Coast Guard at Castle Hill keeps close watch on bay
It’s New Year’s Eve at the U.S. Coast Guard station at Castle Hill in Newport, but Petty Officer Andrew Condra isn’t wearing a party hat or sipping champagne. He’s perched behind a desk loaded with flat-screen monitors and radio communications equipment, eyeing the winter storm that’s passing through, keeping an ear to the scanner that beeps every few minutes.
The station at Castle Hill is the only Coast Guard search-and-rescue facility on Narragansett Bay, and it is responsible for responding to calls coming in from Providence to Pt. Judith.
“Our primary mission here is search and rescue. We’re on call 24 hours a day to respond to any type of emergency in Narragansett Bay,” said Petty Officer Jeff Hunter.
The Coast Guard’s presence on the southern section of Aquidneck island dates back to 1884, when the Brenton Point Life Saving Station opened. Built a mile and a half southeast of Castle Hill Light at Price’s Neck, the station was pummeled in the 1938 hurricane. After extensive damage to buildings and rescue equipment, the station was moved to the Seamen’s Church Institute in downtown Newport.
In 1941, the Coast Guard built, opened and commissioned the station at Castle Hill.
The station’s jurisdiction spans from Fall River to Sakonnet to Black Point. Patrolling such a large swath of water poses diffi culties, Hunter said, and working with the state’s Department of Environmental Management, as well as local police and fire departments, is vital to the success of the Coast Guard’s response.
“Our partners on the bay are huge in responding to a lot of search and rescues,” he said. “We can only go as fast as we can get ready, get out the door and get out there.”
The Coast Guard’s Sector Southern New England comprises eight stations. The flagship command station is at Woods Hole, Mass., on Cape Cod. Five other stations are located in Massachusetts in Provincetown, Chatham, Sandwich, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Station Pt. Judith is the only other Coast Guard station in Rhode Island.
Teamwork among the different facilities is critical, Hunter said. The facility in Newport is a small boat facility, and boats in its fleet are not permitted to launch if the seas are above eight feet. If seas are heavy, vessels from Pt. Judith or Martha’s Vineyard are called in.
Response time is critical. It also varies.
“Worst case scenario, we get a call while we’re all sleeping in the middle of the night, we try to get out and underway in 30 minutes,” Hunter said.
Most calls that come into the station involve boats that are taking on water or are grounded on reefs. The Coast Guard responds to 150 search and rescue missions a year, and performs 300 law enforcement boardings annually. Vessels from Castle Hill also escort gas liners and cruise ships through the bay every few weeks.
When asked about the frequency of high-profile cases, Hunter said last summer was relatively quiet. He said the most expansive search came in November, when West Warwick quahogger Chester Kidd went missing.
But the waters off of Jamestown were the site of the most traumatic event during Hunter’s first two years at the station. Derek Cazard, 24, died off Ft. Wetherill in the summer of 2008, and Hunter said the situation was particularly difficult because, “We could see the guy, but we couldn’t get to him. That’s hard.”
Counseling is available to offi cers who encounter rescues involving extreme stress or loss of life, he said.
As for personnel, 40 enlisted officers cycle through the station, working two days and then taking two days off. All cooking, cleaning and training is done at the Ridge Road complex, which occupies three buildings. There are barracks for sleeping, a kitchen for cooking and an ornate day room for meetings and planning.
The fleet at Castle Hill includes five vessels. Three vessels currently float in the icy enclave off the complex’s boathouse. Two have been removed for repairs, which are done on site.
Castle Hill uses two types of vessels for its operations. The first, a 25-foot response boat small, or RBS, is used primarily for inshore law enforcement, providing a quicker response option.
Two larger utility boats are primary search-and-rescue boats; one is sleek and new, but the other looks dated and cumbersome.
The old response boat mediums, used since the 1970s, are 41 feet long and are used as the primary search-and-rescue vessels. The new RBMs, 45 feet long and loaded with a plethora of gadgets, are in a trial period and will offi cially begin serving Castle Hill sometime this spring. The price, Hunter said, will be in the vicinity of $1.8 million.
With a speed that doubles the maximum velocity of the old models, the new vessels will allow a more efficient response.
“The difference is night and day,” Hunter said.