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Oct. 19, 2018
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National boating icon passes away

By Pamela A. Keene 
 
Bolling Douglas was ready to go. She had just run out of steam. On August 3, she quietly passed away at Cannon Village in Tiger, Ga., near the cabin she lived in for the last years of her long and accomplished life. She had celebrated her 90th birthday just weeks before with family and friends. 
 
Prominent in national and international boating circles – as a ranking officer with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, head of safety for the sailing events at the 1996 Olympics, a national board member of several influential marine organizations and a pioneer for women in boating – she will be missed. 
 
For decades, Bolling was familiar face around Lake Lanier on the south side. She ate lunch a couple of times a week at Common Grounds in downtown Flowery Branch. In her work with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, she frequently patrolled the lake on weekends. Members of the sailing community called on her for support during major regattas.
 
“I’ve known Bolling since I was 13 years old, and I’ve always treasured her friendship and her advice,” said US Sailing Judge Edith Collins, who lives in Buford and races on Lanier. “We all worked together on the sailing courses at the 1996 Olympics in Savannah and she was always professional and very knowledgeable.”
 
Volunteering for 45 years
In 2005, after 45 years of volunteer service that included high-level positions in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and a career as a boat surveyor and safety advocate, she retired from the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. Locally, she had served in Division II, District 7, Flotilla 26, holding a variety of offices including Commodore of the group. She also served as District Commodore in 1979 and 1980, overseeing the civilian side of support for the Mariel Boat Lift in south Florida. 
 
She held positions in a number of marine-related organizations and councils – The American Boat and Yacht Council Inc., the National Boating Safety Advisory Council, the Rules of the Road Advisory Council, the Marine Council of Underwriters Laboratories Inc., and others. She was a marine surveyor for more than 35 years and served on the board of the industry’s professional organization. 
 
Douglas had long been a mentor to boaters. Through her years in Flotilla 26, she continued to shepherd members. In 1979-80, Douglas became the first woman District Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in the country – not an easy feat for a field that’s long been dominated by men. She also was one of the few female marine surveyors in the nation, and the first – in the 1970s – to become a member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, a certifying body that is comprised of marine surveyors.
 
The ‘Sandbar Yacht Club’           
Douglas began her boating experiences early in life. As a youngster growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., she and her brothers were encouraged by their father to take to the sea. Her father, Rear Admiral Robert Malcolm Fortson (USNR ret., now deceased), taught his children the ways of the mariner. He created the “Sandbar Yacht Club” on Ortega Point in Jacksonville on the St. John’s River for all the neighborhood kids during the Depression. The family built skiffs, made sails and learned seamanship in a hands-on environment. Safety was always a discipline to be learned.
 
“We had 14 small boats, moored in front of our house, owned by neighborhood kids and we learned to race using the Portsmouth handicap rules,” Douglas once said. “He gave me a love of the sea and a chance to learn how to be confident and resourceful from an early age through sailing.”  
        
When Douglas and her husband Allen moved to Atlanta in 1960, they joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and immediately became active in the organization. The Coast Guard Auxiliary for years was the only search and rescue resource on Lanier. Douglas worked her way up the leadership chain in the auxiliary. “Papa always supported Mama in whatever she did,’ said her youngest son Malcolm. “He knew better than to argue with her and that she always wanted to be involved in things around the water.” He died in 1977. 
 
Tackling big tasks
Douglas was thrust into historic events during her tenure as District Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary during 1979 and 1980. The Coast Guard Auxiliary, the civilian arm of the Coast Guard, was pressed into service three times during her watch – first during the Cuban Mariel Sea Lift, second during the sinking of the Coast Guard vessel Blackthorn by a Russian freighter in Tampa Bay, and third when a freighter struck the Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay.
 
As District Commodore during the Mariel Boat Lift, she established Operation Keyring to assist the Coast Guard in search and rescue resources in the Florida Keys. The Auxiliary conducted 400 patrols, set up four Auxiliary radio facilities and handled 75 search and rescue cases, logging in more than 25,000 man-hours in two weeks. 
 
Douglas always championed women on the water. In an interview in 2005, she was modest about her leadership role. “Now there are plenty of good women mariners that have a strong enough interest to keep it going the rest of their lives, good women surveyors, boaters and sailors,” she said. “Women are a big market; they work and have money to spend. And they’re getting more confident and competent about boating. There are plenty of educational opportunities out there as well.”
 
Until 10 years ago, she lived on her boat at University Yacht Club with her beloved dogs, who made many voyages with her over the years. Her children persuaded her to move to a cabin in North Georgia, and then to an assisted living facility nearby. 
 
Last November, her youngest son Malcolm and daughter Anne took her on her final voyage on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, cruising past all her old familiar haunts. “It was such a joy to see Mama on the boat again,” Malcolm said recently. “We had no idea that it would be her last time on the river. It meant so much to her and to us.” 
 
Bolling is survived by her three children – Allen, Anne and Malcolm – their children, grandchildren and more friends than anyone can count.

 
Doug Beachem remembers Bolling Douglas …
 
I first met Bolling around 1962 when she and her family docked a boat at Holiday Marina. Her youngest son Malcom and I were a couple of years apart and became friends. Lake Lanier in the 1960s was just getting started.
 
When Bolling became a Marine Surveyor and got involved with the American Boat and Yacht Council in the 1970s, she insisted to my father (Jack Beachem, founder of Holiday Marina and Lazy-Days Houseboats) that all Lazy-Days Houseboats should meet their voluntary standards. Boat manufacturers already had to deal with the Coast Guard regulations, and any additional regulations were not looked at kindly. They both argued over this until we sold Lazy-Days Houseboats in the 1980s.   
 
In the 1990s Bolling and I spoke often. She pushed me to be more involved in the boating industry. With her as a mentor, I was one of the original founders of the Marina Operators Association of America, now the Association of Marina Industries. Bolling helped bridge the gap between the marina operators and boat dealers with the regulators. 
 
Bolling was a long-time member of the Technical Committee on Marinas and Boatyards for the National Fire Protection Association. Better known as NFPA 303, it is recognized as the Fire Standard for Marinas and Boatyards in the U.S. All marinas on Corps lakes must comply with 303. The committee was made up of mostly bureaucrats and vendors.  Bolling was a champion for the marina industry and over the years she helped add members sympathetic to marinas.
 
After I sold Lazy Days Marina in 2007, Bolling told me that I still had to stay involved with the boating industry. In late 2008 she called and said she was getting old and I needed to join her on the NFPA 303 Committee. In August, 2009, I was appointed as a Principal Member of the 303 Technical Committee. Bolling quietly stopped showing up for conference calls and her written input slowly disappeared. I didn’t realize at the time that she had put me there as her replacement.  
 
I look back now on what a powerful influence she was on me starting when I was just 10 years old. Now 64, I am still on the NFA 303 Committee and doing what Bolling thought I should do. An amazing woman.

Posted online 8/29/16

 
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