JUNEAU, Alaska — For Nicole Auth (née Bonney), a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, a career in boats and sailing was jumpstarted in the spring of freshman year at Mount Desert Island High School.
She and a friend decided to go out for sailing, she said, “because we were bad at tennis and we wanted to be outside.”
It was the mid-1990s. The MDI Community Sailing Center and the high school team were both in their infancy. Their coaches were Joe Robinson and Glenn Squires.
“There was no building yet,” remembers Auth, who grew up in Lamoine. “The first year I did it, we sailed out of a parking lot.”
“I had never been sailing before. It was March and I showed up in jeans. Of course, I ended up in the water,” she laughed. “I don’t think we even capsized, but I didn’t realize we were going to heel over and I just fell out.”
She remembers borrowing some dry clothes to change into. And despite that cold, wet beginning, she was hooked.
“I think I just liked being out on the water,” she said, “and the people were fun. I liked it so much I wanted to do it in college.”
The Sailing Center soon moved into its own building and the sailors were equipped with better gear. The team’s new home base was near the Coast Guard base in Southwest Harbor.
So when Auth was assigned a project in health class about community health, she walked over to the base and picked up some pamphlets. One of the Coast Guard members she talked to offered to come speak to her class.
She also learned about the Coast Guard Academy and its sailing programs. Cadets compete in fall dinghy sailing in Flying Juniors, Lasers and 420s. There’s also an offshore sailing team that competes year-round; in the summer, that group participates in Newport-Bermuda and other high-profile races.
In those races, she was normally the crew member working on jib trim or in the “pit,” she said.
A few years ago in Trenton, Morris Yachts built a fleet of new boats for the academy’s offshore sailing team, David Pedrick-designed Leadership 44s, paid for by private donations to the Coast Guard Foundation.
When Auth was a cadet, her sailing coach was Mike Horn, a Mainer with whom she’s still in touch. He also coached sailing at Bowdoin.
Her concentration at the academy was marine environmental science and her first billet after graduation was San Francisco, doing pollution response. She also earned a master’s degree in environmental science from the University of San Francisco. After a few years, she moved into vessel inspections.
While stationed in California, she started dating her husband, Bernie, a Virginia native who’s in law enforcement in the Coast Guard, whom she had known at the academy.
Her next duty station was in Honolulu, where she was able to put her sailing experience to use in Coast Guard inspections: following casualties on passenger sailing vessels in 2010, rigging safety requirements were being rewritten.
“I thought, this is kind of my thing,” she said.
“The Coast Guard really leaned heavily on industry to bring their experience and expertise to the table.” For types of rigging equipment with no established standards for preventative maintenance and replacement, inspectors and operators “had to think really creatively to figure out what (each piece of equipment is) designed for, what it’s rated for, what it’s being used for,” she said.
“It was super rewarding because everybody was learning through that process.”
And the work has paid off.
“It has really reduced the casualties,” Auth said.
Also in 2010, Auth deployed to Louisiana as part of the Coast Guard response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. She worked as an aide to the senior officer who was the incident commander for the whole response.
That job gave her a “fly on the wall” view and she found it inspiring and humbling to see the cooperation between so many different agencies and people. She would be driving her boss while he was on conference calls with the President and the Department of Homeland Security. She also went along on an overflight of the offshore oil spill.
She also found some time to keep sailing. In Hawaii, she volunteered with a community sailing program that reminded her of the MDI sailing program.
“Sailing’s such an awesome sport for building confidence, meeting people, learning to adapt to your environment,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be elitist. I love that MDI had that sense, a long time ago before a lot of other places did.”
She kept competing, too, joining sailors from other branches of the military in the Military World Games. The first time she competed was in a coed team sailing a J24.
The next year, there were enough people for both a men’s team and a women’s team.
The women’s team, which included three Coast Guard members, one sailor and one Marine, took third place in women’s sailing at the 2011 summer Military World Games in Rio de Janiero.
“It was great to get to know all these other ladies,” Auth said. “We trained for a week in Annapolis” together, working with a coach who was a captain in the Navy.
She and her family are now living in Juneau, Alaska. It’s similar to Maine in many ways, she said.
There’s not much sailing, but lots of kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, fishing and skiing.
“It’s a nice spot to raise kids in an outdoor lifestyle,” Auth said.