Coast Guard in Newburyport opens doors, hatches to public
By DYKE HENDRICKSON | The Daily News of Newburyport, Mass. | Published: August 4, 2017
NEWBURYPORT, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Newburyport has been designated a Coast Guard City, and on Thursday waves of curious visitors boarded service vessels at the Station Merrimack River open house to learn more about the equipment and technique of sea rescue that starts on local docks.
"We have 400 to 500 visitors on an open house day like this," said Rich Rubino, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and a tour guide. "These boats are so different than the pleasure craft in the harbor, and of course, they have a different mission. There is a lot to learn and people are interested."
Coast Guard officials permitted boarding on two 47-foot motor lifeboats. They are built to withstand waves up to 20 feet high; if the surf is larger, even the Coast Guard stands down.
The vessels are self-righting, meaning that if a boat rolls over in high seas, it will return to an upright position in eight seconds or less.
Each vessel has two 425-horsepower diesel engines, which are designed to operate when the craft is upside down if it flips.
"You don't want the engine failing at a moment like that," Rubino said.
Each motor lifeboat can cruise at 20 knots and has a top speed of about 24 knots.
A crew is generally made up of four, although more can be aboard if needed.
The vessel can carry 35 passengers in an emergency but on Thursday, even a tour group of 15 in a watertight cabin made the space seemed cramped.
"If there is a time when there are 35 here, it probably means a rescue," said Rubino, a local resident whose daughter is in the Coast Guard. "If that happened, it would be crowded but you would be very glad that you were aboard the boat and not in the ocean."
Newburyport is the birthplace of the Coast Guard, in part because the first "revenue cutter," the Massachusetts, was built here.
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, seeking revenue in 1790 for the new nation, ordered that 10 small ships called revenue cutters be built and dispatched in Atlantic harbors. Armed with cannons and federal authority, they would approach arriving ships to collect tariffs.
The Massachusetts and the Pickering were built here in the 1790s, and after much organizational evolution, the revenue service was merged with the lighthouse service and lifesaving service to become the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.
Coast Guard authorities say the first station in the community was built on Plum Island in about 1873. Its buildings were relocated and rebuilt several times because of beach erosion, and through the 1960s, a Coast Guard station functioned on Plum Island near the mouth of the Merrimack.
That structure is now used by the Coast Guard Auxiliary and serves as a voting location for part of Ward 1.
In 1973, a century after the first structure on Plum Island, Station Merrimack River on Water Street was opened and dedicated on Aug. 4.
The date of Aug. 4, 1790, marks the official birthday of the Coast Guard.
Indeed, the original leaders of Yankee Homecoming wanted to include the Coast Guard as a key participant, so the weeklong event is always scheduled to have some activity fall on Aug. 4.
Station Merrimack River is under the command of Coast Guard Sector Boston, which listens to the station's radio traffic.
Coast Guard Sector Boston may supplement lifesaving efforts in Newburyport, even sending out a helicopter if necessary.
On Thursday, visitors to the ships appeared to enjoy their tour, including Brian Mulcahy of Salisbury. He has a 23-foot boat in the Merrimack.
"I liked it," Mulcahy said. "I have been on the river when a Coast Guard motor lifeboat was dispatched and it's interesting to watch it speed out. They did a good job of explaining the features of the boat."
Jackie Morin is a Newburyport resident active in the American Yacht Club a few doors down.
"I have taken this tour many times," Morin said. "The Coast Guard is an important part of history. It's an important part of the city. We're fortunate to have it here."
Dyke Hendrickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.