For merry Coast Guard crew tis the season for vigilance nevertheless
At the U.S. Coast Guard Station Menemsha, there's no such thing as a holiday. Although some crewmembers took time off last week to go home for Christmas, for the rest it was business as usual.
"We run a firehouse type of operation, with 24/7 coverage 365 days a year - we're always open," said Senior Chief Stephen Barr, officer in charge of Station Menemsha. "We celebrate, but we still have a station to run."
On Christmas, like any other day, Coast Guard personnel on duty at Station Menemsha know that they may be called at any time to respond to marine emergencies at a moment's notice. The holiday passed quietly for them last week, however.
"There were no search and rescue cases this year on Christmas," Chief Barr said in an interview at the station on Monday.
"It's the nature of what we do, though, and our crew, every one of them, is very passionate about their work," he added.
PHOTO COURTESY OF USCG STATION MENEMSHA
About 20 to 22 Coast Guard personnel work at Station Menemsha, rotating two crews on 48-hour shifts, with two days on, two days off, and sliding weekends, which are 72-hour shifts. Each crewmember has two weekends off a month.
"We have folks from everywhere but Martha's Vineyard," the chief noted, including Hawaii, the Carolinas, California, Ohio, New York, Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Chief Barr said the goal is to have six crewmembers on duty at a time, along with a few extras in case they are needed. Manning the station also involves more than just numbers, he explained, as certain positions must be covered at all times and only by personnel with the proper qualifications.
"The holidays are tough - we have fewer folks than many stations," the chief noted. "We try to accommodate everyone. It's important that they get a chance to go home, although they may not be able to celebrate on Christmas Day."
It also is impossible for the crew to all get together for a holiday party at the same time. "Nobody wants to have a party at the station, and somebody has to be here, so that means someone has to stay behind - we ask for volunteers and make it up to them in some way later," Chief Barr said.
That is not to say, however, that Christmas went by without notice or celebration at Station Menemsha. "Every year the community brings all kinds of food, and it all gets eaten," Chief Barr said with a laugh, adding, "The folks of Chilmark are very generous."
Now two and a half years into his four-year assignment as station chief, he said he has developed a system for labeling containers and making sure they get returned to their proper owners.
Chief Barr's Coast Guard career has included assignments in Maine, Washington, California, and New York, as well as Woods Hole. When asked what he finds most unique about Station Menemsha, he said, "I haven't been anywhere where there has been such a sense of being part of the community." Although Food Services Chief (FSC) "Mac" McGougan was off on Christmas Day, he made it a point to go to the station, put together a holiday meal from the donated food, and eat dinner with the crew. His efforts do not go unappreciated, as Chief Barr and the crew describe him as "the best chef in the Coast Guard."
At the station on Monday, although some crewmembers who worked on Christmas were off this week, others who had returned from holiday vacations shared their experiences over lunch.
Fireman (FN) Kaycee Teramae arrived in Menemsha last week, her first duty station since joining the Coast Guard two and a half months ago. She said she spent her first Christmas away from her home in Honolulu trying to adapt to the cold here.
Bad weather foiled Seaman Apprentice (SA) Sarah Cobillas's attempts to fly home to San Francisco for Christmas. She has worked at Station Menemsha for nine and a half months. Realizing she was stuck in Boston, Ms. Cobilla said, "I tried to volunteer at a homeless veterans' shelter, but they had plenty of people, so I met up with a couple of friends."
MK3 Matt Lawson, on the other hand, made it home to Richmond, Va., for Christmas without a problem. He said he has enjoyed being stationed in Menemsha for the last eight months, although he misses fast food and lower gas prices.
For MK3 Andy Chace, going home for Christmas meant a short ride - or maybe not - in his own not-so-young boat to New Bedford. "At least this year we didn't have to go out and tow you," Chief Barr kidded him.
After serving 10 years in the Coast Guard, executive petty officer BM1 Rob Bitinas said he is used to working on holidays. When he doesn't, sometimes he ends up spending them with the crew anyway.
On Thanksgiving, for example, Petty Officer Bitinas and his wife, who lives in a home they bought in Plymouth, came to Station Menemsha to eat dinner with the crew.
"From my station experience with duty crews, you see each other more than family, so they become your family away from home," he said.
Given their small numbers and Island location, the Station Menemsha crew is close-knit and works out holiday arrangements amiably, Petty Officer Bitinas added. "Sometimes the younger guys want to go and have fun on New Year's Eve, so they'll stand Christmas duty," he explained.
As Chief Barr pointed out, "It all levels out in the end."
Station Menemsha covers the southern half of Vineyard Sound to the Massachusetts-Rhode Island State line, the southern part of Buzzard's Bay, and 50 nautical miles south of Martha's Vineyard.
"Fall and winter are when we're the busiest," Chief Barr noted. "We deal with not only recreational boating but also with the commercial boating industry, which involves enforcing laws as well as rescue operations."
Despite its Island location, Station Menemsha does not oversee Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown, which are covered by Station Woods Hole. "It takes us an hour and 15 minutes to get to Vineyard Haven by water, while it takes 15 minutes from Station Woods Hole," Chief Barr explained.