Selectmen Seek Answers On Coast Guard Station Downgrade

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Coast Guard

A Coast Guard nearshore lifeboat tows in a pleasure craft that was involved in a collision. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Concerned about the ability of crews from Coast Guard Station Chatham to respond to emergencies during high surf, selectmen voted this week to send a letter to Washington for clarification of a recent decision to downgrade the unit from a surf station to a “heavy weather station.”

On Monday, station commander Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Carlos Hessler was before the board of selectmen to answer questions. Board member Peter Cocolis asked what prompted the change, and whether it starts the station on a “slippery slope” that might ultimately lead to the unit losing resources or personnel.

Hessler said there is no slippery slope, and that in his 23 years in the Coast Guard, he has observed that change is constant. “Nothing’s static. Nothing stays the same,” he said. The decision to downgrade the station has no effect on staffing or resources, but stipulates that rescue boats will only be able to respond through breaking surf of eight feet or less, rather than previous 15 feet. When the surfmen at the station rotate to different duty, they will be replaced by heavy weather coxswains who are rated to handle surf of up to eight feet.

Breaking surf over eight feet is not an everyday occurrence in Chatham, and the Coast Guard has argued that, if a rescue is necessary during those conditions, it can respond with boats from Stage Harbor, Provincetown or Nantucket, or a helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod.

Selectman Shareen Davis asked what went into the Coast Guard’s decision. “Was it based on the boats that are existing at the fish pier today?” she asked. Station Chatham uses three 42-foot nearshore lifeboats that were designed specifically for conditions in Chatham; prior to that, it used steel-hulled 44-foot motor lifeboats that withstood the extreme conditions of the Chatham Bar for decades. Those boats have now all been decommissioned; one remains on display on the front lawn of the station.

The decision wasn’t related to the boats at all, Hessler said. The Coast Guard’s Office of Boat Forces in Washington periodically reviews stations for possible reclassification. “There were many stations that were reevaluated,” Hessler said. Station Chatham was found to lack two necessary criteria of a surf station.

“Chatham Harbor is not a federally maintained harbor,” he said. The Coast Guard requires that surf stations protect ports that have navigational aids serviced by the Coast Guard.

Harbormaster Stuart Smith said that while the harbor has been dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the past, the channel buoys are placed by the town, not the Coast Guard. The town does that job because it has smaller boats capable of operating in shallow waters, and the Coast Guard’s large buoy tenders cannot access the channel to maintain aids to navigation, he said.

“How do we get our channel to be federally maintained?” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens asked. While he said it was not his area of expertise, Hessler said he would provide the proper contact at the prevention division of the Coast Guard’s waterways office.

“Going back to the ‘50s, they were quasi-Coast Guard channels,” Smith said. Peter Ford, the previous harbormaster, was designated a “lamplighter” who managed aids to navigation on behalf of the Coast Guard, but that practice continued only through the early 1960s, Smith said.

The second criterion Station Chatham failed to meet was the requirement that the area have breaking surf over eight feet at least 36 days – 10 percent – of each year. Based on several years’ data, Coast Guard officials determined that Chatham did not meet that criterion, Hessler said.

“I’m very surprised at that,” Davis said.

Smith said the town can disagree with that calculation and ask the Coast Guard to reassess conditions in Chatham. He helped draft a letter to Coast Guard district commander Rear Admiral Andrew Tiongson in Boston, to be sent by the board.

“We strongly urge this decision to downgrade Station Chatham to be reconsidered, so as to maintain a level of response commensurate with the importance of the local fishing fleet, the substantial overall boating community, and local conditions,” the letter reads.

“The town of Chatham, its residents, and the maritime community have a long, positive relationship with the Coast Guard. We support the Coast Guard’s historical, and ongoing, mission here in Chatham and the nation. It is our hope we will be provided an opportunity to present additional information on local conditions here in Chatham as part of a reconsideration of the station re-designation,” the letter concludes.

On Hessler’s advice, the letter will be copied to the commander of the Office of Boat Forces in Washington.

Selectmen directed staff to send the letter with a clearer request: that the Coast Guard specifically revisit its calculation on the number of days Chatham has large breaking surf.

Meanwhile, facing the challenge of deploying rescue boats through extreme shallow water in Chatham Harbor, the Coast Guard is pursuing plans to locate one additional boat to Stage Harbor. Smith said he would be meeting next week with officials with Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England to discuss how this might be accomplished.

From his perspective, Hessler said the issue of shoaling near the entrance to Chatham Harbor is more important than the change in surf designation.

“I’m more concerned about running out of water and running aground than worrying about a breaking wave,” he said.