You have probably heard of the Abenaki language, but perhaps not of the Wawenock, one of the subgroups of the Penobscot Tribe. The name Wawenock (also spelled Wawinak, Wôwinak, or Walinakiak) means “people of the bays” in the Abenaki language.

They lived on the banks of the Saint George River when Europeans arrived there in 1605. But, a large Wawenock shellfish midden (or heap of shells) found in Damariscotta, dates back 2,200 years. This means they were using canoes and other simple boats to harvest fish and shellfish long before we came along.

Fast forward to the present and, in addition to small boats powered by oar or sail, such as those used by the Wawenock, we have any number of other designs of power boats and larger vessels out on the water. They are used for both recreational and commercial purposes from fishing to transport to tourism. This time of year, the number of boats on the water starts to rapidly increase as people enter the summer season.

How do all these boats of all different types captained by all different people operate together in a safe way? There are, of course, rules of the waterway and requirements for on-the-water vessels, but how do people know about all of these and become responsible boaters?

Enter the Wawenock Power Squadron, ready to help boaters learn how to be safe on their own boats, as well as amidst all the other boats and conditions on the water. You see the Wawenock connection now, right?

The Wawenock chapter is one of many chapters of the United States Power Squadron around the country, and even in Japan, that is dedicated to “helping people enjoy boating activities safely,” as the mission statement states. The 440 squadrons are comprised of more than 35,000 members who are not just power boaters, but sailors and paddlers, as well.

The Power Squadron has been around for over 100 years, originating as the “power division” of the Boston Yacht Club, which was formed to educate its members about safe boating practices and to help rescue boats in trouble. Word spread to the New York Yacht Club and the Power Squadron was officially formed with 20 squadrons participating.

The Power Squadron served an important mission in World War I, helping to educate those who served in the Navy about safe boating practices, and again in World War II by actively assisting the Coast Guard Auxiliary, with which they still work closely.

At present, Power Squadron efforts are focused on instruction and vessel safety. They offer an array of classes both in-person and online from basic boating to high-level certifications. Locally, you can find these courses through Merrymeeting Adult Education.

The other service the Power Squadron provides is to do Vessel Safety Checks, free inspections of your boat to make sure that it’s fully equipped to operate safely. They check things like anchors and lines, lights, fire extinguishers, to name a few. This may also save you some money, as they are the same things that Marine Patrol will check if you are boarded for a random inspection. So, a VSC is well worthwhile. The checklist can also be found at usps.org, if you want to look through it yourself.

There are several components of safe boating aside from just learning the rules of the waterway and following them. First, it is important to take care of yourself by wearing the proper gear, such as a life jacket and appropriate clothing. Second, you must make sure to have proper gear on board your boat, such as working flares in case of emergency and a way to communicate on shore, such as a marine radio.

The more difficult thing to prepare for, however, are weather conditions, which can change quite suddenly and turn a tranquil boating day into a blustery one that is challenging for even experienced boaters. Paying careful attention to the weather predictions and learning to read the signs of an impending change are critical. And, then, given all that preparation, things still can go wrong – so it is always good to practice simple drills on a calm day so that you are familiar in the case of a real problem.

We had a little fun with this last summer with our girls when we threw a coconut overboard (they float and look a bit like a human head) and designated a spotter on board who was ready with a towel and the first aid kit to keep their eye on the “person” while we maneuvered the boat into position to retrieve our tropical friend.

To understand the need for and value of the efforts of the Power Squadron, take a look at the statistics of on-the-water accidents that could have been prevented. Last year in Maine, there were nine fatal recreational boating accidents. This season thus far, there have already been five people killed in northern New England. According to reports, 89 percent of those were not wearing life jackets. That’s a pretty simple solution that could help save lives.

The Wawenock Power Squadron pays homage to the early boaters along our coast in its name, but recognizes the complex needs of our boating present. For more information about classes, Vessel Safety Checks, or other helpful materials, visit www.usps.org or contact John McMullen, Wawenock’s education officer, at [email protected].

And, keep your eye out for boating safety demonstrations over the summer at local boat launches.