From bananas to boat parades, U.S. Coast Guard in St. Pete covers 400 nautical miles to keep Bay Area safe

Here in the Tampa Bay area, the U.S. Coast Guard is often a literal lifeline for people in need. Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard rush in on boats or aircraft saving them from what can be very dire situations. But there is much about the Coast Guard’s work that goes unnoticed.

On Thursday, the Coast Guard celebrates its 232nd birthday. It was founded on that day in 1790.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector St. Pete is one of the largest in the country, covering 400 nautical miles along Florida’s west coast. Its crews are responsible for more than just search and rescue missions.

"All the bridges that are in the Tampa Bay area," said Lt. Joseph Donkel, the Chief of Port and Waterways Safety, "we are actually the liaison with the bridge owners to facilitate the maintenance, rehabilitation, and the safe use of those bridges."

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The Port of Tampa Bay also falls under the control of the Coast Guard. The port is the country’s third-largest for domestic trade with 33 million tons of cargo moving through every year.

"If you've put gas in your vehicle, which I'm sure everyone has, it's a high likelihood that it came through this port right here," said Donkel. "If you’ve eaten a banana, it most likely came through this port. I believe the number last year was something like 1.2 billion bananas that came through."

The Coast Guard also has dozens of inspectors who make sure all the commercial boats—even smaller charter vessels—are inspected and have licensed operators. Not all of them do.

"These people are happy to take hard-working people's money and take them out on a boat," said retired Commander Brian Knapp who is Chief of Investigations with the Coast Guard. "They don't have the requisite training. They don't have the requisite license to engage in commercial service. When people go on boats like that, they are placing their lives in jeopardy."

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Even Tampa’s signature celebrations like the Gasparilla Pirate Invasion and the championship boat parades for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tampa Bay Buccaneers wouldn’t happen without months of safety and security planning from the Coast Guard.

"I remember seeing some of the Tampa Bay Bucs tossing out the Lombardi Trophy back and forth between the boats," Lt. Donkel recalled. "So, right here in front of our office."

The U.S. Coast Guard is always looking for active duty and reserve officers. If you are interested in learning more, click here.  

If you’re interested in joining one of the Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas around Tampa Bay as a volunteer, head over to their website: