The town of Chatham and the Coast Guard have been at odds since the Coast Guard downgraded Station Chatham’s surf station designation and discontinued using two 42-foot nearshore surf boats on Jan. 5. Why the change?
The Coast Guard’s own data revealed that surf conditions didn’t meet the criteria for Station Chatham to remain specially-designated as it had been for decades. In the meantime, two 45-foot response boats have replaced the nearshore vessels even though those 45-footers won’t be used in “breaking surf” conditions. For distress calls, the Coast Guard will summon a helicopter or deploy its non-surf-capable boats just inside or outside the break to respond to calls.
The town is investigating purchasing its own surf-capable rescue boat and training its own crew to protect mariners who navigate nearby notoriously dangerous and ever-shifting shoals, paid for through matching town and federal funds.
As a former Coast Guard search and rescue officer, and as the Coast Guard Group Woods Hole Commander from 1998 through 2001, I’m absolute in my belief that surfmen belong on surfboats where there’s surf, and there’s surf at Chatham.
I find it ironic that the Coast Guard struggles with the realities of hazardous bar operations. Chatham and the Coast Guard are preparing to honor the 1952 “Gold Medal Crew’s” historic rescue of 32 seamen from the broken tanker SS Pendleton 70 years ago this Feb. 18, the third greatest rescue overall in Coast Guard history and the greatest small boat rescue, made so, in part, by those hazardous surf conditions.
My greatest fear in the current circumstance is that young guardsmen, driven by the emotions of a rescue case and in non-surf-capable boats, will inevitably attempt rescues that they and their boat are unprepared for. For instance, only by pure luck was a harbormaster vessel in Chatham Harbor on Jan. 18 when four duck hunters and their dog were dropped into the sea by an overturned boat. They were quickly rescued by Assistant Harbormaster Jason Holm, a retired senior chief who served at Station Chatham. Holm later said that had the boat drifted into the “surf zone” a few hundred feet away, his vessel which wasn’t surf-capable, couldn’t have reached them.
During my tenure at Woods Hole, I was bluntly schooled about Chatham’s ever-shifting and notoriously-dangerous sand bars by then Officer-in-Charge (OIC) Master Chief Jack Downey. Downey, a boatswain mate who later became the Coast Guard’s first Ancient Keeper, has been credited with saving the lives of over 700 people. One day Jack and I were surveying the propellars on a station Chatham boat that had obviously run aground. New to the area, I asked the OIC what the grounding report had revealed and what we had learned. The master chief looked at me and indicted that operations on the bar were different than most other locations. Those “shiny props” came with the territory of operating on a sand bar. There would be no grounding report unless there was substantial damage or we would have been filing reports, often. I left knowing that this place was and always will be different and needed to be respected.
Years ago, the town of Chatham had its own liaison to the Coast Guard, Parker Wiseman, who’d broker these differences of opinion. I knew Parker, and we’d collaboratively work through issues such as Coast Guard Station Provincetown becoming a satellite of Chatham (a bad idea) which was resolved with persistent effort. And we navigated getting the right boats at Chatham, trying four different classes in my time. We never, however, doubted that Chatham needed to be designated a surf rescue station and have surf-capable boats.
It’s my hope that what’s been done can be undone.
I’m encouraged that the town and the Coast Guard are gathering new bar information together. I’m urging renewed negotiations with an eye towards reinstating Station Chatham’s surf designation. To do less will find my former service failing its motto: Semper Paratus (Always Ready).