Tucked away at the end of Liberty Avenue, just over a stone’s throw from the former site of Coast Guard Station Beach Haven, is the current seasonal headquarters of a weekend squad. Every Friday from May 1 to October 1, a small response boat crew from Barnegat Light Station make the journey south for a weekend of patrols before returning to their home port on Monday morning.
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, it’s hard to imagine there’s a better way to spend part of the day than on the waters of Liberty Thoroughfare with Mordecai Island in the background as the patrol l afternoon begins. If more convincing is needed, it comes from the ease of recognition by way of a wave of the hand and a whim of boaters sharing the waterway. The crew flips the wave and smiles.
Mutual admiration is part of why it’s almost impossible to imagine what would have happened this summer if different decisions had been made earlier this year. In April, the US Coast Guard backed out of a proposal to eliminate the weekend crew and small lifeboat stationed at Beach Haven, starting this summer, during the boating season.
Had the proposal gone forward, Barnegat Light station crews would be launched from their location at the northern end of Long Beach Island.
“It takes about an hour,” said Melissa Hiatt, boatswain second class, as she, firefighter Luis Rodriguez-Rivera and Joe Dowling, a marine law enforcement specialist on loan from the sector of Delaware Bay, preparing to set out for an afternoon patrol with two passengers July 15.
Hiatt and Rodriguez-Rivera made the trip from Barnegat Light earlier today.
Being ready to patrol from Beach Haven is more than a boat check, briefing on patrol risk and weather conditions. He requires a Kevlar vest and ammo for hip-mounted firearms like other law enforcement officers. While search and rescue calls are primarily the focus of Station Small Beach Haven, boat boarding is also a big part of the crew’s authority.
On the water, the Small Station Beach Haven area of responsibility extends south of the Causeway Bridge System at LBI to Egg Harbor Inlet near Absecon, where it hands over control to Station Atlantic City. This summer, the New Jersey State Police Marine Bureau also has a boat stationed at Mordecai Boat Basin.
“We don’t interfere with each other because we run the small station,” Hiatt said of the Atlantic City station crews, noting that boat traffic on weekends is heaviest Friday after- noon to Sunday morning with mainly local and seasonal boaters. “It’s so much faster (to respond) at the weekend because we’re already there.”
She said there are differences between Barnegat Inlet on the north end of the island and Little Egg Inlet on the south. “Every entry is dangerous. Barnegat Inlet is more dangerous because of the weather and the way the bass behaves.
Still, Little Egg Inlet poses its own challenges with the shoal and whether a break means a trip through the waters or finding a way around it. The Coast Guard is waiting for a new 27-foot response boat that will allow crews to travel faster and go deeper into areas with shoals without waiting for the tide to get there, she said. added.
Hiatt said there have been a large number of cases this year of boaters taking on water after hitting shoals, including two incidents five days apart in late June and early July.
On July 3, a crew of a 24-foot response boat took off from the Coast Guard’s seasonal operations site at Beach Haven immediately after a call from a 15-foot sailboat took on water offshore from Beach Haven. Two of the boaters were in the water; another was on the boat. All three were rescued. Sea Tow stripped the boat, which was towed to the Little Egg Harbor Yacht Club in Beach Haven.
A weekend crew also responded to a search and rescue call for an old wooden boat that sank off Beach Haven after taking on water. It sank in less than 30 minutes on a Monday morning in June. A boater was pulled out of the water.
As Hiatt piloted the 24-foot response boat through Liberty Thoroughfare in Little Egg Inlet toward the former Coast Guard Station (now Rutgers Marine Field Station) on Great Bay Boulevard in Little Egg Harbor Township, the discussion turned to what the crew are looking for when on patrol.
“We are looking for people who don’t blow in wake areas, drive erratically. If we see anything bad, we’ll stop them,” Hiatt said. “The whole goal is to educate. We never just want to catch (boaters). We want people to know what they need and fix any security breaches. »
To this end, the Coast Guard, as part of its law enforcement functions, is authorized to board the boats.
Dowling, the maritime law enforcement specialist, said boarding a boat is similar to stopping car traffic when it comes to gathering information such as license and registration.
“We can stop anyone at any time to do random safety inspections,” Hiatt added.
Among the things taken into consideration are the expiration date of the fire extinguisher and whether there is one life jacket per person and one disposable life ring, Dowling said.
“We give them a copy of the last boarding form. That way we don’t stop the same boat (all the time),” he added.
Hiatt said that since the majority of boaters are locals and know the water well, they know what they need for a safe day on the water.
“The best thing about Small Station Beach Haven is that locals get to know us. We give our phone number in case they need us. It’s great that we can be so close,” she said.
Since 2019, the Small Beach Haven station has responded to 40 search and rescue cases and boarded 1,752 boats, according to Adam Murray, commander of Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light.
So far this summer, the Beach Haven crew have responded to six search and rescue calls and boarded 236 boats. For the summer of 2021, the crews embarked 774 boats and
responded to 16 search and rescue calls. Those numbers were significantly higher than in the first summer of the pandemic, when they received five search and rescue calls and made 103 boardings. In 2019, Station Small Beach Haven responded to 13 search and rescue calls and completed 639 boardings.
“We want to have that kind of community. We want to have that kind of relationship that they can trust us,” Hiatt said. “Everyone is very receptive, thanking us for doing our job. It’s not all stations.
Whether this relationship will last remains to be seen. While saying in April that the Small Beach Haven station had been removed from consideration as part of the station’s fiscal 2022 consolidation proposal, a Coast Guard official did not say whether the decision was permanent or temporary, despite an investigation into what would happen after the end of this summer season.
—Gina G. Scala