CHATHAM — When it comes to offshore emergencies, the go-to agency is – and always has been – the U.S. Coast Guard. But when boaters get into trouble in shallow water, the crew of Station Chatham has been up the creek, thanks to the size and design of their three 42-foot nearshore lifeboats.
That's all about to change.
Station Chatham has just received a 24-foot shallow-draft rescue boat capable of operating in just 17 inches of water. It should be ready for action by July 4, station Chief Corbin Ross said this week.
That means that the station will soon be able to respond to emergencies in places like the Monomoy flats, the Herring River, Outermost Harbor, and Pleasant Bay, which are now largely the responsibility of town harbormasters and fire departments, which utilize smaller boats.
In the past, if the Coast Guard was needed to respond to a boater's emergency in Pleasant Bay, “you had to do it at high tide, in the middle of the channel,” Ross quipped.
“Over the past six years, Station Chatham had to rely on our harbormaster partnerships, as well as Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, to assist with search and rescue cases involving inland water,” he said. The goal is to have the station respond to every emergency on the water where it can assist, he said.
Station Chatham began the process of requesting a shallow-draft rescue vessel late last year.
“We're just being proactive with all these shoals,” Ross said, motioning out his office window to the harbor inlet and the new cut that created South Beach Island. “We kind of saw this coming,” he said. The shallow waters promise to be very popular with recreational boaters, and there will be a need to access those areas quickly in the event of an emergency, Ross said.
“We can go anywhere with it,” he said. The new boat is powered by twin 150-horsepower outboard engines, mounted on hydraulic “jack plates” that allow the engines to be raised vertically, rather than tilted, in shallow water. The station's three existing boats were custom-built to withstand heavy surf and the Chatham Bar rather than to navigate shallow waterways. While the nearshore lifeboats only draw about 32 inches of water, the suction from their jet drive engines can draw in sand from the bottom when the boats operate in depths of less than four feet, causing serious engine damage.
The new rescue boat can even be run up on the beach to facilitate a rescue, Ross said.
The vessel will be moored at Outermost Harbor, a strategic location that allows adequate protection from storms but also provides quick access to Nantucket Sound, Chatham Harbor and the Atlantic, thanks to the most recent inlet. Ross said the small boat can even be brought across the Chatham Bar, provided there is no breaking surf. The vessel is currently being outfitted with the necessary rescue gear and equipment, and its engines and other systems are being carefully tested and adjusted.
The new boat, the 24531, came to Station Chatham from Station Lake Tahoe in Tahoe City, Calif., another place that struggles with shallow water. The water level in the famous resort lake had dropped precipitously, leaving some boat ramps and marinas high and dry and prompting the Coast Guard to use the special shallow-draft boat for rescues there. But water levels in the lake are now about 4.5 feet higher than a year ago, and the shallow-draft 24531 was made available for other assignments.
Station Chatham's area of responsibility includes 50 miles east into the Atlantic and westward in Nantucket Sound to Point Gammon, near Hyannis. The new 24531 will be available for deployment in places like Bass River and other south-side rivers in Yarmouth, Dennis and Harwich, as well as the Oyster River and Mitchell River in Chatham.
Adding to the need for the 24531 is the increase in popularity of small boats, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards in the shallow waters around the Cape, Ross said. The Coast Guard is increasing its efforts to educate those boaters about safety and the unique challenges they can face in local waters.
The station is retaining all three of its heavy-duty rescue boats, Ross noted. The 24531 will likely be removed from service in the winter and redeployed each spring.