Town To Coast Guard: Where Were You?

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Coast Guard

This unnamed, unregistered sailboat was found beached on Monomoy Island earlier this month. Town officials have raised concerns about the delayed response by the Coast Guard in the case. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Congressional Hearing Sought

CHATHAM — After it took the Coast Guard 14 hours to respond to a grounded sailboat on Monomoy Point, the select board is seeking some answers, even if it takes an act of Congress to get them. Which it might.

On Tuesday, the board voted to ask Ninth District Congressman Bill Keating to intervene in the case. In a letter authorized by the whole board, Chair Peter Cocolis asked Keating to request that an oversight hearing be held in Chatham by a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The central issue is the Coast Guard’s decision to downgrade Station Chatham from a surf station to a “heavy weather” designation, with the corresponding removal of the station’s three surf-capable rescue boats. But select board members said they fear that the changes represent a shift in the Coast Guard’s focus away from search and rescue in favor of its other missions. The case of the grounded sailboat is evidence of that change, they say.

In a bizarre case that gained regional headlines, an unregistered and unnamed sailboat was discovered grounded and in the surf on Monomoy Point on June 5 around 9:30 a.m. The town’s harbormaster department was on scene within 20 or 30 minutes and saw evidence that the master of the boat had gone overboard. Harbormaster Stuart Smith said he notified the Coast Guard, and a boat arrived around midnight to investigate.

“We can’t have our primary search and rescue agency in town taking...around 14 hours to get a boat on scene,” Harbormaster Stuart Smith told the select board Tuesday. “It should not be solely the town of Chatham who’s responding to these cases.” It was eventually learned that the owner abandoned the boat when it began taking on water, made his own way to shore and returned to his home in Wisconsin without reporting the incident.

Smith said he asked the Coast Guard to review the search and rescue case, and is hopeful that a meeting can be set up. He also has questions about the case of a missing swimmer in Wellfleet where a Chatham harbormaster team responded to assist and he saw no evidence of a response by the Coast Guard. While there may be an explanation, the town needs to better understand the Coast Guard’s decision-making process and how it affects the harbormaster’s responsibilities, he said.

Select board member Shareen Davis said it seems clear that there has been a policy change when it comes to Coast Guard search and rescue protocols, leaving the towns with the responsibility to answer the call. “In these two instances, that’s what happened,” she said. “And that’s a dangerous place to have us be, as a town.”

Davis, who has fished commercially for many years, said she’s aware that the Coast Guard is now taking part in armed boardings of local fishing boats, along with the state environmental police, as part of fisheries enforcement efforts.

“It’s overkill,” she said. “I really think it’s not a responsible thing to do within a community that has had a fairly good relationship with the Coast Guard for many years,” Davis said.

Board member Jeffrey Dykens, a former commercial shellfisherman, said the Coast Guard has traditionally been embraced for its historic lifesaving role in Chatham. “That’s not their emphasis. Their emphasis is on security,” he said, and removal of the surf boats is evidence of that change. Smith agreed, saying the service’s mission has been moving steadily toward maritime security since 9/11.

While he said he favors keeping the pressure on the Coast Guard, “long term, depending on how our national efforts go to try to get them to reverse course, we are going to have to take a hard look at our local resources and what’s being expected of us,” board member Dean Nicastro said.

In a half-page response to a detailed letter from the town, Coast Guard Rear Admiral T.G. Allan, Jr., defended the decision to replace the station’s three surf-capable 42-foot rescue boats with two 45-foot response boats, saying they are a better platform for the full range of Coast Guard missions and are much more reliable than the boats they replace. While the 42-footers were designed specifically for Chatham, the 45-foot response boats are part of a nationwide fleet of identical boats, making them easier to maintain, Allan said. In 2019, there were 24 days when all three of Chatham’s boats were unavailable because of mechanical problems or the absence of spare parts, he said.

Coast Guard policies prohibit the new boats from being operated in breaking surf, though the manufacturer’s specifications for the boats allow it, Smith said. While the Coast Guard argues that the 45-footers are significantly faster, providing better response times, they are unable to operate in shallow water, requiring them to sometimes make long diversions due to shoaling. Admiral Allan said the 45-footers are also far better designed to respond to active shooter emergencies aboard island ferries, when Station Chatham would sometimes be the first on scene.

One of the 45-foot vessels arrived this spring, replacing one of the 42-foot boats. The other new boat is scheduled to arrive later this summer.

Consultant Jeff Pike, who has represented the town in various matters in Washington, noted that “the Coast Guard’s made some very reasonable arguments, at least on paper, and they may be correct.” But at the very least, the town should have the opportunity to have a dialogue with the decision makers, whether that comes as the result of a Congressional oversight hearing, or perhaps as a less formal public round table discussion. A former commercial fisherman himself, Pike said it is difficult to reconcile the Coast Guard’s claims that it is improving its ability to respond, while also acknowledging that its boats sometimes cannot cross the Chatham Bar. He said he wonders “what the Pendleton guys would think” about such a policy, referring to the station’s famed Gold Medal Lifeboat crew that responded to the Pendleton disaster in 1952.

Pike said he believes that Keating will support the town’s request, as will other key lawmakers who are familiar with the Coast Guard’s mission.

The Coast Guard has argued that its decision to downgrade Station Chatham’s surf status is linked to the weather, rather than the need to replace the station’s unique rescue boats. Admiral Allan said that weather data shows that Chatham averages about 28 days of heavy weather annually, well below the minimum number of days required for crews to maintain that level of training.

Saying the Chatham Bar remains the threat it has been historically, Dykens rejected that line of thinking.

“It’s just crapola. It’s just not right,” he said.