One of the exciting things about winter on the Oregon Coast, aside from the sideways rain, high winds and thundering surf, is watching the U.S. Coast Guard in action.

The Coast Guard crews are constantly training, often using one or several of their various vessels to practice lifesaving techniques and rescuing vessels in distress. They practice in the Port of Brookings Harbor and offshore, often drawing a crowd of observers.

The boat crews are sometimes accompanied by one of the Coast Guard's bright orange Dolphin rescue helicopters. That was the case on Wednesday this week, when the Coast Guard was practicing off the coast, south of the port, after dark, with search lights piercing the ocean.

The activity prompted a few calls to the Pilot from concerned readers wanting to know if a real emergency was happening offshore. A quick call to the Coast Guard Chetco River Station confirmed that it was only training.

I'm fortunate that often I can walk to the end of my street and watch the Coast Guard train offshore. And when I see the orange helicopter rocket by, it reminds me of the time, in 1999, when a routine ride-along newspaper assignment turned into real-life emergency (I ended up giving CPR to a heart attack victim as the helicopter flew to the Crescent City airport).

Over the years, I could be found at Sporthaven Beach taking photographs of Coast Guard training activities, either on the beach or practicing boating maneuvers in turbulent surf. (Note: I understand a relatively new policy prevents the Coast Guard from training in the surf).

Watching the Coast Guard train is one thing, seeing them in action is another. Once notified of an emergency, the crew is under way within five minutes. The station has two 47-foot motor lifeboats, and two bright orange, fast-response utility boats. The utility boats have padded rims and can travel at speeds exceeding 40 knots, but are not good in rough seas. The 47-foot vessels are slower but have the ability to tackle large swells, and even roll over and set themselves right, if the situation warrants.

The Coast Guard Chetco River Station usually has a contingent of 48 people, a number of whom are women. On average, the station receives about 200 search and rescue calls, and conducts a similar number of law enforcement boat boardings. The service area stretches from the California border up to Cape Blanco, extending out 50 miles from shore. The Guard's closest helicopters are located in North Bend and Humboldt Bay, Calif.

The Pilot has published numerous stories and photos of the Coast Guard using its helicopter and its crews repelling down sea cliffs to rescue stranded hikers. The helicopter is often called on to assist law enforcement agencies in forest-based search and rescue operations. And Coast Guard crews played a crucial role in responding to boats set adrift during the March 11 tsunami that heavily damaged the port. These are all extreme activities that make the jobs of most of us seem like a day at the park.

When Coast Guard folks aren't saving lives and vessels, they can be spotted out in the community, working on neighborhood projects such as renovating public parks and helping non-profit organizations. Many are our friends and neighbors who frequent local grocery stores, churches and childrens' soccer games.

Make sure you say hello, and give them a well-deserved thank you for all they do.