, swap fish stories, and have fun.

Bellin pointed out that the USPS motto is “Come for the boating education—stay for the friends.” Wallin agrees. When asked what was best about being a Power Squadron member, her answer was immediate. “It’s the people,” she said.

While each squadron has a unique personality, all share a love of boating. This sentiment is the foundation of USPS social activities. Local cruises are popular pastimes, with day trips to snorkel on nearby reefs, full moon raft-ups, and weekend rendezvous to resort marinas as well as pristine islands. Other marine activities include sponsoring and participating in community-wide events like the Florida Keys Community College Swim Around Key West, a 12.5 mile open water swim for which the Key West squadron provides boats as rest and first aid stations along the route. Then there is Coral Ridge’s Clam-a-Rama Clam Dig Weekend, the Sebastian Inlet clean-up, numerous Catch and Keep or Release fishing tournaments, and of course, Christmas lighted boat parades.

Sail & Power Squadrons: Having Fun, Saving Lives :Pompano Beach’s Monthly Raft up Lake Boca. Courtesy of James McEntee
Pompano Beach’s Monthly Raft up Lake Boca. Courtesy of James McEntee
Sail & Power Squadrons: Having Fun, Saving Lives :Dinner meeting. Courtesy of James McEntee
Dinner meeting. Courtesy of James McEntee

There are land activities as well, ranging from the formal Change of Watch balls held annually to informal picnics and cookouts like Pompano’s Dogs on the Dock event. Each squadron also holds a monthly dinner meeting with informative guest speakers on topics ranging from Caribbean cruising to techniques for catching more fish. Many of squadrons sponsor nautical flea markets that are open to the public, providing local boaters the opportunity to clean out their lockers and swap out their trash for treasure. Finally, there are district and national conferences, allowing boaters to share their knowledge of the sea.

And it is that knowledge borne of experience that is the greatest benefit of being a member of the United States Power Squadrons. Bellin tells of being caught in sudden squall in the Florida Bay. “It was really rough, five foot seas in four feet of water, but I remembered what I had learned in my boating class, to cross the waves at a 45 degree angle. If I hadn’t known that, I’m not sure we would have made it back in.” He realized then what so many others have learned, that South Florida’s Power Squadrons do far more than help fulfill boating requirements or host potluck suppers — they save lives.

To learn more about your local United States Power Squadron, go to http://www.usps.org

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