George "Mac" McNeal is one of the longtime members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas in the Quad-Cities. During the off-the-water season, he helps with a safe boating class being conducted this month at Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Moline. (John Schultz / Quad-City Times) John Schultz

Because the Quad-Cities is considered "inland," there are only a handful of U.S. Coast Guard members on duty at Arsenal Island.

They have a lot of rivers to cover and a variety of responsibilities. So when it comes to boating safety, the Coast Guard relies on dozens of helpers in its auxiliary.

Groups of these volunteers - called "flotillas" - will hit the water in May.

First, they'll inspect your boat for safety with your permission.

"We make sure they have enough good life vests, check for leaks (gas in the bilge), is the battery box covered, do they have functioning fire extinguishers," flotilla Commander George "Mac" McNeal listed off the checkpoints.

The safety check takes about 20 minutes, longer for bigger boats.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary patrols the Mississippi River, and even the Rock River sometimes.

The group is under the guidance of the regular Coast Guard headquarters in St. Louis. Because these volunteers are the Coast Guard's extra eyes, the military pays for the boat fuel and provides insurance while the auxiliary is on patrol.

"We don't carry firearms, we don't arrest people or give out tickets," Tom Jacobson explained. "We're there to help boaters, but we can't tow anyone in distress unless it's an absolute emergency. Then it's to the closest safety point."

Auxiliary members say they don't stop boats or even point their fingers at any boaters; they're just there for safety assistance.

"We also do search and rescue," McNeal added. "We check for proper lighting on the bridges and pier lights along shore, as well as make sure the buoys are in the right spots. These are aids to navigation."

When you're out having fun at the Tug Fest or enjoying fireworks at Modern Woodmen Park or entering the harbor for River Action Inc.'s Floatzilla, you might see the Coast Guard Auxiliary helping protect both boaters and the channel from harm.

This is important, highly regulated work and auxiliary members have to re-qualify every year.

From November to May, the flotillas train and test themselves, preparing for the next boating season.

They also offer a "basic seamanship and safety" course for civilian boaters and have had a class going on every Tuesday night in March, with a final exam at the end.

The Rock Island and Davenport flotillas will offer another set of classes beginning at the end of April.

Six flotillas are active in the region: one each in Davenport, Bettendorf, Rock Island, Moline, Arsenal Island and in Dubuque, Iowa. About 90 people serve in these six units.

You don't have to have been in the military to join. Annual dues are $30. The auxiliary has been around the Quad-Cities since 1958.

Jacobson became involved after years of teaching sailing at the Lake Davenport Sailing Club. He likes the training and safety aspects of the auxiliary.

McNeal had a professional mentor who was also a boater and auxiliary member. He noticed how well trained his mentor was when there was a problem on the water, so the man encouraged McNeal to get the same training. That was 30 years ago.