Bill Martin

If there’s one thing Altavista resident Bill Martin loves…it’s being on the water! “I enjoy the water. I’ve been on it since age 15 and owned boats most of my life. Right now, I have three,” he shared last week.

A part of his life centers around the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 85 that was established in Altavista back in the 1960s when Smith Mountain Lake was forming.

“The flotilla does a lot of things to promote boating safety as well as teach classes,” he explains. “We also help with search and rescue when needed and perform safety patrols around the lake.”

He points out that auxilliarists are not members of law enforcement and do not have that authority.

Their facility is positioned about midway of the lake on land appropriated by Appalachian Electric Power (AEP).

There are two flotillas with about 50 active members. “I’ve been a member for eons!” Martin exclaims.

He shares that he’s “proud of what we’ve accomplished” and wishes they had kept count of all the boating safety classes they’ve conducted since the 1960s.

A big part of the excitement of being in the auxiliary right now stems from a special gift from the Coast Guard…a sturdy motorboat that was declared surplus when it had run its course with the Coast Guard.

“This well-built boat is pretty awesome! It’s 27 feet long with twin 250 horsepower motors. I have no idea where it’s been in the past,” he says.

Martin explains that he’s not sure exactly how it came about for the auxiliary to get the boat. “I know we were made aware that it was available to us about two years ago. We applied for it, got it, and went to Norfolk to pick it up. We maintain it with no tax dollars from the government. Our revenue comes from dues paid by members and donations.”

He also points out that the boat needed some work when they got it with both motors requiring extensive work. “You can rest assured that it was pretty much worn out when the Coast Guard declared it surplus, but it works well for our purposes patrolling the lake. It was no prize and took the dedication of a lot of members to get it in the shape it’s in now.”

One of those purposes included trailering fully decorated for Christmas in the recent Altavista Christmas Parade.

“On an excitement level, I think it’s safe to say we were second only to Santa Claus,” he jokes. “Young kids look at it and think it’s awesome. We enjoyed passing out candy as we passed by.”

There was a popular demand for the boat to appear in the parade again this year after a good reception last year (the first time they were in the parade.)

It was no easy feat getting it here since it’s rather tricky getting such a large boat out of the water onto a trailer and hauling it to Altavista. “It’s not like getting a pleasure boat loaded on a trailer. This boat is heavy!”

Being so big and stocky helps it make a real statement on the lake during patrols.

Not everyone can drive it either. “You have to be trained and qualified. I’ve been boating for years and I’m not currently qualified to operate it,” says Martin.

The auxiliary meets once a month at the Coast Guard Station on Smith Mountain Lake. Anyone can join, but you must pass a number of classes to be a full-blown member. “It’s quite involved. You have to be really interested and motivated to do all that’s required.”

Boating safety classes are open to all. “But the class barely touches the surface of what full-fledge members take in a number of areas of discipline such as search and rescue, radio, weather, etc. You can qualify in as many or as few as you like. It takes constant updating to stay qualified. I do one update every other year.”

One great perk of being a member is that your membership card will gets you on any military base in the country (to visit).

During the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, members were asked to acquire additional qualifications to become members of Homeland Security.

“At one time, we were trained to watch for and report any suspicious activity that could be linked to terrrorists. We were guaranteed to have a member of law enforcement on the scene within 30 minutes,” he states.

The auxiliary is the only volunteer organization in America that was created by an act of Congress.

Martin shares that they are available for military funerals upon request.

He is married to Johelen Martin of Altavista. They have two daughters, Marie Mitchell and Michele Grossman.