Chatham Coast Guard Station Loses Surf Designation

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Coast Guard , Commercial fishing and shellfishing

The Coast Guard's first 44-foot rescue boat, which replaced the 36-foot series, stands in front of the Chatham Station. The vessel replaced the venerable CG36500, which rescued 32 men from the wreck of the Pendleton in 1952. A recent re-evaluation of the station's status resulted in a change in its designation from a surf station to a heavy weather station. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The home of the most famous surfboat crew in the history of the Coast Guard is no longer a surf station.

As of Dec. 10, Coast Guard Station Chatham's designation was changed from a surf station to a heavy weather station. That means crews can only respond if surf on the bar is under eight feet, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Carlos Hessler, the officer in charge of the station.

“That's the only change,” Hessler said. The classification change isn't a downsizing; station staffing and resources, including vessels, will remain the same, he said.

Most fishermen are working out of Stage Harbor or Harwich for the winter, so the change is not likely to have an immediate impact, said Harbormaster Stuart Smith. But because Station Chatham has been a surf station going back to its establishment in 1872, the change is significant, he said.

“It's not the end of the world, but it's kind of a historic thing, because it's always been a surf station,” Smith said.

The tradition that Coast Guard surfmen must always go out but don't have to come back was popularized in the book and movie “The Finest Hours,” which told the story of the rescue of crewmen from the stern section of the Pendleton, a tanker that broke apart during a blizzard Feb. 18, 1952. Coxswain Bernie Webber and three other Coast Guardsmen responded to the emergency from Station Chatham in the CG36500, a surfboat designed to hold 12 passengers; they rescued 32 of the 33 men on the Pendleton in what is still considered the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history. Webber and his crew were awarded the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal for their actions.

The conditions faced today by Chatham Coast Guard crews are different than they were in 1952. There are now two inlets in Chatham Harbor, with the North Cut, opposite Minister's Point, becoming the chief route for mariners from the harbor to the Atlantic this past year. While the inlet and its bar remain dangerous – a recreational boater drowned in the North Cut this past September – shoaling and shallow water are as big a problem for the Coast Guard as the surf, said Hessler.

“The primary concern with resources responding across the Chatham Bar is tide restrictions,” he said.

The Coast Guard will always respond to calls, Hessler said. If surf on the bar is breaking over eight feet, a boat can be deployed from Stage Harbor and a helicopter sent from Air Station Cape Cod. The coxswain of a rescue vessel can also request a waiver from the sector commander to cross the bar if the surf is higher than eight feet.

“Anytime you operate outside the limitations, it's up to the operations command to authorize it,” he said.

Smith said during most of the year, it's unusual to get breaking surf over eight feet on the bar, but it happens, especially when a storm hits or passes to the east. During those conditions, fishermen and recreational boaters need to know that the Coast Guard may not be able to respond over the bar.

“Mariners are just going to have to be aware of that,” he said. “Just know that in certain conditions they aren't going to be able to respond.”

“You don't want to find out in the middle of it” that the Coast Guard can't respond, said Aunt Lydia's Cove committee member Luther Bates. Hessler briefed the committee, composed of commercial fishermen, on the designation change at a Dec. 19 meeting.

The decision to change the station's designation came from Coast Guard headquarters after an analysis of conditions here, Hessler said. The agency is constantly reviewing weather and other conditions at Coast Guard stations, and he's seen designations changed often throughout his career.

There are specific criteria for surf stations, Hessler said. The operations must involve a federally-maintained channel and there must be at least 12 days per year when surf is breaking over eight feet. Neither the North Cut nor the 1987 inlet across from the Chatham Station are federal channels. Hessler said he did not have access to the data regarding break surf on the bar.

He explained that basic coxswains can operate boats under certain conditions; heavy weather coxswains can operate in surf up to eight feet; surfmen as specifically trained to operate in surf up to 15 feet. As coxswains at the current station who are qualified as surfmen rotate out, they will be replaced by heavy weather-qualified coxswains.

There will be no change in the station's vessels, which currently include three 42-foot rescue boats which were specially made for conditions in Chatham. Two are kept at the fish pier and one in Stage Harbor, although Hessler said the vessels are stationed where they are most needed. The station also has a 27-foot outboard powered vessel designed to operate in low water conditions but not in surf.

Hessler said the Coast Guard is always available to stand by when fishermen or other mariners are coming over the bar. They need to call the station, however; the camera at the station can only show the 1987 inlet. Smith said the town is working on getting a camera installed at the fish pier pointed at the North Cut and the feed will be shared with the Coast Guard.

Weather and other operational conditions are sent to Coast Guard headquarters on a regular basis, Hessler said, and if conditions warrant, the station's status will be re-evaluated.

“Nothing changes other than the upper limits” of surf operations, he said. “The crews are just as dedicated, just as ready as we've always been.”

“I'm concerned,” Selectman Shareen Davis said of the designation change. At the Dec. 19 Aunt Lydia's Cove committee session, she asked Hessler to attend an upcoming board of selectmen's meeting to explain the change.

Smith is concerned that the change in designation could be the start of a process leading to more significant changes at the station. Its caseload is relatively low compared to other Coast Guard Stations, he said, and while the current leadership at Station Chatham and sector command at Group Woods Hole are aware of the unique conditions here, “these people rotate out a lot,” Smith noted.

“There are not a lot of cases here, but the cases we do have are exceptionally difficult because of conditions here,” he said. The town can't take up the slack because its boats are even less able to operate in surf conditions. “Our boats are smaller,” Smith said.

In the late 1990s, he added, Station Chatham was made a substation of Station Provincetown, and was only restored after fishermen and local officials mounted protests.

“It's unfortunate, it's too bad,” Smith said of the change in designation. “I don't want to overdramatize, but it's another historic move, in my opinion, in the wrong direction.”