Coast Guard Plans To Yank Chatham Surf Boats

By: Tim Wood

Coast Guard rescue boats at the Chatham Fish Pier. The 42-foot surf boats it he photo are slated to be replaced by 45-foot patrol boats which town officials say are useless in the surf conditions often experienced here. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Coast Guard Station Chatham's three 42-foot surf boats will be replaced by two 45-foot patrol boats, which will strip the station of its ability to carry out surf and heavy weather rescues.

Town officials met last Friday with Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England commander Captain Christian J. Glander who confirmed the swap. Chatham officials initiated the meeting after getting wind of the change, said Harbormaster Stuart Smith.

The change will leave the station without a surf-capable vessel, Select Board Chair Shareen Davis said at Tuesday's board meeting.

“This is a serious matter for Chatham,” she said.

Petty Officer Second Class Amanda Wyrick, a public affairs officer with the Coast Guard's First District in Boston, confirmed the plan to swap the three 42-foot motor lifeboats for the 45-foot patrol boats, but had no information on the timeline. She said the new vessels will provide the station with more capabilities, shorter response time and be more proficient for search and rescue operations.

Smith disputed that, saying that the 45-foot boats won't be able to operate in seas greater than eight feet, in breaking surf or in more than 30 knots of wind, conditions that occur “very frequently” in Chatham waters. He said town officials were told that rescues in those conditions would be handled by a helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod.

In 2019, Chatham was downgraded from a surf station to a heavy weather station, with Coast Guard officials asserting that surf conditions did not occur frequently enough here to meet the agency's criteria for a surf station. That reason was again used in justifying the decision to remove the 42-foot rescue boats, Smith said, but he disputed the agency's data.

“They're basing their decision on bad data,” he said. “I disagree with the way they collect observations of wave height and surf.”

Chatham has an active commercial fishing fleet of more than 100 boats as well as countless recreational vessels, many of which use the two inlets in Chatham Harbor to access the Atlantic. Both have tricky shoals that are constantly changing, Smith said. The Chatham Bar has been infamous for decades and is no less dangerous now than in the past, he said.

“It's something you have to adapt to,” he said. “You just can't say we're not going to do it anymore.”

Two of the 42-foot vessels, which are specially designed to operate in low water conditions, are stationed at the fish pier in Aunt Lydia's Cove, while the third is kept in Stage Harbor. One of the reasons given for the change, according to Smith, was that the 42-foot boats are not standard and are difficult to maintain, often being out of commission for service, while the 45-foot patrol utility boats are standard throughout the Coast Guard and thus easier and less expensive to maintain. The 42-foot boats have been at the station since 2005, he said, and have been maintained during that time.

Smith said he was disappointed in the decision. “If they go through with that, it's a further degradation of the capabilities of Station Chatham. It's the wrong direction to be going. It's the town's position that we want that capability kept and restored.”

The town has fought back efforts to downgrade the station in the past and will likely oppose this decision after further discussions, Davis said, probably through a letter to the Cape's state and federal legislators.

“We weren't buying the justification as to why the changes have come,” she said.

“It will be the first time in Chatham's history that we won't have surf boats,” Smith said. While helicopters are important resources for search and rescue, “they don't work well in the thick fog like we have in Chatham.”

The change could put more pressure on local resources such as the harbormaster department, although Smith's department doesn't have the capability of safely operating in surf conditions.

Alan Pollock contributed to this story.