Coast Guard cuts ribbon on new Menemsha boathouse

Michael Cummo

In a ceremony short on pomp and circumstance but long on the warmth and familiarity that characterize the nation’s smallest military branch, Thursday morning the U.S. Coast Guard officially unveiled its new Station Menemsha boathouse.

Local and state officials, townspeople, up-Island police chiefs, former Coasties, and the crew of Station Menemsha crowded into the boathouse for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked the completion of the new $10 million facility that replaces the 71-year-old building destroyed in the Menemsha fire on July 12, 2010.

Wielding an outsize pair of scissors, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, Coast Guard 1st District Commander Rear Adm. Linda Fagan, and Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England Commander Capt. John Kondratowicz cut a large red ribbon stretched across the open bay door that will allow the station crew to haul its 25-foot response boat small up a ramp and into the building for service.

In his welcoming remarks, Senior Chief Robert Riemer, officer in charge of Station Menemsha, stressed the teamwork that went into the construction of the new building and the preparations needed in advance of Thursday’s ceremony.

“This is a truly wonderful building,” Senior Chief Riemer said. “The facility and the boat ramp are already making a big impact on our mission readiness. I also think that having a well-designed, modern facility makes a big impact on the attitude and morale of the crew at Station Menemsha. This crew has been making do with spaces that were not designed to accommodate the work we do for almost five years.”

Senior Chief Riemer said the crew had been repairing survival equipment in a barracks room, and managing a parts inventory in a trailer. The new boathouse features a spacious and high-ceilinged service bay, a locker room with the name of each crewmember on a separate cubicle, office space, and separate mechanical equipment and gear rooms.

Senior Chief Riemer said that the past boathouse had stood for 70 years in nearly the same footprint as the new building. “The previous structure was an icon in Menemsha Harbor, a landmark that declared that lifesavers work here, and would be there when this community needed them,” he said.

Senior Chief Riemer said the new boathouse pays tribute to its predecessor, but is designed for the future and all it might bring. “My sincere hope is that it will stand in this community for the next 70 years and beyond,” he said. “My thanks to all the Coast Guardsman who served here before, some of them present today, who have given us this rich heritage to carry forward. I would also like to thank the community for bearing with the Coast Guard as we worked through the process of restoring this boathouse.”

Daily challenge

Thursday morning the wind and rain blew out of the northeast. Sea conditions were “snotty,” in fishing parlance, but for a Coast Guard crew that arrived for the ceremony in a 45-foot response boat out of Castle Hill, R.I., it was a day at the beach.

“It was a little bumpy, but well worth it,” said Chief Warrant Officer John Roberts as he walked into the boathouse service bay with the expression of someone who had just spent more than two hours driving a boat he clearly loves. The 45, as he later explained, is propelled with a jet drive, and can reach a top speed of 45 knots.

His passenger for the trip from Watch Hill was retired Master Chief Jack Downey, whom Warrant Officer Roberts described as “a legend.” Mr. Downey, who spent 41 years in the Coast Guard and retired in 2008, holds the title of First Ancient Keeper, which “recognizes longevity within the boat forces and is in honor of Coast Guard legend Captain Joshua James, who is credited with saving more than 600 people during his lifetime.”

“The equipment they have today is fantastic,” Mr. Downey told The Times. Mr. Downey acknowledged that 41 years in the service was a long time. “But if you like something, you just stay at it,” he said.

Mr. Downey spent his entire career in New England. At various times he was the officer in charge at stations Brant Point, Woods Hole, Chatham, and Point Judith, but never Menemsha.

“I love the water, I love the people, I love the job,” he said. “It challenges you every day.” Mr. Downey said that the nature of Coast Guard service is that you must always be ready; there is no time to ramp up. When the call comes, it is time to go. Most of all, he said, he loved the humanitarian nature of the work.

About his ride over, he said the most impressive part was to be in a boat with heat, defrosters, and cushioned chairs, things he rarely enjoyed when he first entered the Coast Guard.

Station Menemsha has two 47-foot motor life boats and one 25-foot response boat small. The station has 22 active duty members.

The July 2010 blaze that burned down the boathouse also destroyed adjacent docks and boats, and very nearly spread to structures and the commercial fuel dock across the harbor.

An investigation by federal, state, and local authorities concluded that the fire might 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, which runs along the west side of the boathouse. The investigation found insufficient evidence to determine a precise ignition source.

Built for the next 50

During the initial reconstruction planning period, Chilmark officials expressed concerns about the size of the planned structure. In response, Coast Guard made reductions to the height, length, and interior space of the boathouse, and other design adjustments.

From the beginning of the design process, Coast Guard officials said they would do what they could to assuage community concerns, but they also emphasized that the new building must be built to meet the demands of the next 50 years, not the past 50, for a mission area that extends well offshore and encompasses New Bedford and its large commercial fishing fleet.

“I think it’s a beautiful building,” Chilmark Selectman Warren Doty said Thursday following a tour of the building. “It came out very well.”

One advantage of the new boathouse over the old is that a boat ramp now leads directly into the enlarged service bay.

“It’s good, it’s well thought-out,” Everett Poole, longtime Chilmark moderator and former selectman, said as he surveyed the building. Mr. Poole, a former member of the Coast Guard, said the boat ramp that now leads into the service bay would be a tremendous timesaver.

A brief history of Station Menemsha

The United States Coast Guard traces its history to August 4, 1790, when the first Congress authorized the construction of 10 vessels to enforce tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling. The fleet was known variously through the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service.

A separate agency, the Life Saving Service, was created in 1878, to improve a largely volunteer network of rescue stations that assisted mariners in distress along the very busy coastlines.

The U.S. Life Saving Service built a station and boathouse, which later became Coast Guard Station Gay Head, in 1895. The station building was near Gay Head Light, and the boathouse on the shore west of Dogfish Bar. The first keeper was Nehemiah C. Hayman, who was appointed Oct. 4, 1895, according to a Coast Guard history of the station.

Keepers had to be “able bodied, of good character and habits, able to read and write and be under 45 years of age, and a master at handling boats, especially in rough weather,” according to the history.

In 1915, an act of Congress merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life Saving Service, creating a single maritime service, the Coast Guard, dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard in 1939.

In 1952, the Coast Guard moved the Cuttyhunk station building to Menemsha by barge. Commissioning of the new station took place on March 12, 1954. In January 1974, the Coast Guard officially changed the name of the station to reflect its actual location.