CHATHAM — When mariners in distress call Coast Guard Station Chatham, more often than not, there’s a volunteer on the other end of that lifeline.
While the local flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary provides all kinds of support for the station, it also provides a team of qualified watchstanders who answer the telephone and monitor the marine radio for emergencies. And these volunteers, with varied backgrounds and mature perspectives, are an indispensable part of the Coast Guard operation in Chatham.
The four qualified auxiliary watchstanders – Bruce Brady of South Yarmouth, Larry Foss of Chatham, Michael Hays of Harwich and David Quincy of Orleans – staff the station’s communications watch room for hundreds of four- or eight-hour shifts throughout the year. In addition to answering calls from recreational boaters, fishermen and Coast Guard units, they issue weather and sea condition alerts and help coordinate search and rescue operations.
Each qualified Auxiliary watchstander spends months gaining the knowledge and certification required to handle a communications watch properly. They need to be proficient in search and rescue procedures, computer and radio operation, chart work and plotting and other skills, and they also need to have complete knowledge of the local waters and shifting channels between Nauset Beach and Point Gammon.
That kind of local knowledge is useful for a Coast Guard installation where most crew members come from far-away places and then serve just three years in Chatham before moving to a new assignment.
But Chief Boatswain’s Mate Corbin Ross, the station’s commander, said the watchstanders do more than provide institutional knowledge about local waterways.
“We bring people into the Coast Guard who literally left mom and dad’s house two months before,” he said. “We send them to boot camp and then they come here.” For new Coasties, it’s important to have an experienced mentor, Ross said.
“When they arrive at the station, we tell them, ‘OK, now you have to start life as an adult, and, by the way, I have all of these things that you need to do. They are all challenging, they are all going to take a lot of your time and they all have a deadline.’”
The auxiliarists also free up time for new station crewmembers to prepare for their own future communications and boat crew assignments.
“They are the ones who would be standing the watches if our auxiliarists were not there,” Ross said.
All four of the volunteers say that the benefits of working with the Coast Guard far outweigh the long hours.
“For me, it’s a sense of belonging and being a part of the team,” said Quincy, a former business executive who has been an auxiliary watchstander since 2002. “It’s doing something that is meaningful and just hanging around young people who are dedicated to their job.”
Foss, a former president of Chase Securities, has been a Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer for 16 years. He’s proficient enough at standing watch that he trains the station’s active duty staff to do so; by his estimate, he’s helped more than 100 young Coast Guardsmen to earn their qualification.
“My job is to help them become first-rate watchstanders so they can get on to the reason that they joined the Coast Guard – search and rescue, maritime law enforcement and boating safety,” Foss said. “When the auxiliary takes the watch, the station crew is freed up for operations and training.”
For Hays, a retired insurance actuary, earning a watchstanding qualification was a long-time goal.
“I wanted to be a watchstander almost from the moment I learned that it was an option for auxiliarists,” he said. “I thought, correctly, that it would be an excellent way to understand the issues faced by the active duty Coast Guard members and to get a better understanding of how they are organized and how they perform their mission.”
A retired former high school teacher and attorney, Brady says that he wanted to be involved in Coast Guard operations.
“Successful cases are the result of a team effort and the watchstander can have a part in each one,” he said.
Ross says that the rich life experiences of the auxiliarists are an additional important benefit for all of Station Chatham’s crew, not just the junior members. They’re a great resource for him and the station’s executive officer, perhaps even more so than for the young Coasties, he said.
“These gentlemen have ‘lived’ life. We lean on those four more than most people would realize,” he said. “Countless times I have talked to them about all kinds of issues and problems, and the value of these four goes way beyond the watchstanding, way beyond the ability of the younger members to start living their new lives now. It touches the senior folks in a way we really need,” he said.
“It has nothing to do with answering a phone call, talking on the radio or any one of the tasks that they had to complete to become qualified watchstanders. Nowhere did it say, ‘Make sure you mentor the senior chief at the station,’” Ross quipped.
Learn more about the Coast Guard Auxiliary at www.CGAux.org.