Aunt Lydia's Cove Committee: Coast Guard Welcome, If They Keep Surf Capability

By: Alan Pollock

The Chatham Coast Guard Station's two 42-foot near-shore lifeboats docked at the fish pier. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM The Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee is recommending that the town renew the Coast Guard’s lease of dock space at the fish pier's north jog, but only if the service commits to restoring surf-capable search and rescue service to Station Chatham.

The group made its unanimous vote Monday, expressing deep concerns about the Coast Guard’s decision to remove Station Chatham’s surf rescue capability. Committee members say they want the Coast Guard to stay, but only if they provide the heavy weather search and rescue capabilities needed by local mariners. The vote should send a clear message, committee member Luther Bates said.

“Either up their game or move,” he said.

Citing weather data, the Coast Guard says that Station Chatham no longer experiences the frequent breaking surf that has prompted them to maintain a surfboat station here since the days of the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The service is struggling to maintain the station’s three purpose-built 42-foot nearshore lifeboats, which were designed specifically to meet the challenging conditions on the Chatham Bar. The Coast Guard is in the process of replacing the three 42-footers with two 45-foot motor lifeboats, part of a fleet of around 170 developed for use in stations around the country.

According to Coast Guard regulations, the 45-foot MLBs cannot be operated in surf, nor in winds over 30 knots. They also draw slightly more water than the 42-footers, and so are more limited in their ability to be used in shallow depths.

“The manufacturer’s standards are a little bit more flexible,” said select board member Cory Metters, liaison to the cove committee. The builder of the 45-foot lifeboats specifies that they can operate in eight-foot surf, 12-foot seas and 50-knot winds, though the Coast Guard does not permit it.

Currently, Station Chatham has lost one of the 42-foot nearshore lifeboats, and the removal of the other two is pending, Harbormaster Stuart Smith said.

“Even with the boats, there’s nobody trained to run them in the surf,” he said. Station Chatham now has only one surf-rated coxswain, and when that person finishes duty in Chatham, there will be none left with that level of certification, he said.

Smith has had several conversations with Coast Guard officials at Sector Southeastern New England in Woods Hole, who stressed that the new boats provide better capabilities for some of the service’s other missions, like port security and maritime law enforcement. When Chatham’s new boats are unable to respond, “their answer was, we’ll send a helicopter,” Smith said. Despite the Coast Guard’s claims to the contrary, Smith said it takes a helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod no less than 40 minutes to respond to Chatham, provided that the weather is agreeable.

On July 16, a Coast Guard helicopter was dispatched to help in the search for a missing swimmer in thick fog off Harwich Port. “They launched, but then they turned around,” Smith said. When a helicopter is not available and Chatham’s rescue boat in Aunt Lydia’s Cove is unavailable, help must come from a boat responding from Stage Harbor, Station Provincetown or Station Brant Point on Nantucket, or from a nearby cutter.

Prohibited from responding in breaking surf, the Coast Guard will be very restricted in its search and rescue capabilities, Smith said. He acknowledged that the station provides important capabilities other than surf rescues, like the ability to respond to active shooter events and other emergencies on Nantucket ferries. But he said he told officials in Woods Hole that Chatham’s primary need is search and rescue services when the weather is at its worst. Absent that, “I’m not sure what’s left here for you to be doing,” Smith said he told the officials.

“It’s like two-foot surf half the time,” Bates said.

The Coast Guard rents the two slip spaces at the north jog from the town for $8,040 per year, a figure far below market rate that hasn’t changed in 20 years, Smith said. The lease is up in September, and the Coast Guard indicated that it is willing to pay what the market demands for the dock space, so the town is proposing to raise the rent to $20,000. Though it plans to reduce the station’s contingent to two large rescue boats instead of three, officials want to continue to lease two spaces in Aunt Lydia’s Cove and two spaces in Stage Harbor to provide flexibility in where the boats are deployed, as well as space for their light-duty patrol boats.

Commercial fisherman Mike Woods said that there may be a better use for the dock than to house a rescue boat that can’t operate in the surf.

“If that boat can’t go over the bar, get rid of it,” he said.

Smith said that, should the Coast Guard lose its surf rescue capability in Chatham, it will be up to state or town officials to fill that gap as best they can. Smith said he’s not eager to take on that responsibility, which would require additional resources.

“That’s going to be a community decision,” he said.

The Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee voted to recommend renewing the Coast Guard’s lease at the north jog, on the condition that it provides vessels and crews capable of operating in eight-foot surf and 50-knot winds, conditions within the listed capabilities of the new motor lifeboats but currently prohibited by Coast Guard policy. Committee members said that, by phrasing their vote as an approval of the lease renewal, they are sending a message that they want a continued Coast Guard presence, but only with the search and rescue capabilities the station has historically had.

The Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee is advisory to the board of selectmen. Authority to sign the lease with the Coast Guard rests with Town Manager Jill Goldsmith.

The cove committee took no position on the proposal to extend the dock at Old Mill Boat Yard to provide new dockage for the Coast Guard on Stage Harbor. But on May 26, the South Coast Harbor Plan Committee voted to support the project provided that the Coast Guard maintains a surf-capable boat at Aunt Lydia’s Cove as well as a rescue boat in Stage Harbor.