Americans rarely see the U.S. Coast Guard as a whole. Instead, people come in contact with individual elements of the service, if at all. They may see the aircraft overhead returning to the local air station; or the river buoy tender repositioning an aid to navigation (ATON); or a patrol boat escorting a tanker into the harbor. Most likely, they hear about a dramatic rescue in the news. For much of America, each community-based facility becomes the face of the Coast Guard to its neighbors – but is also part of something much larger and more complex.
Coast Guard men and women are an integral part of the fabric of the local maritime community, from large ports to small.
Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., in testimony to a congressional subcommittee in March 2011, said, “For more than 220 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has safeguarded the nation’s maritime interests and natural resources on our rivers and ports, in the littoral regions, on the high seas, and around the world.”
In fact, the Coast Guard serves local communities as well as leverages a global network of assets and operates around the world, connected to global partners for matters of security, safety, and stewardship of the environment and natural resources. From cutters on the high seas to tenders on the 25,000 miles of navigable inland waters, from the nation-wide military command and control structure to the global intelligence network and international partnerships, from patrol boats to patrol aircraft, the Coast Guard is “Always Ready.”
But the heart of the Coast Guard is its service to the American public, performing many tasks across America and even overseas.
Coast Guard Station Chatham is a multi-mission unit that has people trained to conduct surf rescue operations – one of 19 around the country – located at historic Chatham Light on Cape Cod, Mass. Since April 1806, ships transiting the treacherous shoal waters off the Cape have relied on both the light to guide them and the lifeboat crews that could come to the aid of shipwrecked mariners and passengers (before 1915 as part of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, then as the U.S. Coast Guard). The 26-person crew is always on watch to launch one of the shallow-draft, surf-capable vessels to assist mariners in trouble. Called “storm warriors” and “surf soldiers,” the 161 “surfmen” make up the smallest operational “specialty” in the Coast Guard. Because the Chatham Station is near Air Station Cape Cod, a quick response can come from both air and sea. For many who visit Cape Cod, these surfmen are the face of the Coast Guard, and their service is needed more than ever.
“We have a strong history of working with the Coast Guard here in Chatham,” said Stuart Smith, harbormaster for the town of Chatham. “The resources the town would have to expend if the Coast Guard wasn’t here would be simply unaffordable.”
Although the relationship dates back to the days of the U.S. Lifesaving and Lighthouse services, the importance of the relationship is not diminishing. In fact, a new inlet formed in 2007, three miles north of the present inlet opening Pleasant Bay to the Atlantic. “Our Coast Guard facility is a Surf Station,” he said, “and we now have surf breaking on two bars instead of just one.”
Boaters watching the Parade of Ships during Fleet Week 2011 in New York Harbor saw the Coast Guard patrolling a moving safety zone around the column of ships.