Coast Guard says boathouse must meet future needs of entire area

An aerial view of the Coast Guard Boathouse taken August 22, 2006, shows the Coast Guard dock and the town drive-on dock. — File photo by Chuck Stevens/ Phil Cox

A Coast Guard facilities design team will travel from their base in Seattle, Washington to Martha’s Vineyard where they will meet with Chilmark selectmen and the public Tuesday night. The design team and local Coast Guard officials will describe the elements that went into the design of the new Station Menemsha boathouse.

The initial reaction of selectmen when they saw a preliminary draft design of the boathouse that will replace the landmark red-roofed boathouse that was destroyed by a fire on July 12, 2010 was mostly negative.

Coast Guard Station Chief Jason Olsen, the man responsible for Station Menemsha, told The Times in a telephone interview Thursday, the design team scheduled the meeting with residents to present the design, answer questions, and hear specific concerns. Mr. Olsen said the design process is not complete and the Coast Guard would do all it can to address concerns and recommendations.

In doing so, he said, the primary objective is to build a boathouse that supports the station’s ability to carry out its mission now and well into the future with new vessels and new technologies.

Mr. Olsen said it is also important to remember that while Station Menemsha is located in Chilmark the decisions made have implications for a wider area beyond one small port. “We have 50 miles offshore, we have the biggest fishing fleet, New Bedford, that we’re responsible to respond to, and all the [Elizabeth] islands and we work with Station Woods Hole,” he said. “We do reside there [Menemsha], but we have more stakeholders we have to be able to provide service to as well.”

The draft design shows a boathouse with two floors, 34 feet, 11 inches tall at its highest point and 78 feet long. By comparison, the old boathouse was 28 feet, one inch at its tallest, and 63 feet long.

He said the goal is to maintain the historical integrity of the building but build to the demands of the next 50 years, not the last 50. One important design element from the old building will be retained. The new boathouse will have white clapboard siding and a red roof.

Mr. Olsen said Coast Guard equipment, requirements, and technology have changed and the boathouse reflects that evolution. For example, unlike the old building there will be separate and private facilities for men and women, secure storage space for specialized tools as part of an electronic maintenance control and inventory system, and office space.

The additional height will provide space to accommodate the station’s small boat. “In the old boathouse we couldn’t fit the 25 on the trailer all the way in because it was built so long ago,” he said. “In the new boathouse our crew will be able to work on it safely and efficiently.”

Mr. Olsen said Menemsha is scheduled to receive a second 47-foot motor lifeboat, the workhorse of the rescue fleet. “If we don’t take the opportunity now to make it right it is going to cost more down the road,” he said.

In order to retrieve boats, the Coast Guard must motor to the public launch ramp in Aquinnah and trailer boats back to the station. A ramp will lead from the new boathouse to the water and allow the station to haul smaller boats directly into the work area.

Mr. Olsen, a 15-year veteran of the Coast Guard, took command of Station Menemsha last year. He said the Coast Guard men and women who live and work in Menemsha share the community’s aesthetic concerns. “We want to have a historical looking building because that is part of the pride and joy we have about being in the Coast Guard in New England,” he said. “We definitely look forward to having a white side, red roof new boathouse.”

What is not clear is if the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will be asked to review the project, or the extent to which the regional permitting body would have authority over a federal project on federal land. Mark London, MVC executive director told The Times that is a legal question for which he did not have a ready answer.

Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll said there are no immediate plans to refer the project. “The town of Chilmark doesn’t have the history of pursuing referrals to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission if they are able to work on the problem themselves,” he said. “However, if it becomes the only route I’m sure the selectmen would consider it.”

Mr. Carroll added, “I have had conversations with the Coast Guard design team and I have faith that they are willing to listen and make modifications based on our comments.”

All wrong

In a meeting on October 4 and with no Coast Guard officials present to respond, selectmen Frank Fenner and Jonathan Mayhew had little good to say about the preliminary design.

Chairman Frank Fenner, who owns a nearby restaurant, described it as “mammoth.” He said he had hoped the boathouse would be smaller than the original structure.

Selectman Jonathan Mayhew, a commercial fisherman, said he was “flabbergasted” by the design.

Jane Slater, chairman of the town historic commission, said the new structure had the wrong windows and agreed the building was too large. “This is terrible. I don’t know anyone who can get behind this,” she said.

The historic commission was scheduled to discuss the plan when it met this Wednesday, October 19.

This week, in a letter to selectmen he also submitted as a letter to the editor, Chris Murphy of Chilmark, a retired commercial fisherman and chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, took the design suggestions one step further: Replace the boathouse with a few parking spots.

Mr. Murphy said that the boathouse had outlived its usefulness and “been used like most garages to hold little-used junk and supply a place to work and play for the crew at the station — useful, but not necessary, and certainly not in the right place.

“The answer to the Coast Guard plans to rebuild the boathouse, plans inspired in large part by a mistaken idea that if the harbor looks like it did all will be well, should be a loud, ‘no thank you,'” Mr. Murphy said. “Perhaps a couple of well-planned parking spots but no more than that.”

Boathouse history

The United States Coast Guard traces its history back to August 4, 1790, when the first Congress authorized the construction of 10 vessels to enforce tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling.

The U.S. Life Saving Service built a station and boathouse, which later became Coast Guard Station Gay Head, in 1895. The station building was near Gay Head Light and the boathouse on the shore west of Dogfish Bar.

The first keeper was Nehemiah C. Hayman, who was appointed October 4, 1895. Keepers had to be “able-bodied, of good character and habits, able to read and write and be under 45 years of age and a master at handling boats, especially in rough weather,” according to a station history.

In 1915, an act of Congress merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life Saving Service, creating a single maritime service, the Coast Guard, dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws.

Robert E. Kinnecom of Oak Bluffs served at Station Gay Head, the precursor to Station Menemsha in 1951 and 1952, when it was located next to the lighthouse on the cliffs. Mr. Kinnecom told The Times in an earlier interview for a story profiling the station that the hurricane of 1938 wiped out the Gay Head boathouse. It was rebuilt in Menemsha in 1939. Mr. Kinnecom recalls applying the stain that provided the trademark red roof.

In 1952, the Coast Guard moved the Cuttyhunk station building to Menemsha by barge. Commissioning of the new station took place on March 12, 1954. In January, 1974, the Coast Guard officially changed the name of the station to reflect its actual location.

In 1995, during a period of downsizing, the Coast Guard considered closing Station Menemsha and disposing of the property including the station house on the hill. Strong public and political pressure prevented a closure of the Island’s only search and rescue station, but not a downsizing.

Then came the events of September 11, after which the Coast Guard’s role in providing homeland security was greatly expanded.

In September 2004 Coast Guard Station Menemsha was officially designated a fully independent “station large.” As a result, the number of Coast Guardsmen increased and the station began to maintain its own radio watch.

Station Menemsha includes approximately 22 Coast Guard men and women. Patrolling in a 47-foot motor life boat and rigid hull inflatable, the station is responsible for an area that includes the waters south and west of Gay Head off the western end of Vineyard Sound and routes used by New Bedford commercial fishing boats.