NEWBURYPORT — While the city has hosted a Coast Guard station for decades, for many years it was located at one of the busiest — and most dangerous — navigational spots in the area.
The station was at the northernmost tip of Plum Island, close by the dangerous mouth of the Merrimack River and in easy striking distance of local beaches.
But any advantage of proximity gained by the Coast Guard’s location directly at the mouth of the Merrimack was minimized in the 1960s and 1970s by constant threat from erosion.
Shifting tides made changes to the shoreline, and a series of damaging winter storms exacerbated the situation to the point where inhabitants were doing whatever they could to shore up the dunes that protected their homes. Residents lined the beach with old cars and discarded Christmas trees, and called upon volunteers from across the region to fill sandbags and create sand walls at the high tide mark. Records show the U.S. Coast Guard was busy making its own plans for protection.
According to a 2012 FEMA flood insurance study, a revetment was placed along the south shore of the mouth of the river in 1970 to protect the Plum Island Coast Guard Station. But when a major storm hit in February 1972, taking out a wide swath of fronting beach and damaging back-lying sand dunes, it was determined a more prudent course lay in relocating the station farther upriver. At that time the city was in the midst of an urban renewal project that would beautify the industrialized waterfront and dilapidated downtown area, so construction at the current location at 65 #B Water St. drew little notice. Its opening was celebrated on Aug. 4, 1973, on a day observed as the official birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“The (Plum Island) station was taken by a storm,” said Boatswain’s Mate Luke Marland of the old Plum Island quarters. “Over the years the land had started to erode. But the boathouse was left standing.”
Its new quarters, located on property once owned by Capt. Anthony Gwynne in the mid-1700s, the Coast Guard sited two buildings — a boathouse to store and repair its 44-footers and a main building to house its official offices, mess hall and barracks.
A basketball court was built in between the docks to offer activity for service men and women stationed there, which in later years was replaced with a volleyball court. Beyond small changes made to the interior to adapt to the management systems within the building, the brick structure has undergone little change since it was built 40 years ago. It’s remained one constant in a service that’s undergone unprecedented change in the way it conducts its lifesaving and law enforcement activities.
The Surf Rescue boats and motor lifeboats in use at the time of the station move — a 30-foot Surf Rescue and a 44-foot motor lifeboat — were considered state of the art, fashioned with steel hulls to withstand pounding waves while providing less risk of capsizing during a rescue.
In October 1982, Newburyport became well known for a rescue in one of the steel-hulled 44-foot Motor Life Boats, just outside of the mouth of the river. According to an excerpt from “The Coast Guard in Massachusetts,” written by Donald J. Cann and John J. Galluzzo, the MLB was manned by Seaman Boatswain’s Mate Kevin J. Galvin, amid some of the worst conditions ever seen at the mouth of the Merrimack.
Amid breaking surf measuring 15 feet and higher, Galvin held the cutter close enough to the victims as possible, while Seaman John Kallelis swam to the survivors and helped haul them out of the water. With one of the victims only semi-conscious and the waves threatening to crash the cutter into the jetty, both Galvin and Kallelis received medals for their acts of heroism that day.
In the years following that rescue, major developments in technology prompted the unveiling of a cutter that could better handle the kinds of conditions seen at the river mouth.
“We’ve always had good people, but the advances in the tools and equipment made available to us has advanced exponentially over the last 15 to 20 years,” said U.S. Coast Guard Merrimack Station’s Officer in Charge Jason Holm.
“They’re watertight,” said Marland of the new state-of-the-art 47-foot model, tested at the mouth of the Columbia River — the most dangerous bar in the United States — before being placed in operation here in Newburyport in 2000. “It’s aluminum as opposed to steel, and when they do flip over, they’re designed to right themselves.”
Advances in protective equipment and survival gear followed soon after, along with a new qualifications training protocol for boat drivers working in surf stations like Newburyport.
“Back about 15 years ago, if you were a boat driver you drove in everything,” said Marland. “Over time dangerous situations started to develop. They implemented the qualifications for surfmen and on-the-job training.”
To be a coxswain now, one must train for one to two years in conditions where 10-foot seas are encountered, along with winds up to 30 knots. To achieve a heavy weather qualification, another one to two years of training is required in 20-foot seas with wind blowing at 50 knots and 8-foot surf. To become a surfman, one must train another one to two years at one of the country’s 20 surf stations.
The implementation of risk management standards is another modernization that Holm said has improved operations and made the Coast Guard more efficient.
“Any time (USCG) goes out, they undertake a certain amount of risk,” said Holm, “operating at the upper limits of what the boat can handle.”
Holm and Marland recall a rescue mission from November 2010, when the Coast Guard station received an electronic distress signal from a fishing boat located offshore.
“It went off at 5 a.m. and we got a call,” said Marland. “The buoys offshore that tell us the wave height were at 20 feet.”
Crossing through the mouth, or the bar as it’s called, the waves were breaking at about 16 to 18 feet, a height approaching the limits of what the 47-footers can handle, said Marland.
“It’s probably the worst I’ve seen on the East Coast,” said Marland. “Winds were gusting at 65 knots. It was like a vortex. We were climbing up 25-footers.”
Back on shore, Holm was in constant communication with Marland and the crew, determining whether to keep driving through the storm.
“That’s probably the most anxiety that I’ve had here,” said Holm.
In the end, when the crew discovered the disabled boat nearly 2
1/2 hours after setting out, it had been intercepted by another USCG vessel. The fishing boat’s electronic signal had been automatically triggered by a large wave coming over the bridge, and since its electronics had been disabled, crew members couldn’t communicate to the Coast Guard that all was well.
Throughout the mission, the guard’s risk management procedures were something that helped provide assurance that the boat was operating within its capacity.