Edgartown philanthropist to the rescue, for new rescue boat

A fast, safe, useful Coast Guard retiree will serve Edgartown as a harbor emergency launch. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Happenstance can be a wonderful thing. Ask Edgartown police Chief Tony Bettencourt and fire Chief Peter Shemeth. For two years running, they put a lot of time and effort into writing a $500,000 grant application. They wanted a search and rescue vessel for police and paramedics to respond to emergencies in the busy harbor. They asked for a new 25-foot vessel, like the U.S. Coast Guard’s Defender class response boats. Each time, the grant application was rejected.

They were writing a third grant application this year, when fire Chief Shemeth got a call from a state official. The Coast Guard had six surplus vessels that were being offered to local governments, before they were put up for auction to the public. The boats were Coast Guard Defender class response boats, with only about two years of use in Boston Harbor. The price? Zero dollars.

There was a hitch. The Coast Guard had stripped the boats of all electronics and engines. Chief Shemeth and Chief Bettencourt both know their way around boats, and they know there is no such thing as a free boat.

“We’ve been trying to do this for three years,” Chief Bettencourt said. “When we got the boat, and we didn’t have any motors, we thought we’re kind of halfway there.”

To the rescue

The chiefs estimated it would take $70,000 to outfit the boat with twin 250 horse outboard motors and electronics, including night vision search cameras. They thought it was a bargain, but money is always tight for town governments.

They knew they would have to scramble to fund the rest of the cost of the rescue vessel in a way that would have the support of taxpayers who would foot the bill.

They got a generous promise from Edgartown Marine to help out with the cost of the motors.

Then they placed a call to Edgartown summer resident Ernie Boch Jr., president and CEO of Boch Enterprises, which operates automobile dealerships. The plan was to ask for a donation to cover about a third of the cost.

“He’s been a supporter of the K-9 program,” Chief Bettencourt said. “We reached out to him, told him what kind of program we’re putting together. He called back the next day and said he wanted to support the whole program. A few days later there was a check for $70,000. That’s just incredible.”

“Without that, we would be scrambling for a long time,” Chief Shemeth added.

Free and fast

The boat is a 25-foot vessel with an aluminum hull and a rigid foam flotation collar, built for speed, strength, and safety. The cabin is a water tight fortress. The boat is capable of speeds of 50 knots or better. The crew will be able to respond to an emergency in town waters in minutes, if necessary.

“This is what the boat was designed to do,” Chief Shemeth said. “In the past we’ve tried to take a boat and retrofit it. This boat is specifically designed for search and rescue. If the conditions aren’t the best, which is usually when search and rescue actually happens, at least this is designed for it. It’s a safer vessel. I feel a lot more comfortable putting personnel out in this, than what we’ve had in the past.”

The boat is also equipped for more mundane operations, such as towing disabled vessels and pumping out boats that are taking on water. It will be equipped with fire suppression equipment to respond to boat fires, and it will even be able to support the fire department if necessary, if there is a fire near the shore. Town officials also hope the new craft will also serve as a deterrent, making boaters think twice before misbehaving.

Anchor aweigh

The vessel requires at least two people to operate, and the two chiefs concede that will take some creative scheduling and budgeting.

“Our goal is to have it manned with police and medics/firemen all the time,” Chief Bettencourt said. “Our goal is to have that boat on patrol, available to respond to an incident immediately. We can’t guarantee it’s going to be seven days a week at first, but our goal is for it to be available at least through the busy times in July and August, to be ready to go.”

Chief Bettencourt said he already assigns officers for harbor patrols and deals with many emergency calls on the water each summer. He said the same officers will now be better equipped and quicker to the scene.

The only costs to the town will be fuel and maintenance. The two departments will budget $12,500 each for the first year, an expenditure that requires the approval of town voters.

“It’s a $300,000 piece of equipment that we got for free,” Chief Bettencourt said. “We’re asking the town for operating costs and maintenance. I’m pretty confident we can put something together.”