With Menemsha falling away behind and the open sea ahead, the U.S. Coast Guard boat headed due west three miles off the coast of Aquinnah Wednesday afternoon. Then the engine was cut. The sun sank in the blue November sky as officers lowered the flags to half-mast and gathered on deck to say goodbye to one of their fondest shipmates, Bridger.
It was a committal service at sea fit for a commander. Coast Guard Station Menemsha crew members said goodbye to their mascot, Bridger, a yellow Labrador who died on Sept. 22 from complications of old age. He was 12.
Station senior chief Jason Olsen remembered Bridger fondly.
“Having a mascot is one of the Coast Guard’s long traditions and it’s always a sad day when we lose our shipmate,” he said. “He was a great companion and shipmate for everyone assigned to station Menemsha and members of the community for over six years. He will surely be missed.”
Officer Dan Phillips took Bridger’s ashes out of a wooden red box as Mr. Olsen read a passage from the 23rd Psalm. Crew members stood at attention to honor their beloved pet as Mr. Phillips let the ashes settle over the water. Taps were played. A few officers peered overboard to say their final goodbyes.
Mr. Olsen said he and the officers looked forward to being met by Bridger every morning on the front porch, and called him an “excellent keeper of the station” who “kept a good eye on the crew during his rounds of the station, especially at meal times.”
It was fitting for Bridger’s resting place to be at sea, Mr. Olsen said, as he could often be found on the Coast Guard’s boats or taking himself for a swim, no matter the temperature.
“We commit his body to the ocean depths in gratitude for all the joy and dedication he offered to each of us,” he concluded, before reading a benediction from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
Bridger was born on New Year’s Day in 1999 and came to the station in 2005 after his first owners moved away and were unable to take him.
He was an honorary class E-6 officer, the highest order of petty officer, highly esteemed for his loyalty and companionship. Bridger slept at the station and kept whoever was on duty company throughout the night; officers took him for daily walks and runs, although Bridger was no stranger to exploration on his own.
He was well trained by the former station cook never to enter the galley, and even when tempted with treats, he would not cross the line.
But dogs will be dogs and in the Coast Guard demotion for poor behavior applies to all. After Bridger decided to relieve himself on the third floor, it was a year and a half before he returned to full petty officer standing.
Bridger was a frequent visitor to the Galley Restaurant down the hill and would often beg a few licks from someone’s ice cream cone. Officer Greg Sarkozi remembered his fondness for food.
“He’d eat just about anything you’d throw at him,” he said. “In summer he’d beg people for food on the beach.”
Sometimes he would wander down to the Menemsha Texaco or the beach and the station would receive a call to alert them of his location. Mr. Phillips remembered one outing when Bridger returned covered in black soot.
“Bridger would always bark at anyone who didn’t have on a blue uniform, a friendly bark of course,” he said, sitting on the bow of the boat. “Bridger was a good dog to a lot of people throughout the years and they became attached, especially guys who are lonely from home.”
There are no plans to get another mascot, at least for now, said Mr. Olsen. Meanwhile, the box with Bridger’s name on it, collar and officer insignia will go below a framed picture of the dog, next to a charted map of where he’s buried.
Mr. Olsen said Bridger boosted morale at the station.
“The younger folks who are away from home get to have a sense of ownership and familiarity by sharing the dog,” he said. “Bridger completed our family.”