The lights flickered in the mess hall at Station Menemsha one morning last month while the crews ate breakfast. Outside, in the predawn darkness, the most powerful storm of the fall was flooding roads, felling trees, knocking out power and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whipping Vineyard Sound into 15-foot seas.
Word came in that the transmitter on the Block Island buoy had just been knocked out.
Senior Chief Robert Riemer was concerned. The storm was heading east and would soon begin to wane. This would be good news for most, but not for Boatswain Mate second class Ryan Rossi. For him to complete his long journey to become certified as a Heavy Weather Coxswain (HWC), he had to pass a checkride at the helm of a 47-foot motor lifeboat (MLB) in “heavy weather,” defined by the Coast Guard as ten-foot seas and 30-knot winds. A certified HWC can conduct search and rescue missions in up to 20-foot seas and 50-knot winds on board an MLB.
The checkride was the final step in a long process that involved years on the water, hours of study, oral examinations, and advanced training in some of the most turbulent waters on the East and West Coasts. That day, Mr. Rossi would have to guide his MLB close enough to a second MLB, simulating a boat in distress, to pass over a portable dewatering pump while avoiding a potentially disastrous, unsimulated, collision. He would have to to hook up and tow the “disabled boat,” again without colliding, and without snapping the tow rope in the rollercoaster waves. He would also have to maneuver close enough to a man overboard, a mannequin named Oscar, so a crew mate could pluck Oscar out of the churning waves.
At present, Chief Riemer is the only HWC at Station Menemsha, which means every time a big storm rolls in, he has to be at the station for the duration. If Mr. Rossi passed his checkride, it would mean two MLBs, not one, would be able to go on search and rescue missions when the temperamental waters off the Vineyard erupt.
Mr. Rossi, 28, is an eight-year veteran of the Coast Guard. The day had special significance because he was born and raised a surf cast away from Station Menemsha, in Chilmark. “When I was growing up, I spent pretty much all my time right here,” he said. “I worked at Larsen’s Fish Market when I was 12 years old.”
Mr. Rossi grew up on the water, getting his first boat when he was 11. Beginning in his junior year at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), he was assistant harbormaster in Menemsha Harbor for three years.
Public service is a theme that runs through the Rossi family. His father, Dan Rossi, is West Tisbury police chief. His uncle Dave Rossi is Edgartown police chief, and his uncle William is a Chilmark selectman.
His path to that morning’s checkride was a long and circuitous one. It began when he enlisted in the Coast Guard one year after he graduated MVRHS in 2006. Since then, he’s had postings in California, Southeast Asia, Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina — at Coast Guard Station Hatteras Inlet in North Carolina, a place with some of the most dangerous seas on the East Coast. He made Basic Coxswain in North Carolina, the first major step to becoming an HWC. Then he went for advanced training at motor lifeboat school at Cape Disappointment, Washington, a place that got its name from Lewis and Clark, and leaves no doubt how the explorers felt about the craggy coastline and treacherous, boulder-filled waters.
Last April, Mr. Rossi was transferred home to Station Menemsha with his wife Ellen, an Islander from Oak Bluffs, and his now 6-month-old daughter Sloane. Her beaming smile graces the screensaver on his smartphone, which he discreetly looked at before he briefed the crews on their mission.
The Rescue and Survival Room had the hushed anticipation of a locker room before a big game. A small framed black-and-white photo of the MVRHS hockey team that Mr. Rossi co-captained hanging on the wall added to the locker-room ambiance.
Mr. Rossi had played in big games before, as a three-sport standout at MVRHS, but never for stakes this high.
Two MLB crews of distinctly young Coasties assembled, making final adjustments to their orange and black Mustang Survival suits and helmets. After a few words from Chief Riemer, Mr. Rossi went over the detailed game plan with the calm self-assurance of a seasoned leader.
“The main operating area will be off of Devil’s Bridge,” he said, referring to a shallow reef of house-size boulders that extends off the northwest corner of the Vineyard. As the name connotes, it’s dangerous water even in benign conditions, with large swells generated by strong tidal currents, flowing over boulders 100 to 200 yards from shore.
“If we don’t have good conditions, we’ll push out between Noman’s and Squibnocket,” he said. “Good conditions,” in this case, means the kind of conditions that send most boaters back to bed.
Mr. Rossi quickly rapped off a list of numbers and acronyms, such as “RTV to 236,” to which his crew responded with an enthusiastic “Aye.”
“One hand for the boat and one hand for you at all times,” Mr. Rossi said. “Make sure you’re clipped in.” The MLB is a workhorse, built for heavy-weather search and rescue, and there are many places on deck where the clips on the heavy-weather belt can be secured.
Mr. Rossi went over contingencies for loss of power, and worse.
“In the event of a knockdown rollover, be ready to hold your breath 10 to 12 seconds,” he said. “When the boat rights itself, more than likely seas will be off your stern, so stay in your belts, and look behind you for the next wave. If you fall overboard, don’t swim toward the boat; the boat will turn around and pick you up.”
“If Oscar’s right there and you can pull him in, pull him in,” Chief Riemer added. “Last time we had too much waiting around for commands. Treat him like an actual person.”
The 47-foot MLB began rocking as soon as it left the sanctuary of Menemsha Harbor. The 435-horsepower, turbocharged twin diesel engines propelled the craft through what Chief Riemer estimated to be eight-foot seas with 12-foot sets. For the non-seafaring, it would be like driving a car over speed bumps higher than a basketball hoop that suddenly came out of nowhere.
“Wait until we get out of the leeside of the wind,” Chief Riemer told The Times reporter struggling to stay strapped in his seat on the bridge. “It’s unreal.”
As the MLB made its way around Gay Head Light, Chief Riemer’s words rang true. The recent full moon added muscle to the changing tide, and the sea attacked from all angles, jarring the boat, soaking the deck, and testing the strength of the clips on the heavy-weather belts. There was no rhythm to the 12-foot sets, and they sometimes hit from different directions, like a fighter mixing up his punches, occasionally landing a left hook and causing the boat to list sharply.
Mr. Rossi zigzagged his way to Devil’s Bridge, taking on waves at a slight angle when possible. Because his maneuvering took him more than 100 feet off course, the GPS alarm constantly sounded.
The voices on the radio from the second, “distressed” boat were barely audible over the gale. Once Chief Riemer gave the go-ahead, Mr. Rossi methodically called out his instructions to his crew, their shouts of “Aye” also barely audible. Mr. Rossi guided the seesawing MLB within 30 feet of the target, calmly and deftly managing both throttles with the sangfroid of a teenager on an Xbox. The dewatering pump was passed on the second try. The bow-to-seas approach to attach the tow line didn’t go as well. The wind gusts seemed to perfectly synchronize with each toss of the tow line, requiring a new approach each time. By the fourth attempt, crew members were visibly frustrated.
“You’re doing a good job, don’t worry about it,” Mr. Rossi said in a steady tone that he kept throughout the entire checkride. The sixth time was the charm, and the tow rope was finally attached. But towing a boat in heavy seas is treacherous business, even in a simulated exercise. When the two boats were heaved in different directions, the result was a jarring that could loosen dental fillings.
About halfway through the maneuvers, Chief Riemer informed Mr. Rossi that one of the crew had become seasick, which meant one less set of hands on deck.
After Mr. Rossi successfully completed both towing maneuvers, and Oscar was successfully plucked from the drink, Mr. Rossi had officially passed the HWC checkride. But there was no shouting or group high-fiving when Oscar was brought onboard. There was still rough water to be navigated on the way back to Menemsha Harbor. On the way in, Chief Riemer discussed with Mr. Rossi what he would have done differently had this been a night search and rescue. As he quizzed Mr. Rossi on the different kinds of waves and the best way to traverse them, the MLB was broadsided by a large wave, dousing all on deck.
“Everybody stay clipped in,” Mr. Rossi said. “We’re still in heavy weather.”
A big day
The sun was beginning to poke through the clouds, and the winds had died to 10 knots by the time Chief Riemer presented Mr. Rossi with his HWC certificate at dockside.
“This has been a long time coming,” Chief Riemer said. “Petty Officer Rossi worked long and hard for this. This is a big day for all of us. This also makes us stronger as a unit. Now we can get out and train more aggressively. Which means we have a more prepared unit to respond to search and rescue, and we can better serve the people of Martha’s Vineyard.”
“Nice job, man,” Chief Riemer said, handing Mr. Rossi his HWC certificate.
Back in the Rescue and Survival Room, Mr. Rossi reflected on the day. “This is a big day for me,” he said. “The coolest part is to do it where I grew up. This is my favorite place in the world. It’s good to be able to serve my own community, and to raise my daughter here. Especially after being away for so long.”
When there is a storm raging outside, day or night, chances are that the crews at Station Menemsha may be on the water, training for any eventuality that can occur on the high seas.
“Menemsha the worst I have seen is about 18 foot. This was during a storm last fall. The seas were running 12 to 14 that day and a larger wave rolled through. Once again we were out training that day,” Chief Riemer said. “We’ll be out there in January and February, making sure it gets done.”