Ensuring public safety for a pony swim

Coast Guard small boats from Station Chinateague patrol the waters surrounding the annual pony swim. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando.

Coast Guard small boats from Station Chincoteague, Virginia, patrol the waters surrounding the annual pony swim. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando.

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando

On a sunny, summer day, the biggest event of the year in the small town of Chincoteague, Va., took place – and the Coast Guard was there to ensure public safety.

Thousands of visitors watched from land, along the water’s edge, on boats and in kayaks, as some 120 ponies were herded across Assateague Channel for the 89th annual Chincoteague Pony Swim.

“The Coast Guard played an important role in ensuring the safety of the public by keeping onlookers in safe areas and maintaining clear lanes for the ponies to swim,” said Chief Petty Officer Hank Deatrich, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Chincoteague. “It definitely is a unique event.”

The pony swim is a great way for the station to interact with the public and stress the importance of boater safety as well.

“We don’t have too many big events in this area,” Deatrich said. “When we have an opportunity to get out there and share the message and make sure it’s a safe event, the crews just love getting out there.”

Coast Guard crews ensure safety at Chincoteague, Virginia's annual pony swim. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando.

Coast Guard crews ensure safety at Chincoteague, Virginia’s annual pony swim. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando.

For the event, the station deployed two 24-foot special purpose craft.

The crews patrolled the area, greeted boaters and answered queries about the pony swim from people eagerly awaiting the animals.

The Coast Guard even had a role to play in the event – to signify the pony swim was about to begin, the crew on one of the boats fired two orange smoke flares. Crowds cheered as the smoke wafted from the boat.

The pony swim tradition was made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 book, “Misty of Chincoteague.”

According to Deatrich, the island was expecting some 30,000 to 40,000 visitors for the event.

“Some of them may not have had their boats in the water for too long, so it’s important for us to get out there, have good community outreach, make sure they have proper gear on their boats and everyone’s safe prior to the swim,” he said.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Kerwin Oblington was a coxswain on one of the boats patrolling the area.

“My mission today is to maintain the zone and keep everyone safe,” he said. “Safety is the number one priority, not only for the vessel and the crew, but obviously for the public.”

120 ponies participated in the annual pony swim in Chinateague, Virginia. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando.

120 ponies participated in the annual pony swim in Chincoteague, Virginia. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando.

The pony swim is an annual event held by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. This year, approximately 60 foals will be auctioned to raise money for the fire company, which cares for the wild ponies. The remaining ponies will be herded back to Assateague Island on Friday.

Harry Thornton, fire chief of Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and pony committee chairman, was thankful for the efforts of the Coast Guard.

“This is our biggest event, the cooperation with the Coast Guard has been great, we couldn’t do it without them,” Thornton noted. “Beautiful swim, beautiful day for everyone.”

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