For one local Scotts Valley resident the desire to provide community service and keep recreational boaters safe has proven to be a life-fulfilling career dedicated to volunteerism.
Wally Smith, who spent the earlier part of his life in Connecticut and New York, moved to California in the 1970s following a career in banking. It was his time spent on the east coast where Smith said he first fell in love with boating. “I did a lot of boating in my youth,” Smith said. “Everything you could do in the water, you name it, and I did it. Jet skiing, boating, swimming, etc. I swam on both my high school and college swim team.”
After moving to California, Smith purchased a boat and kept it docked in the Santa Cruz Harbor. Smith had heard rumors that if he took a safety boating class offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary he could receive a discount on his boating insurance premiums.
“So I took the safety boating course and I just became enamored with the whole program in the auxiliary,” Smith said.
The United States Coast Auxiliary exists to support the U.S. Coast Guard in all its missions, expect roles that require law enforcement or military engagement. With over 24,000 members, the Coast Guard Auxiliary contributes approximately 4.5 million hours of service each year. The all-volunteer organization assists in things such as teaching safety boating courses, performing regulation and vessel safety visits, and holding public affair events to get the word out on how to be safe on the water.
The auxiliary is structured with different units or groups, the smallest one being a Flotilla. The local Flotilla in Santa Cruz has about 30 members, according to Smith. One step above a Flotilla, is a Division, with the local one being the Monterey Bay Division. All of the different local Flotilla chapters are part of a District, where Smith is the District Commodore currently. There are 14 Districts and three areas dividing up all the members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary
This August, Smith was elected at a National Convention in Orlando, Florida to become Deputy National Commodore for the Pacific Area and Operations nationwide, covering 10 states. Smith joins only eight Auxiliary members in serving as a National Coast Guard Auxiliary Commodore.
“I felt very honored and excited to be elected to this role and I take it on with a great deal of trepidation,” Smith, who will assume his new role on Nov. 1, said.
With the new title, Smith said it will mean more traveling to work with other managers from other districts. Also there are mission groups within the auxiliary, so Smith will have national oversight of operations and international affairs.
Beyond his love for boating, which first led Smith to the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Smith said he has greatly appreciated furthering his knowledge on the sport. “I have always found that when you teach something you learn more because you have to be the subject matter expert,” Smith said. “I have also learned a lot from the interactions with the students. There is a great educational experience that happens in the classes.”
In additional to teaching almost 30 different classes on boating safety yearly, Smith said he spends weekends patrolling the Santa Cruz Harbor on what he refers to as a M.O.M. patrol, or a Marine Observation Mission.
“We’ll go out if the weather is good and look for kayakers, paddle boarders, boaters, etc. and keep our eyes out if anyone needs assistance,” Smith said. Smith reiterated that the Coast Guard Auxiliary is not a law enforcement agency, therefore the sheer responsibility for volunteers is to keep people safe while on the water.
Smith recalled a few instances where he helped rescue individuals in need of assistance. The first one occurred when Smith was early into his service with the Auxiliary. “We were near the mouth of the harbor, and we saw a capsized outrigger canoe. One person was in the boat, the other in the water,” Smith said. “The man in the water was paraplegic and paralyzed from the waist down. We were able to rescue him, get him to emergency medical services and safe his life.”
The other example was when Smith was out on patrol he noticed a man who did not look good as he was waving from his boat. “It turned out he was suffering from a heart attack,” Smith said. “Luckily we had an ER nurse on board and she was able to attend to him and another volunteer was able to drive his boat back to shore.”
When asked about how he felt knowing he saved two people’s lives during his service as a Coast Guard Auxiliary member, “It is just overwhelming gratification,” Smith said. “You cannot describe the feeling, it is just extraordinary knowing you just saved a life.”
Smith has lived in Scotts Valley for 32 years and said living here is the best of all worlds. “You are 25 minutes from San Jose and 20 minutes from the harbor, what could be better? We just live in an ideal spot.” Smith, 73, is married to his wife Jane Smith, and has a daughter in Watsonville with two grandsons and two greatgrandchildren with one more on the way.
As Smith prepares to take on his new title of Deputy National Commodore for the Pacific Area, he said he is thrilled to work with such a camaraderie of people within the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
“We are always looking for good people, you do not have to be a boater,” Smith said. “They just have to want to have a dedication to serve the public.”