Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 14 • July 31-Aug. 6, 2008
now in our 37th season

Nantucket's Guardians

by Marli Guzzetta

The mess hall of the Brant Point Coast Guard Station boasts a mural of Nantucketers in the old Life-Saving Service using a breeches’ buoy to rescue sailors from an old brig in a violent storm.  This image, taken in with every meal or cup of coffee, is indicative of the long-standing tradition of greatness in Nantucket lifesaving, and it sets the tone for the men and women who patrol the waters around the Faraway Island.

Officer in Charge Terrill “TJ” Malvesti and Guardian Tim Bowman have been serving at stations across the country for about two decades each.  They stress that the Nantucket station is special, one that sets a tone for the rest of a Guardsman’s career.

“The best thing about being stationed on Nantucket is the interaction with the community,” said Malvesti, who has been in the Coast Guard for approximately two decades.  “You never see community involvement — with the police or the town officials — the way you see it here.”

Nantucketers cherish the history of lifesaving on this island, where waterways have replaced highways and where lifesaving techniques and technologies from the whaling days influenced the national evolution of the Coast Guard.  To be a Guardian on Nantucket is to be part of a unique tradition — one that is lauded by local authors and organizations and appreciated by residents and tourists who visit the Nantucket Shipwreck and Life-saving Museum, recently re-opened in July with newer, in-depth exhibits.

On-island and in the Coast Guard for about six months, officer Levante Peter is one of the newest officers at the station.

“There’s a rich tradition on this island of maritime travel and safety,” Peter said.  “When you think of Nantucket, you think of boating and the whaling fleet back in the day.  I feel that there’s a little extra sense that we’re a part of something that’s important, especially being on an island that relies on naval traditions and traveling back and forth to the mainland by boat.  I feel that it’s an added responsibility.”

Normally, an officer receives a four-year-long assignment on Nantucket, which begins with becoming familiar with the island and its community leaders as well as the station’s operations.  Officers learn how to answer calls first by radio and then by telephone.  In absorbing the uniqueness of Nantucket’s shoals and buoys, they have to be able to draw out Nantucket Sound before they’re qualified to stand watch in the communications room, at which point they also have to know ferry schedules and basic descriptions of the boats.  Then, the officers begin qualifying for their jobs, which range from driving boats to repairing them.

The station has a fleet of three ships, which it uses to make random safety boardings and to answer the approximately 125 rescue calls it receives per year.  The 47 foot-long motor lifeboat, also the heavy weather boat, sustains winds of up to 50 knots, surf up to 20 feet and seas up to 30 feet.  It can right itself if it overturns.  At 41 feet, the utility boat is used in calm to moderate weather.  The fleet’s smallest boat is a 25-foot response boat capable of high-speed chase and also armed response.

The Nantucket Guardians are proud of the breadth of their accountability.  Not only do they keep in touch with Homeland Security to update their ability to respond to terrorist threats, they also keep in touch with the steamship Eagle to get real readings of the weather in the middle of Nantucket Sound.

The island’s station stands just south of Brant Point Lighthouse on Easton Street.  The staff is generally divided into two duty sections, which alternate in 48-hour shifts.  At approximately 7 a.m., the Guardians on shift begin their day by doing a preliminary check for each boat and its rescue gear then holding a muster to discuss the day’s agenda.  When they aren’t on a call, they’re training.  The station prides itself on being on the perfectionist end of the readiness spectrum nationally.  During downtime at the station, a garage echoes with the sound of ping-pong, and a basketball hoop stands watch over the parking lot.

During the summer, the Coast Guard’s biggest concern is maintaining safe use of the main channel.  In the winter months, the station refocuses its efforts on keeping fisherman and scallopers safe in cold and often turbulent waters and fog.

“All of the stations are pretty much run the same way,” said Bowman, who has been on Nantucket for two years and is one of the senior-most officers at the Brant Point station.  Originally from central Florida, Bowman served in the Sunshine State before moving to a station in Hawaii and then Nantucket.

“One thing that’s different about Nantucket is that, in other places, you leave the job, and everyone goes their own way.  Here, we’re on an island so we’re living and doing what anyone who lives here is living and doing. … So our boat crews are also closer than they are other places.”

In a small town on an island removed from the mainland, Guardians here become more invested in the community than they would in other cities.  Residing in a cluster of condominiums next to the hospital, the Guardians and their family members often grill out together on weekends and share time in front of the tube on Sundays watching football.  Wing Night at the Atlantic Café, Friday night football at the high school, Sunday nights at the Chicken Box — the Coasties get around, but more often than not, they’re in each other’s company.

“We hold each other accountable when we’re out, because we’re always representing the Coast Guard,” Bowman said, and Peter agreed. “The way I look at it, we’re never off duty.”

Because they live in such close proximity to the hospital, the group has made easy friends with hospital staff, and also members of the police and fire departments.  The men and women at the station spend a good portion of their off days on the water — fishing if the water is calm and surfing if it’s not. Sometimes, they head over to 40th Pole or commandeer a few kayaks out to Coatue.

“I work on the water and play in or on the water,” said Bowman, “And I’ve been stopped before by the Coast Guard, so when I stop someone, I put myself in their position.  It puts a different spin on it. … And I mean, we’re all at the beach on our days off, so when the Life Guards call the station and says someone is stranded on the rip, we think, ‘You know, that could be one of us.’ You know, so we’re involved.”

In the fall, Fantasy Football is de riguer.  On Valentine’s Day, the Coasties get gussied up for a dance at Our Island Home.

“We find ways to stay busy during the winter, just as any other Nantucketer does,” Bowman said.

As is the case with many other Nantuckters, cost of living can be a problem for Guardians. While the cost of living on island is higher than it is on the mainland, Coasties don’t receive a cost of living allowance, or a COLA.

“No one ever complains about the distance from the mainland. The challenge is affording it,” Malvesti explained.

In fact, the Guardsmen fit so well on Nantucket that many stay on island even after their tours have ended, including recent Chief Sheila Lucey.

If they do leave, Bowman said, they leave with a new sense of professionalism and appreciation for the Coast Guard’s mission.  “Brant Point is a pride-driven unit,” he added.

“Our crew, when we get the call in the fog in the middle of the night, that’s what we’re following right there,” Bowman offered, nodding at the mural of the beeches’ buoy.  “You walk through the Lifesaving Museum and think, ‘This is me, from another era.  The same heroic things they did could be expected of me and my crew today.”

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