Chatham Calls For All-out Effort To Reverse Coast Guard Decision

By: Tim Wood

This 45-foot Coast Guard response boat docked at the fish pier replaced one of Station Chatham's three 42-foot surf boats. One of the remaining surf boats is docked next to the newly arrived vessel. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Arrival Of First Of Two Surf Boat Replacements Surprises Officials

CHATHAM – The select board hopes to enlist residents and officials here and throughout the Cape to help convince the Coast Guard to reverse its decision to strip Station Chatham of its surf boats.

Town officials were surprised when a 45-foot response boat medium arrived at the Chatham Fish Pier last Tuesday, taking the place of one of the station's three 42-foot surf boats. The second 45-foot vessel is expected to arrive this summer, and the Coast Guard anticipates that both will be in service by early fall.

Coast Guard officials had said they did not know when the 45-foot boats would arrive, Select Board Chair Shareen said Tuesday. She and other board members lashed out at what they said was the agency's lack of transparency, which is impacting the long relationship between the town and the Coast Guard.

“Unfortunately it feels like we're three steps behind in the process after being kept in the dark,” said Select Board member Cory Metters.

While fishermen know conditions in the two inlets in Chatham Harbor, many of the thousands of recreational boaters who use the waterways from Chatham and surrounding communities don't have that local knowledge, said Davis. “The biggest concern here is to have a more holistic look at the safety of the community,” she said.

Washington, D.C. consultant Jeff Pike, who worked on the town's effort to reverse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's position on the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, has been engaged by the town to lobby legislators and officials on the Coast Guard vessel issue, Davis said. The board Tuesday agreed to send a press release to area towns to ask officials and residents to “make some noise” about what officials here see as the dangerous downsizing of the capabilities of the Chatham Coast Guard Station.

“The town firmly believes the Coast Guard’s decision is based on inaccurate data regarding conditions in the Chatham Inlets and along the entire east side of the Cape Cod and does not recognize the impact of climate change of more frequent and severe storms,” the press release reads.

Town officials are disputing the Coast Guard's decision to downsize the station's vessel capability from surf-capable boats to the non-surf capable response boat used at most other Coast Guard stations. This follows the reclassification of Chatham from a surf station to a heavy weather station two years ago, and with the change, station personnel will no longer be trained in surf or heavy weather rescue.

The agency says that over a 10-year span, breaking surf was only observed on Chatham Bar an average of 12 days a year; in the five-year period from 2013 to 2017, the average was nine days, showing that surf conditions have lessened over time, they say.

In a memo, Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the station's observations were “seriously flawed” and its reporting of conditions inaccurate. The Coast Guard collected weather and sea state data on the Chatham inlet for 25 years when its vessels were underway and from commercial fishing boats, Smith wrote. But this policy has waned in recent year, and more recently the Coast Guard collects breaking sea data visually from the overlook or using the remote camera trained on the inlet. This has resulted in inaccurate reports; this winter, Smith wrote, the Coast Guard broadcast two- to four-foot breaking seas during gale force winds when his department's observations put the seas at eight to 10 feet.

“It is important to note that the CG will frequently (not always) report these wave conditions over the marine radio, so it is absolutely vital that mariners get accurate information and not make decisions to transit these inlets thinking they will encounter low surf conditions when they are indeed high,” he wrote.

“It is certainly inaccurate for the CG to say that the frequency of breaking surf has reduced over the years when weather conditions have worsened due to climate change,” Smith wrote in the memo. His department has begun keeping records of their own observations of surf conditions on the bar as ammunition to convince the agency to reverse its decision.

The Coast Guard collects data from a wide range of sources, said Captain Eric Bader, chief of external affairs at Coast Guard First District in Boston, including offshore reports, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration information and visual observations. He said the agency stands by its surf data. If the station is putting out incorrect information, Smith should inform them.

“We want to make sure the boating public has the right information,” Bader said.

Bader defended the change, saying the 45-foot vessels were the best resources to address “the whole suite of Coast Guard services,” from search and rescue to law enforcement.

“Search and rescue is the bread and butter of the Coast Guard, and we're always going to be responsive to that in Chatham and elsewhere,” he said. “But we also have a whole host of missions now.” In the case of an active shooter incident on one of the island ferry boats, for instance, the new 45-foot vessels would likely be the first on the scene, he said.

The Coast Guard's mission changed after 9/11 when it became part of the Homeland Security Department, Smith said. Now it operates the world over with anti-terrorism as one of its major focuses. Several times at meetings, Coast Guard officials brought up the possibility of an active shooter incident on an island ferry boat and the importance of being prepared for such an incident.

Accommodating the breadth of the agency's mission is the primary reason for replacing the 42-foot surf boats, Bader said, but the older vessels are also at the end of their service life and are the only three vessels of their type in the Coast guard, designed especially for Chatham conditions. Training, parts and maintenance are “a big problem for us.” The 45-foot response boat is used throughout the Coast Guard and most station personnel will be familiar with them, while the 42-foot surf boats required special training.

“We start from scratch when folks check in to Chatham,” he said.

In the last three years, each of the surf boats were out of service an average of 191 days a year, Bader said, and in 2019 there were 24 days when none were available. “That's unheard of in the Coast Guard,” he said.

The new boats are faster, with a top speed of 40 knots, about twice the speed of the surf boats. They can operate in eight foot seas, but Smith pointed out they are not rated by the Coast Guard to operate in surf. That's critical for Chatham, where he said surf is common in the inlets and on the bar. He said the manufacturer rates the vessel as being able to operate in 12-foot seas and eight-foot breaking surf, but the Coast Guard downgraded that capability to eight foot seas and no surf. During a meeting last month with Coast Guard officials, Smith said, he asked if the agency could make an exception and allow the boat to operate in the rougher conditions here.

“I didn't get a rejection, but got a very somber reception,” he said. The 45-foot vessel, he added, is “a good boat, a nice boat. It's just the wrong boat for here.”

Bader said he understands the concern in the community given the Coast Guard's long tradition in Chatham, but conditions here and the agency's mission have changed. Coast Guard officials are confident this is the best solution for the station, he said.

“It's certainly not something we would do if we thought we were putting anyone in Chatham at risk,” he said. “We want to partner with them to find the best solution.”

In an April 21 email, Smith reminded officials that the town was looking at adding dock space at Old Mill Boatyard to accommodate Coast Guard boats in Stage Harbor. The proposal, he wrote, “was designed to commit the CG to Chatham,” and given the recent developments, officials should revisit “if we want to do that or not.” Although he fears the Coast Guard's plan is to keep both 45-foot vessels in Stage Harbor, which will make it nearly impossible for them to respond to emergencies in Chatham Harbor, he recommended to the select board Tuesday that the dockage plan not be abandoned.

“The value in providing that dockage is to show the town's commitment to the Coast Guard,” he said.

Smith also sounded a cautious note about the future of Station Chatham.

“In spite of what the staff says at the congressional level, I would expect during the next round of review that Chatham goes to a seasonal station or is closed altogether,” Smith wrote.

“We've been through it before,” he said, referring to an aborted plan in the 1990s to make Chatham a substation of Coast Guard Station Provincetown.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Congressman William Keating said his office “has received assurances of a continued year-round presence from the Coast Guard, which was my primary concern.”

“My staff and I have been engaging on issues relating to a Coast Guard presence in Chatham for years, including most recently setting up a meeting between the town and the Coast Guard on this specific issue earlier this year,” Keating said in the statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with the town of Chatham as well as the Coast Guard to ensure our men and women in uniform have the assets required to fulfill their mission and keep our communities safe.”

Smith said he's heard those reassurances too, but has also heard that the agency is on the cusp of a nationwide review of stations, “and that makes me nervous.”

Last week, at the urging of Commissioner Mark Forest, who previously worked for Congressmen Gerry Studds and William Delahunt – both of whom were active in Coast Guard issues and helped Chatham retain a full-staffed station – the Barnstable County Commission agreed to write a letter backing the town's position, Davis said. Since the station a wide area from Yarmouth to the Outer Cape, Davis said she hopes other towns will write similar letters.

“We're trying to get the attention of people higher up in the sector and within the delegation in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

The select board's press release reads, in part: “Station Chatham is uniquely positioned to provide needed response to a significant area of responsibility: home to the largest commercial fishing fleet on Cape Cod, thousands of Chatham and nearby town recreational boaters, and transients from throughout New England (the number of recreational boaters has increased dramatically due the COVID-19 Pandemic), and an ever-changing physical environment of shifting barrier beaches and inlets. These conditions should dictate a more robust response capability by the Coast Guard not a diminution of capability.”

Comments on the issue can be sent to Rear Admiral Thomas G. Allen, Jr., Commander, First Coast Guard District, 408 Atlantic Ave., Boston, MA 02110 with copies to the select board and state and federal legislative delegations.