Quintessentially Lowcountry: Volunteer squadron is often to the rescue

When his phone rings in the middle of the night, Dick Jennings doesn't need caller ID to know who is calling.

"It's always, 'Hi, Mr. Jennings. This is Petty Officer so-and-so,'" Jennings said. "The Coast Guard is calling me at all hours of the night."

These impromptu wake-up calls are part of the job for Jennings and the 42 active members of Beaufort Marine Rescue Squadron 4B, better known as Beaufort Water Search and Rescue.

Operating out of a small building on Paris Avenue in Port Royal, the all-volunteer squadron might be asked to aid distressed boaters, find missing swimmers or patrol the seawall during festivals at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in downtown Beaufort.

With Jennings as its skipper, the squadron responded to more than 70 incidents last year and logged more than 2,000 man hours, according to the Coast Guard.

Jennings said every member of his unit believes it is their duty to help those in need and keep area waterways safe.

"We all like boats. We're boating people, so when we hear that someone else is in trouble on the water, we want to go get them," Jennings said. "It's the right thing to do."

Scott Jennings, Dick Jennings' son andthe squadron's third-in-command, said he enjoys using his knowledge of boating and area waters to give back to the community.

"Some people go out there and they just have some bad luck," Scott Jennings said. "They may not know a lot about boating or about the water, and I always feel like we should go out there and help."

The squadron's jurisdiction extends from the northern side of St. Helena Sound to the northern tip of Hilton Head Island, but calls for help aren't always confined to that area, said Dick Jennings said.

"We've gone on a lot of long searches -- down to Daufuskie Island, up the Combahee River, almost to Yemassee," DickJennings said. "We've searched all of the waterways in Beaufort County. And there's a lot of waterways."

The long hours Jennings and his legion of volunteers spend on the water each year doesn't go unnoticed, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Richard Sunderland, chief of response for Sector Charleston.

"(Coast Guard) Station Tybee Island is at least an hour away and is our closest station to the area where Beaufort Water Search and Rescue responds," Sunderland said. "We're unable to provide immediate assistance by vessel in most cases, and the Coast Guard relies heavily on (Beaufort Water Search and Rescue) as the initial response to mariners in distress. They are a force-multiplier when needed during long searches for missing boaters or persons in the water."