CHATHAM – With shoaling creating difficulty in accessing the inlets in Chatham Harbor, the Coast Guard is looking for an alternative location for its rescue vessels that will provide greater flexibility.
The agency has suggested creating docking space at the town-owned Old Mill Boatyard on Stage Harbor for its two 42-foot lifeboats. Currently, two of the vessels are docked at the municipal fish pier in Aunt Lydia's Cove and the third is stationed at Stage Harbor Marine. That facility, however, is insufficient to secure the heavy vessels in anything but the most benign weather conditions, according to a March 3 letter from the Coast Guard.
The letter to the board of selectmen from Captain Chris J. Glander, commander of the Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England at Woods Hole, supports the construction of a new pier at Old Mill Boatyard to accommodate two of the 42-foot lifeboats. Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the town is willing to accommodate the agency, but there has yet to be discussion about who will pay for a new dock and when it will be built.
A new pier large enough for two slips could be placed off the current concrete float system to the east of the boat launching ramp at Old Mill Boatyard, Smith said. The water there is deep enough for the lifeboats, he added.
“We want to work with the Coast Guard and make sure they're accommodated,” Smith said.
The goal is for the station to have the flexibility to move its vessels to respond to changing conditions, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Carlos Hessler.
“Chatham Harbor and the inlets are not reliable,” he said. “I need to be sure we can launch and respond from Stage Harbor.”
Shoaling has basically closed down the 1987 inlet across from Lighthouse Beach, and the North Inlet opposite Minister's Point is tricky to traverse, especially at low tide due to shoaling just inside and south of the opening. The agency has been considering the disposition of its assets for some time, but the situation now is such that something must be done soon, he said.
Hessler said it's critical that the station have the flexibility to station the lifeboats where they can best respond to calls. In some cases that will be Chatham Harbor, in other situations Stage Harbor.
“The whole idea is to ensure we can have the flexibility so we can make the best decisions,” he said.
The agency would retain its two slips at the fish pier, which are leased from the town for $8,000 annually. If the docking space becomes available at Old Mill Boatyard, there could be times when two of the 42-footers are there and one remains at the fish pier. At times, Hessler said, when, due to the shoaling or location of a call, it makes more sense to deploy a vessel from Stage Harbor. It can even be quicker than going out of the harbor.
“It's not going to be all the time” that both lifeboats are at Old Mill Boatyard, Smith agreed. But with dedicated slips, “When they need to be here, they can be here. They're just looking for flexibility depending on the tides.” Smith added that the Coast Guard keeps his office posted on where its vessels are stationed. At times it might be necessary, for instance, for the harbormaster's department to add a second vessel in Chatham Harbor in the busy summer months when the Coast Guard has to relocate its lifeboats due to tidal conditions.
In his letter, Glander wrote that while the shoaling in Chatham Harbor has made Stage Harbor the preferable location to base the lifeboats, that could change any time, and “Chatham harbor could again become the first choice in the future.”
“Therefore it is an operational necessity for the Coast Guard to have the ability to moor two lifeboats in either Stage Harbor or Chatham Harbor,” he wrote. “With two leased moorings in both harbors, Station Chatham would have the flexibility necessary to respond to all of Chatham's mariners.”
If additional docking space can't be found in Stage Harbor, Glander wrote, “options for a second mooring location outside the town of Chatham would need to be considered. However, we strongly prefer to use Stage Harbor and hope an appropriate mooring solution can be found.”
Director of Natural Resources Robert Duncanson said town officials hope to schedule a meeting with the Coast Guard within the next few weeks to discuss specifics about the proposal. It's more complicated than just putting in a floating pier, he noted, since the lifeboats require electrical service so they are ready to go at all times. Once town officials have more detail, designs and cost estimates can be developed, he said.
Smith said it might have been possible to get something in place by this summer if not for the government shutdown earlier this year. If the town and Coast Guard can agree on details, it's possible something could be in place next fall or winter, he said.
It can't happen soon enough for Hessler.
“If I could have waived a magic wand, we would have done it the day I got here,” he said.