Meet Rear Admiral Dean Lee

By Nicole Palya Wood

After 30 years rising through the USCG ranks, Rear Admiral Dean Lee knows a thing or two about boaters, boats, and making Coast Guard policy work on the water.

Imagine your favorite high school coach, the one you feared a little but respected more? That's Rear Admiral William “Dean” Lee, father of two boys, owner of two boats, and avid angler. His day job? Deputy for Operations Policy and Capabilities, and second in command for all U.S. Coast Guard operations policy — one of the most influential people in the USCG.

You can tell a lot about a leader from what his people say about him when he's out of earshot. USCG enlisted crew admire Admiral Lee, saying he takes the time to learn, to understand everyone else's assignments, that he's approachable, and all heart. Unlike most officers of his rank, Lee didn't come up through the traditional U.S. Coast Guard Academy route, with operational tours on large Coast Guard cutters. He was commissioned through Officer Candidate School and rose to the rank of Flag Officer. Those under his command respect that he mainly ran small boat stations and crews on the front lines, which they know is where the high-stakes action is and the bulk of life-and-death Search and Rescue (SAR) work is accomplished.

In February 2014, this straight shooter with a warm Southern charm sat down with us for a wide-ranging conversation about U.S. Coast Guard policy and a few complaints about how the rockfish of the Chesapeake Bay continue to escape him.

You're a lifelong boater, Admiral. Do you remember your first time on a boat?

It was with my dad on a little runabout with an old Johnson outboard on the Chickahominy River, outside Richmond, Virginia. My dad taught me how to boat and fish, and to this day I still love the smell of the old two-stroke engines. Combine that with a little Coppertone and that just smells like fun.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Richmond but spent all my summers in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in a little place called Topsail Island. My grandparents had a place there and I remember fishing off Barnacle Bill's Fishing Pier. I had a great youth on the water, and we didn't spend much money on it, either.

Photo of Rear Admiral Lee with his boat

What do you fish for these days?

Pretty much anything that'll bite. I like to target king and Spanish mackerel more than any other species. Recently, on the Chesapeake, I've been trying to find striped bass. The locals call it rockfish. But so far they've been elusive!

As an angler, what do you think of the advances in technology since you first started fishing?

The electronic advances that we have now, combined with GPS, and the ability to download all the best fishing spots amaze me. However, it's taken away from the real art of fishing. Back in the days when I'd fish with my dad, part of the challenge was navigating back to that exact hot spot. It kind of showed how good of a captain you were.

BoatUS gets a number of calls each year dealing with multiple boardings of vessels on the same day. Is this something you hear about?

That's a conundrum. I myself have been subject to that on a weekend out with my family. I got boarded three times by the same local law enforcement agency! Here's the deal. I know it's irritating, but we have no way of knowing who may have been boarded or not. My advice to boaters being stopped for a second or third time is to have your vessel inspected by the CG Auxiliary who will provide a sticker of inspection. And if boarded again, produce the certificate of boarding or any other proof to the officer. If we see that, we'll most likely let you be.

Does the USCG routinely communicate with other marine patrols on the water?

We encourage our crews to regularly get together with the other local law enforcement marine units such as DNR, Fish and Wildlife, and state police. We're not perfect, but we're trying to get this thing balanced. Bear with us and be prepared for a stop.

What should boaters crossing the U.S.-Canada border expect when boarded? Various marine patrols have different protocols. What are the rights of the U.S. boater during a USCG stop?

Every citizen, as they set out to sea, has all the rights that the Constitution grants them. Particularly, they're protected from unlawful search and seizures. That said, the USCG has the authority [under Title 14, Section 89 of the U.S Code] to make "inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests on the high seas and waters over which the U.S. has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of the laws of the United States." We have the authority to stop and board any U.S. registered vessel, pretty much anywhere. As we don't have the luxury of obtaining a warrant, we can search a vessel if we have reasonable suspicion that there is a violation of federal law. Our ultimate goal is to clear a vessel and make sure all are safe onboard. However, the big difference is that most law enforcement needs to have probable cause, where we have a lesser threshold of reasonable suspicion to conduct a search.

As for what to expect on a stop, all USCG officers will be in uniform and are expected to carry and produce their military ID if asked. Boaters have every right to ask questions and even photograph or video the stop unless this gets in the way of a routine boarding; the USCG officer can then prohibit recording. If a boater believes that any of my team is acting unprofessionally, believe me, I want to know about it. Contact your local USCG Sector and report anything you feel is not prudent with as much information as you can, such as officers' names, vessel name, location, date, and time. You should always expect to be treated with the utmost professionalism.

The Renewable Fuel Standard is the law that requires most U.S. gasoline to contain ethanol, which is problematic in marine engines at higher blends. Tell us about the USCG's pilot project testing an isobutanol blend.

We're evaluating the use of a 16-percent bio-derived isobutanol alcohol blended with gasoline stock as a possible alternative to ethanol-blended gasoline. Our test started in July 2013, on two outboard-powered boats, a 25-foot response boat, and a 38-foot special-purpose craft. As a boater, I'm concerned about ethanol in our gas. It causes problems in vessels that sit for any period of time, and E15 will be worse than E10.

Why is the USCG doing away with the old Type I, II, III and IV life-jacket classification system?

It's time to look at other countries' systems and particularly marry up more with what the Canadians have done. We're the only country that had the Type I, II system and we needed to adopt a more harmonized North American approach. The bottom line is, short of mandating that people wear life jackets, we want to do anything we can to make people want to put those things on. Any design that works and makes the wearer more comfortable, the better off we are.

Over the last 30 years, Search and Rescue has changed drastically. Tell us about your new drone technologies.

The USCG intends to use drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on all missions, land-based and SAR. We've been preparing for this since 2009 by jointly operating the MQ-9 Guardian drone with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and have demonstrated small UAS aboard the National Security Cutter fleet since 2012. These units can continually update communications sent to on-ground and en-route manned assets, and save critical time with on-scene live reporting.

What gadget won't you leave the dock without?

The EPIRB or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). It takes the search out of search and rescue, and takes all those other weak links in the chain out of the equation. For example, does my cell phone have the range? Is my battery dead? Do I have VHF comms? Is my antenna tall enough? Am I close enough to shore? We've made tremendous improvements to our communications system with Rescue 21, but it still doesn't answer these questions. When you flip that switch on a PLB or EPIRB, we have instantaneous information about who and where you are. It's a lifesaver. I'm not calling for mandating the use of PLBs or EPIRBs, but I highly encourage their use. And they're affordable. People will spend more money on a stereo! And you can get a PLB for less than $300. You guys even rent them.

Any final words of wisdom?

If you fish or boat by yourself, wear an engine cut-off-switch lanyard, and wear a PLB. I cannot tell you how many searches I've conducted, and how many next-of-kin notifications I've personally made, because a boater fishing by himself fell off his boat. 

— Published: April/May 2014

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