The new decade opened with two tragic accidents in Tampa Bay, Florida. On the night of January 28, 1980 the Coast Guard tender Blackthorn sank after a collision with the tanker Capricorn, with the loss of twenty-three Coast Guardsmen. On May 9 of the same year the freighter Summit Venture rammed the main span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, knocking over twelve hundred feet of roadway into the water and killing thirty-five people. In both cases the Auxiliary helped with SAR operations.
In the spring of 1980 the government of Cuba suddenly announced that it would permit a massive emigration through the port of Mariel. For three weeks a steady stream of small boats of every description, averaging two hundred to three hundred per day, made their way from Cuba to Florida. The Coast Guard mobilized all its resources in the area. Auxiliarists manned radios, performed SAR along the Florida coast, and stood watch at the stations in the Coast Guardsmen's absence.
In 1984, in an effort to set standards for training and efficiency in the Auxiliary, Coast Guard Headquarters initiated the Boat Crew Qualification Program. In order to participate in operations on the water each Auxiliarist would have to pass a rigorous series of courses, supervised by specially-trained Auxiliarists certified as Qualified Examiners (QEs).
The reaction to the new program among Auxiliarists was mixed. Many welcomed the opportunity to get the new training; others were unable or unwilling to commit the time. Another development that sapped enthusiasm was a toughening of Coast Guard policy regarding assists to vessels in trouble. One of the Auxiliary's most common activities had been towing boats that ran out of gas, developed engine trouble, or had other mechanical problems. Pressure from commercial towing firms led the Coast Guard to emphasize that Auxiliarists were authorized to pass towlines to other boats only in genuine emergency situations.
The combination of rising standards and declining opportunities to be of service probably was responsible for a decline in Auxiliary membership during the mid-eighties. In 1987 membership stood at 39,144 - a decline of nearly twenty percent since 1976. Those figures attracted the attention of Congress, which ordered the Secretary of Transportation to prepare a detailed report on the subject.
The Coast Guard thereupon undertook another study of the Auxiliary, this one chaired by Capt. William P. Hewel, Deputy Chief of the Office of Boating, Public, and Consumer Affairs. A Washington research firm, Development Procurement International, distributed questionnaires to Auxiliarists - and former Auxiliarists who had disenrolled - and analyzed the results. The study group suspected that the decline in membership was a natural, temporary consequence of the Boat Crew and Non-Emergency Assistance policies. But, the group noted, "the present size of the Coast Guard Auxiliary is not large enough to satisfy Coast Guard requirements from the present to the year 2000." In order to keep up with the demands of the recreational boating community, Auxiliary membership needed to expand at a rate of about three percent per year.
The eighties saw a number of massive public events on the water, each attended by a throng of undisciplined small craft. Auxiliarists assisted the Coast Guard in patrolling two more "tall ship parades," OPSAIL '80 in Boston and OPSAIL '82 in Philadelphia. During the Olympic Games at Los Angeles in 1984, the America's Cup races of 1983 and 1988, and the Pan American Games of 1987, Auxiliary vessels kept the yacht race courses clear of spectator craft. For the centennial of the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 1986, more than thirty thousand watercraft descended on New York Harbor. Some 100 Coast Guard vessels and 380 Auxiliary boats provided safety patrols in the largest peacetime operation in Coast Guard history.
In 1989 the Coast Guard Auxiliary was fifty years old. In the following year the Coast Guard celebrated its bicentennial, and in 1992 the United States observed the four-hundredth anniversary of the first voyage of Columbus. The latter occasion inspired OPSAIL 92, another parade of sailing vessels in New York Harbor. The Auxiliary again provided crowd control and SAR services.
The years 1992 and 1993 saw the Auxiliary's ingenuity and dedication tested by disasters precipitated by weather and international politics. Auxiliarists evacuated hundreds of people from the path of Hurricane Andrew, and from the scenes of devastating floods in the Midwest. In 1994 a military coup in Haiti released another surge of immigrants heading for Florida. The Coast Guard and the Auxiliary mobilized in the largest search-and-rescue operation since the Second World War.
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