Loss Of Surf Boats Would Leave Mariners 'High And Dry'

By: Tim Wood

Two of the Chatham Coast Guard's 42-foot surf boats docked at the fish pier. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – While the chief of Coast Guard Station Chatham defended the replacement of the station's surf boats with the agency's standard patrol boat, the chairman of the Aunt Lydia's Cove Committee said the change would be disastrous for the town's commercial fishing fleet.

“We're being left high and dry” by the move, said fisherman Doug Feeney. Chatham Harbor has one of the most dangerous bars on the east coast, he said, and despite claims by the Coast Guard to the contrary, surf and heavy weather conditions are common.

“We're getting left high and dry,” Feeney said.

The replacement of the station's three 42-foot surf boats with two standard Coast Guard 45-foot response boats has not yet been finalized, said Senior Chief Carlos Hessler, Officer in Charge of Coast Guard Station Chatham. Town officials were notified that the change was being considered on March 26. Two of the surf boats are typically kept at the fish pier and one in Stage Harbor.

Hessler said the 42-foot vessels, designed for the shoal condition in the harbor and across the bar, are unreliable and frequently out of service, a situation that is “unacceptable. That's why we're going to have to do something.”

“The amount of time the boats are down really effects our readiness,” he said. The patrol boats, used throughout the Coast Guard, are more reliable and faster, and personnel transferring to Chatham from any other Coast Guard station will be familiar with them. “It's a far superior platform, everything from electronics to engineering,” he said.

The patrol boat, however, draws almost one foot more water than the 42-foot vessels, said Harbormaster Stuart Smith, which is “the wrong direction” for the shallow-water harbor Chatham has become. If speed is the problem, the 42-footers could be outfitted with larger engines, which Smith said was done to the same boats by the Massachusetts State Police.

“There are alternatives to buying a boat that doesn't work in this harbor,” he said.

Hessler acknowledged that the response boats are not surf capable, but said that won't impact operational readiness. “It's not the surf that concerns me, it's the lack of water where the breaks are,” he said, adding that there are times the 42-foot surf boats can't get on scene because of low water. In his three years at the station, there was one case where the surf boat needed to get to a boat disabled on the bar, and could do so because crews were training the day before and knew where there was safe water, he said. It's been “years” since there has been a heavy weather case, he said.

In 2019, the Coast Guard downgraded the station's status from a surf station to a heavy weather station. If the change in vessels comes to pass, that will represent a further downgrade of the station. But Feeney said conditions in Chatham, which has two inlets, have always been hazardous, and that hasn't changed.

“There are still heavy weather conditions we still go out in,” he said. The bar is even shallower than in the past, which mean the potential for bigger waves and heavier surf conditions. Commercial fishermen know the area and are cautious, he said, but accidents happen, and fishing boats have rolled on the bar in recent years, especially as the channel over the bar has shifted. He's also worried about recreational boaters who aren't familiar with the conditions. In September 2018 a Morris Island summer resident died after an accident in the North Inlet, the same place where four young men were thrown into the water last July when their boat capsized.

The fact that there hasn't been any other major incidents is a “blessing” and not a reason for downgrading the station's capabilities, Feeney said.

“That's not the answer, because then all of a sudden it's going to happen,” he said. The Coast Guard's assertion that a helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod will respond to rescues that vessels cannot reach is inadequate since it would take too long.

The change is a serious matter for both commercial and recreational mariners, said Select Board Chair Shareen Davis.

“Our concerns regarding the station's downgrade in their resources and mission remain unchanged since its...reclassification,” she said in an email. “The select board will be addressing a proposed strategy that includes reaching out to our legislative representatives at a near date meeting.”

Smith said he anticipates that the town will ask the Coast Guard to reexamine the data it used to come to the decision to swap out the boats, and to reconsider reinvesting in the 42-foot vessels rather than replacing them with what he considers an inferior resource for the area.

“The reasons that they're here are more so than they used to be, for the very type of weather that they're not permitted to operate in,” he said. His department recently took delivery of a 27-foot rigid hull inflatable boat, which is more capable in heavy weather than the boat it replaces, Smith said, “but is not nearly as capable at the 42-foot motor lifeboats.”

The town had been working on plans to enlarge the dock at Old Mill Boatyard to accommodate the Coast Guard vessel kept in Stage Harbor. Those plans were put on hold when the pandemic hit, Smith said, and he's not sure what will happen in light of what the agency is now considering.

Asked where the 45-foot patrol boats would be deployed, Hessler said he would prefer them to be in Stage Harbor where they could be launched reliably. At Aunt Lydia's Cove, “every time we try to leave we don't know if we'll be able to get out,” he said.

Even if a decision has not yet been made, just the discussion of removing the surf boats makes him question whether Chatham even needs the Coast Guard anymore, Feeney said. Relations between the agency, the town and fishermen have been better; at one time, not long ago, the Coast Guard stationed vessels at the bar when fishermen when leaving and returning to port.

“These are our lives on the line,” he said.

The fact that the agency confirmed that the change is under consideration makes it “highly probable” that it will happen, Hessler said, but he could not say when it would be finalized.

“I understand the town's concerns,” he said, “but being responsible for the operation of this unit, I honestly think it's going to increase our capabilities.”

Despite the changes, Feeney said he still has faith that the Coast Guard would respond when needed.

“We rely on them,” he said. “We still know that if they saw us out the front window roll in a boat, that they'd come.”