CHATHAM — The new man in charge at the Coast Guard station, Senior Chief Petty Officer Carlos Hessler, said he’s impressed by the sense of pride at Station Chatham as well as its role in the community – and its place in history.
Hessler has been the station’s commanding officer for a few weeks now and is still getting to know its people, its unique equipment and its role in the local network of first responders. But he said his previous assignments left him well prepared for this one.
Hessler grew up in the small town of Coventry, Conn. – Nathan Hale’s home town – where the largest body of water is a five-mile-long lake. When he graduated the local high school in a class of just 82 students, joining the military wasn’t part of his plan. He had started college in South Carolina when he had a formative experience, volunteering for the local fire department. The department had a marine rescue unit, and Hessler liked search and rescue work. He decided to join the Coast Guard, graduating boot camp in 1996, and launching a rewarding career.
As a lowly seaman, Hessler was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Reliance, patrolling the North Atlantic looking for fishing violators and cruising southern waters on migration patrols and drug interdiction runs. Though he was at the bottom of the Coast Guard’s food chain, “I had an absolute blast,” Hessler said.
He transferred to busy Ocean City, Md., for a four-year tour, and then, looking for something a bit quieter, transferred to Station Ketchikan, Alaska. The climate and the storms in Alaska’s famous Inside Passage were challenging, but it wasn’t until he served at a series of stations in Oregon that he learned about surfboats.
For some Coasties, search and rescue work – particularly when it involves small boats in high surf – is a way to satisfy an urge for adrenaline. Not so for Hessler.
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie. But I don’t believe in boredom,” he said. Bored people are boring people, he quipped. Search and rescue work appeals to him because it’s a worthy purpose, Hessler said.
Hessler earned his surfman certification in Brookings, Oregon, and a promotion to Chief Petty Officer at his next assignment, Station Yaquina Bay in Newport, Ore. Yaquina Bay has a harbor with a menacing bar just offshore, not unlike Chatham’s. But for the hairiest navigation, Hessler would choose his stint at Station Depoe Bay, Ore., a small station on a small harbor with a tiny entrance to the open Pacific. The channel has several doglegs, is flanked with sharp rocks, and is about 50 feet wide. The harbor entrance looked like a small hole in miles of unbroken cliffs.
“They called us ‘the hole in the wall gang,’” Hessler said.
Having served as the number two at Depoe Bay, Hessler transferred to Station South Portland, Maine, to receive his first command in 2016. There, he found that the Coast Guard worked with a variety of agencies, small and large, to carry out its duties. It was a strong lesson in the need to work with the community to accomplish a mission.
Station Chatham has its own unique place in the community, sharing duties with local harbormasters and police and fire departments, Hessler observed. But when he arrived at the station, it was immediately apparent that Station Chatham is deeply ingrained in the community, he said. Chatham mariners have a long history of supporting the Coast Guard when its resources are threatened – and challenging the Coast Guard when they see problems. Hessler said there’s nothing wrong with that kind of relationship.
One of the station’s quirks is its use of unique, 42-foot nearshore lifeboats, unlike any others in the Coast Guard fleet. The surfboats were specifically designed for crossing the Chatham Bar, and came after around a decade of experimentation by the Coast Guard. Some prototypes couldn’t sustain the pounding of the surf or the tendency of surfboats to violently bottom out on the bar during troughs in the waves. The nearshore lifeboats can survive those conditions, but their uniqueness poses a challenge when it comes to training, as well as obtaining spare parts. So has the Coast Guard finally hit the sweet spot when it comes to finding the right rescue boats for Chatham?
“I don’t think there will ever be a sweet spot,” Hessler said. That’s because the conditions off Chatham change year after year; fairly recent changes, for instance, have prompted mariners to begin using the North Inlet as the primary entrance to Chatham Harbor, given shoaling in the old harbor entrance across from the lighthouse. As one of his first duties, Hessler found himself evaluating navigation conditions in the North Inlet and recommending emergency dredging there.
“We have to stay flexible,” he said.
Hessler said he’s received a great welcome in Chatham and has already had great support from town officials and others.
Sitting in the corner office at Station Chatham, Hessler is surrounded by photos and artifacts designed to remind crew members about the station’s rich place in history.
“It’s humbling,” he said. Hessler, after all, now holds the position once held by Bernie Webber, who was station chief years after leading the greatest small boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard, the rescue of 32 men from the stern section of the tanker Pendleton during a blizzard in 1952. It’s the stuff of Coast Guard legends, told to new recruits and, more recently, to moviegoers. Webber and the other famous life-savers of Station Chatham cast a long shadow.
“I think about it all the time. I mean, all the time,” Hessler said.