Committee Endorses Coast Guard Dock, But With A Caveat

By: Tim Wood

One of the two 45-foot patrol boats that will replace Station Chatham's three 42-foot surf boats. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – There's reluctance among town officials to back out of a plan to build a new dock at Old Mill Boatyard for the Coast Guard, despite concern over the agency's decision to scale back its rescue boat capabilities.

But there may be other ways to ensure that the Coast Guard maintains vessel coverage of both Chatham Harbor and Stage Harbor, members of the South Coastal Harbor Plan committee said.

Limiting the new dock to one vessel instead of two could force the Coast Guard to keep one boat in Chatham Harbor all the time, instead of both sometimes being stationed in Stage Harbor, committee members suggested.

“I'm not sure the Coast Guard would go for it,” Harbormaster Stuart Smith said during last week's committee meeting. “But it would force further discussions, which I think is helpful.”

Plans to add docking space at Old Mill Boatyard started more than a year-and-a-half ago but were put on hold due to the pandemic. Earlier this year, the Coast Guard announced that it would be retiring the station's three 42-foot surfboats and replacing them with two standard 45-foot response boats which are not rated for operation in surf conductions. Town officials protested the move, noting that surf conditions are common in the two Chatham Harbor inlets. The Coast Guard has said that the frequency and level of surf conditions do not meet the agency's criteria to classify Chatham as a surf station.

“We don't agree with their position,” Smith said, adding that replacing the surf boats with less-capable vessels that draw more water is “definitely the wrong direction you want to go in Chatham Harbor.”

One of the Coast Guard's vessels is currently berthed at Stage Harbor Marine, but the agency and the town were in discussions to add 100 feet of new dockage to the easternmost floats at Old Mill Boatyard. Having the additional space, which the agency would rent, would allow flexibility in moving vessels between Stage Harbor and Chatham Harbor, depending on needs and conditions.

With the plan to replace the surf boats with the 45-foot vessels, that need has not changed, Smith said. The select board has asked its waterways-related advisory committees to weigh in on the proposal, in light of the recent changes. The committees previously endorsed the new dock space. The South Coastal Harbor Plan committee was the first to discuss the dock proposal under the select board's most recent request.

Even with the new vessels, “the need for the Coast Guard dockage in Stage Harbor has not changed,” Smith said. He was reluctant to back out of the plan despite the downgrading of the station's surf capabilities, saying it was worth the estimated $355,000 expense, which would be paid back through an annual $20,000 lease. It shows the town's “good will” and willingness to “go the extra mile,” he said.

“We really don't want to give the Coast Guard an excuse to reduce their capabilities any further, though we're not happy with their decision going to a larger boat that has less capabilities, in our eyes,” said chairman Tom King. Smith said he worries that backing out of the Old Mill Boatyard plan would force the Coast Guard to reconsider its position in Chatham and further downgrade the station.

“The only thing left for the Coast Guard to downgrade is the amount of boats they keep here,” he said.

Member Michael Westgate suggested putting in just one slip at Old Mill Boatyard instead of two. That way the Coast Guard would have to keep one vessel at the fish pier, where the agency rents two slips.

It would be preferable for the Coast Guard to have one vessel in each harbor, Smith said, since the travel time from Stage Harbor to Chatham Harbor is too long in emergency situations. But the vessel would still be one of the two 45-foot boats and not one that is surf capable, he said.

While the harbormaster department maintains a boat at the fish pier, it's not a substitute for a Coast Guard surfboat, said Smith.

“This environment has always been difficult. That's why the Coast Guard is here,” he said. “To now take away all of your capabilities to work in those dangerous environments, people are going to begin to wonder what it is you're doing here. I'm afraid they're going to learn the hard way, when there's a tragedy and there'll be an outcry. We'd like to avoid that.”

The town also has to recognize that the mission of the Coast Guard has changed since 9/11, after which it was placed under the Department of Homeland Security, Smith said. Its primary mission now is anti-terrorism, and its vessels operate throughout the world.

“It has now become something very different” from the search-and-rescue-focused agency it was prior to 9/11, he said. “We're not going to change that. Things like Station Chatham are not real high on their priority list.”

The committee voted to endorse the dock extension project, but with the contingency that the Coast Guard maintain at least one boat in Stage Harbor and a surf-capable vessel at the fish pier.

The waterways advisory committee was also scheduled to discuss the topic last Thursday but did not have a quorum, according to chairman Richard Hosmer. The discussion will take place at the committee's next meeting later this month, he said. Recommendations will also be sought from the shellfish advisory committee and the Aunt Lydia's Cove committee.