Eckerd College's lush green campus sits right on the edge of Tampa Bay. Students stroll barefoot and sandy from the school's private beach to class. The college Waterfront Program provides students with kayaks, boats, sailing instruction and fishing equipment for free.
In addition to all these aquatic amenities, Eckerd has one thing found at no other school: the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team (EC-SAR). It's the only such maritime outfit at the collegiate level.
The team was founded in 1971, when a storm prevented the college's sailing squad from making it back to campus. Some students used their own private boat to bring the sailors back safely. These same students founded EC-SAR.
By 1977, the team had formally expanded its services beyond the college. When the Skyway Bridge fell after being hit by a freighter in 1980, EC-SAR was the first on the scene to help. These days, EC-SAR responds to about 550 calls a year. Tasks include towing, pumping water out of vessels, freeing ships that have run aground and more urgent search-and-rescue missions. For instance, EC-SAR arrived at the scene of the Skyway's most recent suicide jumper.
The organization is also tied to Pinellas County's 911 emergency response center, and receives calls at the same time as the fire and police departments. In April, EC-SAR executed its 60th response this year.
"I like the sense of being on a team," says Jocelyn Small, an Eckerd College sophomore. She sits in front of two computer screens, a radio and a menagerie of buttons in the EC-SAR control room. The organization's office is located in the college Waterfront Activities Center on the bay, where its three boats are moored at a dock just feet from the door.
Small is one of about 50 students on the team. She completed the 13-plus months of basic training and is currently pursuing advanced training as an operations coordinator. This provides her the education to call the shots in high-risk situations.
Basic training teaches EC-SAR kids how to handle routine rescue scenarios, as well as preparing them for the physical and psychological requirements of the job.
Other areas of specialized training include first responder, first mate, coxswain and boat captain. Days are long and the pay is, well, zilch: The students are all volunteers under a two-year commitment. "[They] put in anywhere from 10 to upwards of 20 hours a week and they don't get any money for it," says Ryan Dilkey, EC-SAR coordinator and Eckerd graduate. Team members must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average and be enrolled full-time at Eckerd.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of he service is that it's free and available 24/7. Funding for training, operations and maintenance comes exclusively from donations, sponsorships and events like an annual marine yard sale, where students sell fixed and refurbished boats and parts.
A sizeable portion of the rescue unit's donations come from grateful people who have benefited from its services — even simple things, like guiding boats into Tampa Bay.
During the summer, when most students leave campus, some EC-SAR members remain as a skeleton crew. The only time that the students are not on duty is during winter break.
"It takes a great deal of time management on their part," says Dilkey. "Academics are their priority, though; we don't actually call people out of class." EC-SAR members work in teams, so that even when they're on call they can still attend class without interruption. Each team spends 24 hours on duty, staying within five minutes of the school in case a call comes in. "That keeps them on campus, Taco Bell, Publix if they're lucky," says Dilkey.
After a 24-hour shift, students get the next 48 hours off, with an extra shift thrown in every nine days. Dilkey says that holidays and weekends are the busiest, and especially the time between 6 and 10 p.m. "[People] spend the day getting into trouble," Dikey says, "and then between the hours of 6 and 10 they're figuring out it's getting dark and they should probably call somebody."