Behind the scenes of Station Grand Haven

Area residents and boaters are used to seeing Coast Guard crews on patrol in local waterways, and responding to the occasional water rescue. What they do with the rest of their time remains somewhat a mystery to those outside the fenced-in Coast Guard station on Harbor Drive. When the waves are rolling in Lake Michigan, the big silver lifeboat with the crew dressed in blue and orange is not going out just to ride the waves, according to Operations Petty Officer Sean Long.
Becky Vargo
Aug 6, 2011

“We rarely go out just for a boat ride,” said Long, who is originally from Virginia. “We’re always going out with a mission in mind or a training in mind.”

Education and training fills a lot of a Coast Guard member’s time, both as the trainer and the trainee, according to Long.

“If someone comes here from boot camp, it takes a long time to get them up to speed,” Long said. “That’s when you start learning how to be a Coast Guardsman and how to be proficient in your job.”

New personnel start training on the 25-foot response boat — the one that looks like an orange inflatable — and then the 47-foot lifeboat. “It takes months to learn,” Long said.

Once they pass their boat check, as witnessed by the station’s senior chief, they concentrate on being able to do their job precisely in the best and worst of conditions, Long said.

“We want the crew trained so a lot of the stuff they are doing is second nature,” he explained. “We train continuously so our guys can perform in any weather condition.”

The local crew trains almost daily and performs maintenance when not out on patrol or an emergency.

Last Friday morning, a crew was doing two-boat training. Long said the lifeboat and the response boat went out into Lake Michigan, where the crew worked on hooking up a tow bit. The larger boat then towed the smaller boat into the channel before switching to a side tow and coming into Government Basin.

A debriefing is always held after a training session, and everyone gets a chance to contribute and ask questions, Long said.

After lunch, another crew was planning to go back out on the lake for some training with the Coast Guard helicopter, which is based at Air Station Muskegon for the summer.

Long said the crews train with the helicopter at least a couple of times a week.

“A lot of people don’t realize that because they go so far out,” he said.

The helicopter is actually used in training exercises every day, splitting its time between different Lake Michigan stations — including Muskegon, Holland and St. Joseph, Long said.

Training was expected to be pretty limited during the Coast Guard Festival this week, said Senior Chief Kirk McKay. The native of Oregon said the entire summer is a build-up to the week of the festival.

“We have different events where we are heavily involved with the security,” he said. “In between those, we’re out patrolling the water.”

McKay said they are always standing by for emergency operations.

Long said he liked to compare the Coast Guard station to a fire or police department.

“We’re an operational unit,” he said. “The station is manned at all times. ... We’ll respond to search-and-rescues cases, law enforcement and maritime/Homeland Security threats.”

During the summer, Coast Guard patrols will randomly stop boaters for safety checks.

“We are just trying to make contact with the boaters in our area to make sure they are carrying the required boating safety equipment for whatever boat they are on,” Long said. “The reason that we are boarding vessels is because we are trying to ensure a safe boating public.”

Long said the Coast Guard’s primary goal is education.

“We also feel it is preventative search and rescue,” he said.

A normal day

The Coast Guard doesn’t have barracks anymore, although personnel are housed on site during their 48- or 72-hour shifts, Long said. That means all personnel live in the community, he said.

Duty crew shares dorm-type rooms and eat in a cafeteria.

The day starts with “Reveille” and military colors are presented at 8 a.m., McKay said.

There’s different times that new crews rotate into the schedule — so there’s different shifts of eating, training and maintenance, he said.

Although they try to keep their days “normal,” McKay said “we’re ‘structured chaos.’ Just like every emergency responder — an incident can change your day at any point.”

The personnel are divided into an engineering department and a deck department, Long said. The engineers make sure the engines are running properly and the boat is running properly; the deck people are in charge of rescue and survival gear.

“(The deck people) handle and splice the different lines,” Long said. “They maintain the tools we are using.”

Coast Guard Station Grand Haven is manned year-round. Long said training will go on in the lake until there is too much ice, then personnel switch to ice rescue training, cooperating closely with the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety.

During the winter, one 47-foot lifeboat will come into the boat bay for maintenance, while the other one sits outside on a cradle. Long said the lift in the two-story boat bay can handle 40,000 pounds.

Off the boat bay on one side is an equipment room, where all the lines are stored and maintained. On the other side of the boat bay is a workout room.

Long said there are fitness requirements for Coast Guard personnel. They include being able to run a mile and a half, a push-up test, a sit-up test, and a sit-and-reach test.

“We do a 3-mile run weekly,” he said. “That’s all hands except the ready crew.”

Lockers near the boat bay also contain each person’s cold-weather gear. Once the air and water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, the cold-weather gear is required, Long said.

Administrative offices, communications room, a training/education room, the galley (kitchen) and lunchroom are on another floor of the station.

On this day in the communications room, two Navy sea cadets are learning the ropes. The high school students from outstate Michigan and Indiana were spending two weeks training at the station. Long said they normally have cadets all summer long.

In the lunchroom, Seaman Andrew Warren — a boat crew member originally from California, — wipes down the tables and makes sure the area is ready for lunch.

“Just like you would do at home, everyone has something extra to do to keep everything running smoothly,” Long said.

There is also a recreation room containing couches and a television, and pool and ping pong tables.

“You have to have that down time — where you let your guys recharge their batteries,” Long said.

Area covered

The crew from the local station covers upriver as far as the marked channel, just past Riverside Park in Robinson Township. Long said they cover all of Spring Lake and Lake Michigan from Holland to Muskegon.

Holland is a seasonal station, covered by three of the 31 personnel assigned to Station Grand Haven. Once Labor Day has passed, the local station covers south beyond Holland.

Long said, if needed, they will respond to help in other areas — such as the recent tour boat grounding in the Frankfort area.

The operations officer said they also work closely with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department Marine Patrol — which maintains office and docking at Station Grand Haven — and with the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“One thing unique about Grand Haven is that it is a heavy weather station,” Long said. That is “because we have two 47-foot lifeboats.”

“Once the weather gets beyond the capabilities of Muskegon or Holland, we take over their areas,” he said.

The second lifeboat is also used as a backup for the other stations in the area if they have a boat out of commission for whatever reason, Long said.

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