There were more than 88,000 ferry crossings on the San Francisco Bay last year. Deep-draft ships navigated its waters 9,697 times. There were 228 casualty investigations and 1,339 permitted maritime events. These statistics come from the U.S. Coast Guard, which monitors every ripple on the water this side of seagull droppings.

Although it often operates out of the spotlight that shines on the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy, the military's least publicized branch is a presence in our everyday lives, and nowhere more than in the Bay Area. I had no idea of its full range of responsibilities before spending a day last week with Lt. Cmdr. Rick Foster of the District 11 Public Affairs Office.

Every commercial ship that passes under the Golden Gate Bridge must receive clearance from the San Francisco sector's Vessel Traffic Service operation when it's within 38 nautical miles of the coast. Every maritime distress call funnels through its next-door command center on Yerba Buena Island.

The sector maintains seven patrol stations and plucks people from the water nearly every day. It performed nearly 1,500 search-and-rescue operations last year, assisted 1,783 mariners in distress and saved 344 lives.

"People might be surprised by how many wind surfers we have to rescue," Chief Petty Officer Mike Lutz said. "Sometimes the reason is inexperience. Sometimes the wind dies or equipment breaks. A lot of them are near the Golden Gate Bridge. They'll lose the wind and just drift out to sea."


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The Coast Guard oversees everything from America's Cup races to oil spills, but no duty receives more attention than port security. That got heightened emphasis after 9/11 with the creation of the federal Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002.

Steven Boyle, a former commander who's now international program manager of the Coast Guard's Alameda Port Security detachment, said he and his 64 colleagues spend most of their waking hours examining the safety of ports throughout the world. Is access to ships restricted? Does the facility have a secure perimeter fence? Do guards check visitors for authorization? Is cargo protected from contamination?

Any country that receives a failing grade -- there are more than 13,000 port complexes in the 152 participating nations -- is given 90 days to fix its problems. If it doesn't, it gets the equivalent of a scarlet A on its chest: inclusion on the port security advisory list.

A vessel that visits a "failed" port is subject to investigation before entering the U.S. It's stopped 12 miles offshore, examined for hours by a security team and even if cleared often is required to take additional security measures. The procedure can delay shipping schedules by as much as 24 hours, which translates into dollars lost and discourages visits to unsafe ports. That's precisely the point.

Boyle said security personnel examine even the smallest ports -- "If I'm a terrorist, I'm not going to go to a big port with good security" -- and about 10 percent of participating countries are rated noncompliant. All international vessels, including cruise ships, are subject to the terms of the program.

One way to measure its success is a statistic the government tracks annually: stowaways aboard ships arriving in the U.S. In 2002, the number was 396. In 2011, it was 53.

The Coast Guard rarely gets the spotlight, but you don't need one to see that it works.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com