Coast Guard breaks ground for new Menemsha boathouse

The ground-breaking crew for the new Coast Guard Station Menemsha boathouse included, from left, MK1 Scott Maccaferri, BM2 Gary Kovack, MK1 Spencer Thigpen, Captain John Kondratowicz, Coast Guard veteran Robert Kinnecom, BMCS Jason Olsen, Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll, U.S. Coast Guard project manager Lou Vinciguerra, and Mortenson Construction project manager Kris Carey. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The officers and crew of U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Station Menemsha celebrated the beginning of construction Tuesday afternoon for a new boathouse to replace one destroyed by fire on July 12, 2010.

Plans call for construction of a 5,000-square-foot single-bay boathouse boat maintenance and crew support spaces, as well as a new boat ramp. The exterior is expected to be completed next June.

“Today marks a great day in the history of the boathouse of Menemsha and also the community,” guest speaker Capt. John Kondratowicz, sector commander Southeastern New England, said. “What’s going to be nice about it is the fact that, through the years, the missions changed, the boats have changed, and now the boathouse will change and it will take on a lot of the new missions, but it will also be able to house the boats that are going on with the new missions, such as the new response boat generation two that will show up right after the boathouse is resurrected, as well.”

Senior Chief Jason Olsen, Station Menemsha’s Officer in Charge, the ceremony’s emcee, thanked everyone involved in the project’s construction and also the Station Menemsha crew for their hard work over the last three years. He also expressed appreciation for the support of the Chilmark selectmen, represented at the ceremony by Warren Doty, executive secretary Tim Carroll, and the community, as well as harbormaster Dennis Jason, Marshall and Katie Carroll from Texaco Fuel, the Island fire, police and EMS departments, Massachusetts State Police, and Dukes County Sheriff’s office.

In addition, Chief Olsen paid tribute to all veterans — Coastguardsmen, in particular. “And the Coast Guard vets, especially ones that have a lot of memories and stories of the old boathouse, I look forward to hearing some of those one day, hopefully in the near future,” he said.

Chief Olsen called on a group of ground-breaking delegates, who grabbed shovels and donned white hard hats as they joined him on a sandy spot near where the new dock and boathouse will be built. They included Captain Kondratowicz, Mr. Carroll, Coast Guard veteran Robert (Bob) Kinnecom, USCG project manager Lou Vinciguerra, Mortenson Construction project manager Kris Carey, MK1 Scott Maccaferri (USCG Ret.), Engineer Petty Officer Spencer Thigpen, MK1, and Training Petty Officer Gary Kovack, BM2.

Decades of memories

Although Chief Olsen didn’t get a chance to hear them, before and after the ceremony several former Coastguardsmen shared memories of Station Menemsha and the former boathouse that spanned several decades with The Times.

According to the program for the ceremony, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a forerunner to the Coast Guard, established a station at Gay Head in 1895. In 1952, the Coast Guard station located at Cuttyhunk was moved by barge to Menemsha, replacing the Gay Head station.

Mr. Kinnecom, who joined the Coast Guard in 1949 and returned home to Martha’s Vineyard to serve at Station Menemsha in 1952, said he took part in the station’s move by helping push the building up the hill to its present spot overlooking the harbor.

Mr. Kinnecom said his father, the station chief at Gay Head in the late 1930s, was the last Coastguardman in the Lobsterville boathouse when the hurricane of 1938 took it out and made the arrangements for its replacement in Menemsha. When asked what he thought of Tuesday’s ground-breaking, Mr. Kinnecom said, “I think it’s wonderful: I’m tickled to death they invited me up here.”

“I can’t get over the fact they’ve got female Coastguardsmen now, though,” he added, which got a laugh from his daughter, Dukes County Veterans Agent Jo Ann Murphy.

Norman Gardner served in the Coast Guard for 10 years, and was stationed in Menemsha from 1960 to 1963. He said he did a lot of work at the old boathouse, painting its roof and putting in the dock in 1961.

“It’s nice to see it going back up,” Mr. Gardner said. “You’ve got to have the boathouse. We used to haul the boats out and work on them, and it gets kind of hard to do the bottoms without it.”

John Mancuso, who served at Station Menemsha from 1962 to 1964, said he was very enthusiastic about the boathouse being rebuilt. After the fire three years ago, he recalled, “I couldn’t come up here for a long time.”

Harbormaster Dennis Jason said he has many fond memories of the former boathouse, starting at age 8, when he lived next door and used to play there. Mr. Jason grew up to join the Coast Guard and came full circle when he was stationed in Menemsha from 1967 to 1969.

“I’m glad to see it,” he said, when asked what he thought about the new building plans. “Going back, I think it’s had 150 years of good service in the area, and I like to see the presence of the Coast Guard in Menemsha.”

Although Ken Ivory thought he would be stationed on the West Coast when he left Martha’s Vineyard and joined the Coast Guard in 1970, he ended up back at Station Menemsha from 1973 to 1975. “I loved being here; I loved the boats, especially as a 20-year-old kid in charge of a 44-foot lifeboat,” he said. “I’m glad they’re getting a new boathouse; they need it.”

Joe Uva spent more than 10 years of his 20-year career in the Coast Guard from 1979 to 2000 at Station Menemsha. “I have a lot of memories of the old boathouse and the station,” he said. “It’s a tight community up here; the town treats the station likes it’s their own, and people take it to heart,” he added.

Station Menemsha is responsible for an area that includes the waters south and west of Gay Head off the western end of Vineyard Sound. In earlier comments on the need for a new boathouse, Chief Olsen said the primary objective is to build a boathouse that supports the station’s ability to carry out its mission now and well into the future with new vessels and new technologies.

Mr. Olsen said it is also important to remember that while Station Menemsha is located in Chilmark the decisions made have implications for a wider area beyond one small port. “We have 50 miles offshore, we have the biggest fishing fleet, New Bedford, that we’re responsible to respond to, and all the [Elizabeth] islands and we work with Station Woods Hole,” he said. “We do reside there [Menemsha], but we have more stakeholders, we have to be able to provide service to as well.”

Summer blaze

The new boathouse will replace the Coast Guard facility that was destroyed in the devastating Menemsha fire in 2010. But for a wind that blew from a helpful direction and quick, often heroic action by emergency personnel from around Martha’s Vineyard, plus volunteers and bystanders, the blaze might have consumed much of the picturesque Chilmark village.

The fire broke out on a stifling hot, humid summer day. The blaze had all the ferocity of a wind-whipped winter northeaster. More than a dozen boats were destroyed or badly damaged, along with lots of fishing equipment and Coast Guard gear stored in the boathouse.

The blaze ignited nearby boats and burned through the mooring lines. One boat in flames floated across the harbor toward the Menemsha Texaco gas dock. Other boats drifted against fishing boats on Dutcher Dock. Harbor personnel and volunteers moved quickly to tow the boats out of the harbor helping to stop a spreading disaster.

In the aftermath, all who witnessed the orange flames, felt the intense heat, or were enveloped in the choking black sooty smoke and floating ash agreed that it could have been much, much worse.

An investigation by federal, state, and local authorities right after the fire was extinguished said the fire may have been the result of a discarded cigarette on the pier, faulty electrical wiring to the boathouse, or faulty electrical wiring to the town’s pier. The investigation found insufficient evidence to determine a more precise ignition source.

The next step

Mr. Vinciguerra said that test piles are currently being driven in for the new boathouse, which will then be replaced by foundation piles to support the building and also the boat ramp. After that a retaining wall will be built and a floating dock installed off the pier.

“Once the piles are in, we build a concrete, pre-cast deck, and the building goes up from there,” Mr. Vinciguerra said. “By summertime we’ll be closed in and just working on the inside, the interior, such as the electrical, mechanical, those kinds of systems, but the outside will be done and weathered in.”

In the meantime, Chief Olsen said that although he will be transferring to a new duty station in South Portland, Maine, probably in July, he definitely plans to come back for a ribbon-cutting ceremony when the new boathouse is complete.