Coast Guard Station Menemsha changes command

Following the Station Menemsha change of command ceremony Friday, new officer in charge, Senior Chief Robert Riemer (left) shook hands with his predecessor, Senior Chief Jason Olsen as Captain John T. Kondratowicz, Commander USCG Sector Southeastern New England looked on.
Photo by Michael Cummo

Following the Station Menemsha change of command ceremony Friday, new officer in charge, Senior Chief Robert Riemer (left) shook hands with his predecessor, Senior Chief Jason Olsen as Captain John T. Kondratowicz, Commander USCG Sector Southeastern New England looked on.

In a time honored ceremony, Senior Chief Robert Riemer took command of the small boat station on Martha’s Vineyard.

In a brief exchange rooted in the maritime traditions that form the core of Coast Guard service, command of Station Menemsha passed from one officer to another Friday morning under clear blue skies on a hill with a sweeping view of Vineyard Sound.

“I offer my relief,” Senior Chief Robert J. Riemer said.

“I stand relieved,” Senior Chief Jason L. Olsen replied as assembled guests, Coast Guard officials and approximately 21 crewmen and women assigned to the small boat station that protect mariners in the waters of the western end of Vineyard Sound and nearby Buzzards Bay looked on.

In a few hours, Senior Chief Olsen, a native of San Diego, would leave for South Portland, Maine, where he will be the Executive Petty Officer on the Marcus Hanna, a 175-foot buoy tender, his latest post in a Coast Guard career that began in October 1996.

Four years earlier, Mr. Olsen had just arrived at Station Menemsha to assume the responsibilities of Officer in Charge when a raging fire inJuly 2010destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse, now being rebuilt.

During his four-year tenure, Station Menemsha received the Sumner I. Kimball award plaque and pennant that “recognizes excellence in crew proficiency, boat and personal protective equipment condition and compliance with established training documentation requirements as essential readiness components.”

In his farewell remarks, Senior Chief Olsen, often choking up with emotion, thanked his crew, the community, the members of the Coast Guard command staff, and his wife for their support throughout his tenure.

“I can’t believe that today is here already; it sure did go by quickly,” he said with his wife and three children watching from the front row. “And even though the time started with a dramatic event, there was so much more that happened here and those are the things that I am going to remember.”

Turning to his crew, Senior Chief Olsen grew emotional and paused to regain his composure. “Without you guys, and like I told you guys last week, I pushed you hard, I expected a lot out of you, I know we had our challenges together, but we had a lot of success and that is what I am going to remember. I hope you guys learned some stuff from me. I’m telling you I learned a lot here, more than from my Coast Guard career combined.”

Describing his wife, Andrea, as the “rock and anchor” of his family, Mr. Olsen presented her with a bouquet of flowers and a kiss.

In his remarks, Captain John Kondratowicz, Sector Commander Southeastern New England, described the history of Station Menemsha, rooted in the early days of the U.S. Life Saving Service and Station Gay Head.

“Station Menemsha and her crew carry on the legacy of rescuers past and the mission of modern maritime safety,” he said. “Senior Chief Olsen and his crew are part of this long lasting story of Menemsha.”

Captain Kondratowicz highlighted the crew’s many accomplishments under Mr. Olsen’s leadership, which included search and rescue, law enforcement, and protection of marine resources. Just as important, he said, was crew interaction with the community, most recently dancing with the residents of Windemere nursing home.

“Their commitment to excellence does not come easy, or by accident,” he said, adding that it took a steady hand at the helm and Mr. Olsen was that steady hand. An Officer in Charge, he said, must lead from the front and set an example to the crew in operations or in professional development. He also must continually find ways to develop the competence of each member to perform assigned duties.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Captain Kondratowicz presented Senior Chief Olsen with a gold star citation commendation medal.

In his remarks to newly appointed Officer in Charge Senior Chief Riemer, Captain Kondratowicz said, “You have a great crew, a great unit, and a fantastic location. I am sure you will have many great days ahead.”

Strict rule book

Senior Chief Riemer, 41, is a native of Liberty, New York. In a conversation prior to the change of command ceremony, Mr. Riemer said Station Menemsha was at the top of his assignment request list.

“I wanted to go back to sea, but it was not in the cards,” he said. One of his goals is to command a Coast Guard ship.

Mr. Riemer is no stranger to Island waters. In the Coast Guard for 23 years, he previously served on a cutter based at Woods Hole. He and his wife, Kara, and two daughters have very pleasant memories of living on Cape Cod.

He was most recently Officer in Charge of CG Station Elizabeth City. Asked to describe some of the challenges of command, Mr. Riemer cited responsibility for personnel.

“In the private sector, you worry about your staff from 8 to 4, 9 to 5. In the Coast Guard, we are worried about our staff, our crew, 24/7. And that includes the care and welfare of their dependents. We’re concerned about their finances; we’re concerned about their health. We’re concerned about their family wellness and overall well-being.”

Mr. Riemer said those outside the Coast Guard often do not understand how much the military tries to look out for its people. “It can be one of our toughest challenges and can be one of our most rewarding experiences,” he said.

Mr. Riemer said he expects the changing tempo of the Island, from the busy summer season to the off season, to offer its own set of challenges – in particular, keeping some of the younger members of the crew “positively engaged.”

Despite the isolation and familiarity of the up-Island station, it remains a military installation. “It’s like running a household with a very strict rule book,” he said.

Senior Chief Riemer said for now he needs to become familiar with the station, his personnel and the Island.

Asked what he finds most rewarding about his job, he thought for a moment and said, “I really enjoy helping people be successful. I like seeing a member of my crew, my team, earn their captain’s license or take a college course or pick up a new Coast Guard certification. I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing my people do well.”

Mr. Riemer entered the Coast Guard in 1991. “I joined the Coast Guard because I wanted to help people,” he said.

One change he has seen over the past 20 years is a change in the mission. There is more emphasis on maritime security and law enforcement. The primary mission, search and rescue, has also changed, he said.

“We are not seeing as much of a need for search and rescue,” he said. Mr. Riemer attributes that to better boating education, equipment and technology. “The sea is an inherently dangerous environment and I think people are going out a little better prepared than they were 15, 20 years ago,” he said.

The First District is broken up into five sectors. Station Menemsha, designated a heavy weather station, is part of sector Southeastern New England, an area that includes the waters off Rhode Island and Cape Cod.

Mr. Riemer is responsible for a crew of approximately 24 men and women assigned to Station Menemsha. Their area of responsibility includes the waters west to the Rhode Island border, 50 nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, Buzzard’s Bay, and Vineyard Sound.

Equipment at their disposal includes two 47-foot motor lifeboats (MLB) and one 25-foot response boat.

The workhorse of the life-saving fleet, the MLB has a top speed of 25 knots. What it lacks in speed it makes up for in rugged, all-weather durability. The 47 is designed to operate in up to 50-knot winds, towering 30-foot seas and 20-foot surf. The MLB is completely self-righting: if a wave knocks it completely upside down it will roll until it is upright.

Semper Paratus

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 fleet was known variously through the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service.

A separate agency, the Life Saving Service, was created in 1878 to improve a largely volunteer network of rescue stations that assisted mariners in distress along the very busy coastlines.

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, according to a Coast Guard history of the station.

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 the 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.

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 from Gay Head to Menemsha 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, 2001, 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.