After years of uphill struggle and vocal protest, the Vineyard community will finally get what it wants, a full service Coast Guard station at Menemsha. In a formal ceremony on Monday, with the eyes of Island officials, the United States Coast Guard and Cong. William Delahunt watching, the station will be upgraded to full status.
"This will be a great day for Menemsha," declared Chilmark selectman Warren Doty yesterday. It is not often that the waterfront community agrees on anything related to the federal government, but they agree on this.
The restoration of the station from "station small" to full status will give the Vineyard boating community and the waterfront community of southeastern Massachusetts something they have clamored for for years.
For Mark Lewis, officer in charge at the station, and for his crew, this day has been a long time coming. Mr. Lewis started working at the station in August of 2002. At that time there were only 11 men assigned to the station. "It was a lot of work, frustrating. The crew was doing 95 and 100 hours a week. That doesn't include eating time and sleeping," he said.
Staff at the Menemsha station will nearly double by the end of this year to 21.
The upgrade to full station began in the spring when construction crews came to the Island to make improvements to the interior of the main building. A radio room that years ago occupied the second floor is now on the ground floor.
The Chilmark police department, which occupied the building from 2000 until early this year, has moved into a barracks room. The police department plans to move to the old Menemsha School later this year.
Mark Forest, district director for Congressman Delahunt, said much of the credit for restoring the station goes to the Vineyard community. "This is clearly a success story for the Vineyard. Every day since the day it was announced in Washington that the station was at risk, the people of Martha's Vineyard rallied around it," Mr. Forest said. When Mr. Delahunt was elected to Congress in 1996, before he was sworn in, he came to the Vineyard. "He rolled up his sleeves to tackle this issue. He made a vow to the Vineyard to keep that station from closing. I think that struggle inspired him," Mr. Forest said.
As for his own memories, Mr. Forest recalled the summer of 1995 when the Coast Guard held a public hearing at the Chilmark Community Center. Top officials in Washington, D.C., were considering closing the station entirely. "The room was packed. People were eloquent and passionate about keeping the station open," Mr. Forest said. He said he remembered Walter Cronkite spoke. "There were lobstermen, there were shellfishermen, there were old time Coasties in the audience. They were basically saying that the Coast Guard wasn't about a building, they were talking about the Island. The bean counters in Washington were making a cold and calculated decision that wasn't needed," Mr. Forest said.
Later that year, action in Washington saved the station from closing on Oct. 1.
In 1999 there were new efforts to cut the size of the Coast Guard station, and a plan emerged to turn the principal building over to the town of Chilmark to be used as a police station.
Mr. Forest said: "Chilmark crafted a partnership agreement to take care of the station. The message was, ‘Don't give it away, don't auction it off. We will take care of it for a while until sanity comes back to Washington.' "
In December of 2002, the Chilmark selectmen learned of new changes again: With the threat of terrorism, the role of the Coast Guard would need to be expanded.
The news was welcomed by town officials and even police chief Tim Rich, although it meant the police department would need to move.
This summer has offered plenty of reasons to support the need for an expanded Coast Guard presence on the Island. Mr. Lewis said the station has handled 40 search and rescue cases, twice as many as last year. Law enforcement cases this year have also doubled, to 100 cases. The station operates a 41-foot utility boat and a 21-footer.
The cases range from life-threatening incidents at sea to disabled vessels needing assistance to searches for missing vessels. Three weeks ago the station crew was called out for assistance when a boat called Captain Tony blew up at Quick's Hole north of Menemsha. The crew was also involved in the search on Sept. 3 for the crew of the fishing vessel Nancy Christine, which sank between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. In both cases there was loss of life.
"It has been a good deal busier than I expected," Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Lewis said personnel from his station this summer were sent to the Democratic National Convention in Boston and the Republican National Convention in New York city. They also were sent to Newport, R.I., for the Tall Ships parade in mid-July.
Coast Guardsmen from the station also do routine patrols of the New Bedford waterfront to enforce fisheries regulations.
Another new detail emerged this year; four Coast Guardsmen were sent to lead the Fourth of July parade in Edgartown. Because of staffing shortages they were unable to attend the parade in previous years.
There are at least 18 Coast Guardsmen assigned to the station and they range in age from 18 to their thirties. Mr. Lewis, 37, said he is the oldest. "We wouldn't have had such a productive year if my crew wasn't as hardworking as they are," he said.
Mr. Doty said that the men and women at the station are well regarded in the community. "They've gone out around to Devil's Bridge. There have been accidents at Cuttyhunk. I think that a quick response is crucial," Mr. Doty said. The closest station other than Menemsha is Woods Hole. "Woods Hole is sometimes too far away," Mr. Doty observed.
There is a lot of open ocean to the south and west of Aquinnah. Coast Guardsmen have responded to help boats in trouble south of Noman's Land. Buzzards Bay has had its share of problems with oil spills and station personnel at Menemsha have been called in. On April 27, 2003 there was the grounding and leak of the barge Bouchard No. 120; on August 7, 1992 there was the grounding of the Queen Elizabeth II. In June 1990 there were two groundings in the approach to the Cape Cod Canal, the Bermuda Star cruise ship and the barge Bouchard 65.
Last December, when Congressman Delahunt came to the Vineyard to formally announce plans to upgrade the station, he told the audience the grounding of the barge Bouchard 65 was a wakeup call to the Coast Guard to improve its presence at the entrance to the canal.
On Friday, August 6, Mr. Delahunt returned to the Vineyard to observe Coast Guard Appreciation Day at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. The congressman, together with Capt. Judith Keene, commander of Group Woods Hole, handed a special award to Mr. Lewis for the work he and his crew had performed in the last year. The station received the Sumner I. Kimball Readiness Award, an award rarely given to a station, but never before to a "station small."
"This is a quintessential story of the Vineyard," concluded Mr. Forest. "It was political, it was local, it was the town of Chilmark stepping up and doing something to hang onto their station. We look at this with a great deal of pride, and the congressman is very proud of being able to elevate the status of the Menemsha station again."