The sea was rough on the night of Dec. 17, when David McConky went out in the Menemsha Coast Guard 41-foot utility boat and tried to rescue a fishing boat presumed sunk south of Noman's Land. Waves off Gay Head were anywhere from 10 to 15 feet high, and he had to turn back.
Fortunately a Coast Guard helicopter rescued the three men who were already ashore on the deserted island.
If the Menemsha Coast Guard boat crew were to be called out again later this month, that boat ride would be possible, because the station is getting a top of the line, 47-foot motor lifeboat, a vessel able to take the worst New England weather.
On Tuesday night this week Capt. Gregory Mayhew of Chilmark was out in the waters off Gay Head with his son Todd on the 75-foot western rig fishing boat Unicorn, heading to New Bedford with a hold full of the day's catch: yellowtail flounder and fluke. Speaking over a ship-to-shore cellular telephone, Captain Mayhew had his own ideas about the dangers of fishing south of the Vineyard and a Coast Guard rescue. "When you are out there in trouble, it doesn't matter whether they send a 200-foot boat or a 100-foot boat, or a 50-foot boat," he said. "They wouldn't be much help, unless you are close to shore, between Noman's and Gay Head, or if you are sitting in a life raft. More likely you'll get help from another fishing boat in the area. If you have a serious problem, you call on a Coast Guard helicopter."
Coast Guard preparedness on the open sea has come under the spotlight in recent weeks, in the aftermath of the sinking of the Northern Edge, a New Bedford sea scallop boat, 45 miles southeast of Nantucket. The mishap claimed the lives of five of six fishermen aboard. The tragic loss of life has raised questions about Coast Guard readiness, the behavior of fishermen at sea and regulations that invite fishermen to take risks.
Yesterday Coast Guard personnel confirmed that the 43-foot steel dragger Mo-Kelly that ran aground on Noman's is still awash and very likely leaking fuel oil onto the shoreline.
Because of the remote location, neither salvagers nor Coast Guard crew are able to get close. The ship is on the rocks, taking a beating by the high seas and falling apart. Coast Guard officials report salvagers plan to remove what is left next spring. The estimate of diesel fuel on board is anywhere from 100 to 150 gallons.
Capt. Judith Keene, commander of Group Woods Hole, said the decision to send the 47-foot motor lifeboat to Menemsha was part of an overall plan to strengthen the resources available to area stations. The group has four 47-footers, stationed at Brant Point, Point Judith, Provincetown and Woods Hole. The one at Woods Hole will move to Menemsha temporarily, pending approval from Washington, D.C.
Captain Keene said Menemsha needs the heavier weather boat more than Woods Hole, which covers mostly protected waters. Menemsha often has to send crews out into the open ocean. The 41-footer that operates out of Menemsha harbor is 25 years old.
Mark Lewis, officer in charge at Menemsha, said the 47-foot boat is a welcome resource and hopefully will become permanently assigned. "It is the weather here that gets you," he said. In two years the number of Coast Guard men and women assigned to the station has grown from 11 to 19. Last summer the station was upgraded to a full operation station. Mr. Lewis said the eventual plan calls for 24 staff members.
Last year the Menemsha station was involved in 40 search and rescue cases. Cape Cod Air Station handled 303 cases. The whole group handled 421 cases. There were at least 30 cases in which the Coast Guard was called to transport patients from the Martha's Vineyard Hospital to other hospitals on the mainland. The Coast Guard always steps in when the commercial medical evacuation services of other carriers won't fly.
At the Cape Cod Air Station at Otis, Capt. David Brimblecom, who oversees four HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and four patrol Falcon jets, said his pilots and crew are always ready.
The helicopters are from 10 to 12 years old and are expected to last at least another 10 to 12 years. The Falcon jets are at least 20 years old and will eventually be replaced.
Under a Coast Guard recapitalization program informally called the Deep Water Project, jets like the Falcon will be replaced with new turboprop airplanes and the $14 million Jayhawk helicopter will be entirely rebuilt. Improvements to the radio communications systems that operate along the coast are also planned, and that means better marine radio coverage for the Vineyard.
Peaked Hill in Chilmark has a Coast Guard radio antenna. Radio monitoring is done both at Woods Hole and Menemsha. Captain Brimblecom said with a history of tight budgets, Coast Guard crews do the best with the equipment they have. On the night of the Northern Edge sinking, Captain Brimblecom said the first helicopter trip was aborted when it was discovered there were problems with de-icing equipment on board. A second helicopter was later dispatched. The captain said only four flights were delayed last year because of mechanical problems.
Pilots and crew train constantly to be prepared to go out at a moment's notice. "I think we have extraordinarily dedicated people in the Coast Guard. They are heroic working in horrendous conditions," the captain said.
Before Sept. 11, the U.S. Coast Guard was under the Department of Transportation and budgets were tight. Now it is under the Department of Homeland Security. "It is different. The move has given us some benefits to our budget. We have increased personnel," Captain Brimblecom said. While search and rescue remains the Coast Guard's number one service, expanded responsibility includes securing harbors against terrorism.
The captain said he and his pilots are still amazed to discover fishermen without life jackets or survival suits when they arrive at the scene of a fishing boat in trouble.
Captain Keene said the Chatham Coast Guard Auxiliary was recently approved to conduct the first formal commercial fishing boat safety inspections. She would like to see the practice expanded to other ports.
New Bedford mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. and representatives from the fishing community went public this week with a campaign to change federal regulations to make fishing less dangerous. Under current regulations, fishermen are encouraged to stay far offshore during bad weather so as not to be shut off from certain stocks. Boats working in restricted areas are not allowed to leave and return to a fishing ground.
Mr. Kalisz and aides to Cong. Barney Frank and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy met in Silver Spring, Md., Tuesday with National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Dr. William Hogarth. Some concessions were made, but it will be some time before regulations are changed.
"I would support anything that would make fishing safer," Captain Brimblecom said.
Captain Mayhew does not drag for sea scallops, but other regulations make him uneasy. "As soon as you are in a closed area, you can't come out," he said. He continued:
"I think there will be changes. Fishing boats have black boxes on them. They can track you. Maybe they should make Nantucket a safe haven. There should be some kind of compensation for your giving up days at sea [because of the weather]."
Wayne Iacono, a lobster and pot fisherman from Menemsha, is pleased by the recent decision to give Menemsha a 47-foot, all-weather motor lifeboat. A former Coastie who was stationed at Menemsha in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Iacono said:
"I'd like to see them stand watch on the radio 24 hours a day. They aren't now. There are a few blank spots on the south side of the Island, when you can't reach Woods Hole. Marshall Carroll of Menemsha Texaco keeps his radio on to help, just in case."