BEING: A Coastie, Every day different; every day prepared
The boat crew, minutes before departing to escort the Islander on Monday. From left are Machinery Technician Third Class Andrew Chace, Boatswains Mate Second Class Colin Haynes, Machinery Technician Second Class Nick Prescott, Machinery Technician First Class Michael Micucci, Boatswains Mate Second Class Matthew Sponable, and Senior Chief Boatswains Mate Stephen Barr. Photo by Eleni Collins
From inside the 47, a 47-foot motor lifeboat, it was as if they were celebrities. People stood on the Islander's top deck, despite the windy and cold weather, watching and waving as the small Coast Guard boat rode the waves on the port side of the Islander, escorting her on her last trip from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole.
"It's a traditional way of saying farewell," says Colin Haynes, Boatswain Mate Second Class, who was part of the six-person crew.
From assisting the boarding of other motor vessels to leading search, rescue, and recover missions, the United States Coast Guard has a wide array of duties.
"A day in the life of the Coast Guard is preparation," says Nick Prescott, a 23-year-old Machinery Technician Second Class, at the Menemsha Coast Guard station. "We're always ready. Things change all the time. We may be working on law enforcement and then someone starts taking on water."
From left are Machinery Technician First Class Rob Garland, Fireman Juliette Lapotka, and Nick Prescott during a morning brief.
The Guard's mission is safety, especially when the weather is rough. The Menemsha station, unlike its neighboring stations at Woods Hole and Castle Hill, R.I., is designated a heavy weather station. That means their 47 is designed to be out in rough seas, flip under water, and still right itself.
When outfitted in proper personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a 30-pound drysuit, the boat crew can survive in frigid temperatures.
"The drysuit is for extreme weather, when the water is really cold, around 35 degrees. You can survive in these drysuits for six to 12 hours in cold water," says Nick.
The California native was stationed in Menemsha in July 2004, and joined a crew mostly from Massachusetts. The group is divided into two sections that split the week into 48-hour weekday shifts and 72-hour weekend shifts. For their time on duty, the "Coasties" live at the station.
"We don't stand a 24-hour watch. We stand 7 am to 4 pm watch, meaning the radios," says Nick. "But we're always on phone calls, and there is always someone at the station. There is always a whole boat crew at the station."
Nick holds up his presidential citation ribbon, given out by President Bush to the United States Coast Guard for their relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.
When there is not a reason for them to be on the water, there is paper work to be done, equipment to check, and drills. Not to mention their non-boat specific tasks to maintain, such as financial management, driving safety, and CPR.
Nick is an engineer for the Coast Guard. After one year of college in California, he decided he needed a change. "It was either that or the Army. I needed structure," Nick says. After basic training, he went straight to A-School, where he specified in engineering.
Now, as an engineer, part of his daily routine involves what is called a preventative maintenance schedule to the boat every morning at 6:30 am. "It's done everyday, even if we don't use the boat. It's a way of reassuring ourselves," he says.
Those on duty also check to make sure the right equipment is on board, such as towlines and heavy weather belts. "In order to complete our mission, (which is) safety as soon as possible, all this needs to be done and ready.
The Menemsha station's 47-foot motor life boat runs alongside the Islander on the ferry's last run to Woods Hole. The 47's are built to endure the most extreme conditions. They right themselves after capsizing, and are almost unsinkable.
"In an emergency, we have to be able to get underway in 30 minutes. On average, in the winter when you have to put on PPE, then get the boat ready, relay what's going on, where we're going, and what is the nature of the case, the average time is 15 minutes," Nick explains.
For the Coast Guard, staying healthy is important, and they usually use free time during the day to work out.
"You need to be fit in the Coast Guard, regardless of what people think," Nick says. "If you want to save someone who is much heavier than you, you don't want to tell that person's wife later, 'I couldn't pull him out of the water because I wasn't strong enough.'"
Aside from the preparedness and action of a rescue, Nick appreciates the camaraderie of the station. "This job is fun; it's awesome. You get a great group of guys together. Everyone at the station is pretty much my best friend."
As for the commanding officers of the Coast Guard, Nick takes advantage of their expertise. "I always ask the older guys what their experience was like. I pick everyone's brains apart to see what I want to do."
Currently, Nick is signed up for six years, while most Coasties sign up for four. He will leave Menemsha sometime next summer and continue for two more years somewhere else, which is decided by a detailer. He will have the opportunity to fill out a dream sheet, but it is where the person is most needed that matters the most.
He finishes the interview with a favorite saying. "Our motto is Semper Paratus - always ready. You prepare for the worst and expect the best; I love that quote."