Our View: They Have To Go Out...


We're skeptical of decisions made on the regional or even national level that directly involve facilities or operations locally, particularly when there is little or no input from the people directly impacted. An example is the dispute over the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Had U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials had detailed discussions about their decision to assert jurisdiction over a vast area of Nantucket Sound that local and state authorities had always overseen, the outcome might not have been legislation and threats of lawsuits.

Now the U.S. Coast Guard has decided that Station Chatham should be designated a heavy weather station rather than a surf station, which it has been – either formally or informally – since its official establishment in 1872. Using apparently objective criteria, including the frequency of heavy surf on the bar and the federal status of the navigation channel, the federal agency has decided that the station can function with restricting operations to conditions where surf breaking on the bar is less than eight feet. Could this be another top-down decision that will have disastrous implications locally?

Going back to even before Bernie Webber and his crew braved waves much larger than eight feet to rescue crewman from the crippled Pendleton, Chatham has been a difficult area of operations for the Coast Guard. Getting over the bar in all but the calmest weather is a feat; even when surf isn't heavy, currents are treacherous and following waves can swamp a boat with no warning. Today there are not one but two inlets and two bars. The North Inlet, which most mariners now use, also has a problematic bar as well as shoals that make it difficult for the Coast Guard's 42-foot rescue boats to operate during many tides.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Carlos Hessler, who came to Station Chatham just a few months ago and inherited the decision to change designations, assured fishermen recently that the station's crews will respond to emergencies no matter what the conditions. Right now most commercial fishermen are operating out of Stage Harbor or Harwich instead of the fish pier at Aunt Lydia's Cove, so the likelihood of problems in the short term is low. But come summer, when recreational boaters join the fleet as it moves to the east side, problems could ensue; the cut remains a dangerous place, as the death of a 44-year-old recreational boater there in September attests. The Coast Guard and the town need to do outreach to make sure mariners are aware of the change.

Since the 1990s, the town and Coast Guard have clashed several times over maintaining full operation of Station Chatham. We hope the latest change at the station doesn't have a significant impact on operations. For the sake of local mariners, we hope the Coast Guard will still go out, even if, as the tradition dictates, they don't have to come back.