Coast Guard Ships Return Home to Sandy Hook

September 3, 2017
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Video and reporting by Jay Cook |

SANDY HOOK – Crews and commanding officers aboard two large military ships are eager to call the Jersey Shore home, after nearly five years at a port in Bayonne.

The U.S. Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook, damaged in the wake of Super Storm Sandy and subsequent demolition and rebuilding, is now back in full force with the long-awaited return of two Coast Guard Cutter vessels.

The Coast Guard Cutter Sitkinak, a 110-foot Island Class Patrol Boat, and the Coast Guard Cutter Shrike, an 87-foot Patrol Boat, sailed to their home port in Sandy Hook earlier this month.

“In my opinion, this feels like home,” said Petty Officer Jaime Wray, engineering petty officer of USCGC Shrike, regarding Sandy Hook. “Bayonne never did. I will sign off on that any day of the week.”

Engineering Petty Officer Jaime Wray is one of three operators who determines the USCGC Shrikes daily missions.

In response to Sandy, the two original Cutters – vessels in the U.S. Coast Guard larger than 65 feet in length – were sent to Bayonne when the hurricane left the barrier island base in shambles. The storm submerged the main officer building in four feet of water and an original boathouse in about eight feet, and destroyed sections of dock, breakwater bulkheads, and dozens of boat pilings.

When Sandy made landfall in October 2012, Sitkinak and Shrike were not based at Sandy Hook, which then housed the 110-foot Bainbridge Island and 87-foot Sailfish.

While in Bayonne, Bainbridge Island was decommissioned and sold to become a fishing charter in Florida, and Sailfish was relocated to Grande Isle, Louisiana, where it is currently docked.

Their Mission

Boaters frequenting the Two River waterways, as well as Raritan Bay and off Sandy Hook into the Atlantic Ocean, should expect to see a more significant U.S. Coast Guard presence than in years past, thanks to renewed activity at the station.

“Summer in general is a busier time for the Coast Guard for my type of asset,” said Lt. Keith Blevins, commanding officer of USGCG Sitkinak.

The Sitkinak and Shrike are high-level patrol boats capable of spending days out on the water while on Bravo duty – essentially when they’re on call – responding to active situations and working on precautionary detail.

The new boathouse under construction is located on the same footprint as the previous one.

Their new coverage area unofficially spans from Long Branch to the Hudson Canyon, including the East River and Hudson River, as well as out to Staten Island. The vessels’ crews share three main goals: ensuring recreational boater safety, conducting living marine resource enforcement, and patrolling ports and waterways for coastal security.

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Despite Labor Day being around the corner, the 72nd regular session of the United Nations General Assembly is the most high-profile event coming next month.

From Sept. 12 to 25, both Sandy Hook Cutters will play a major role in protecting New York City waterways around the event.

“Because of our size, we’ll sort of become a command-and-control platform,” said Wray, who noted the United States Secret Service runs operations for the two-week meeting. “Essentially, we’re out there monitoring radios, assigning smaller patrol craft, who to talk to, who to intercept.”

Sandy Hook annually serves as a staging ground for the U.N. General Assembly session because of its proximity to New York City and its available space for military personnel and aircraft.

“I can’t think of too many others (operations) that would compete with that as far as complexity, logistics and actual operations,” Wray said.

Concerning local safety on the water, an active summer along the Jersey Shore has led to a number of water-related accidents and deaths.

About a week and a half ago, three boaters on a 9-foot John boat capsized off Highlands, but were rescued by a Coast Guard patrol. Earlier this month, a kite surfer drowned in Horseshoe Cove off Sandy Hook, and his body was recovered days later at Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park in Long Branch.

Over the past week, Shrike was out patrolling up and down the coast from Sandy Hook to Long Branch, participating in random boater stops aimed at double checking safety measures on board.

“It’s not just about going out there and slapping people on the wrist for safety issues,” Wray said. “It’s truly about their safety in the end. It’s always families – if they’re not out there with a family, they still have a family at home.”

The USCGC Sitkinak is a 110-foot Island Class Cutter, named after an Alaskan island.

Just because Sitkinak and Shrike are back at Sandy Hook doesn’t necessarily mean they will respond to every near-shore call. That duty is left up to the rest of the Station Sandy Hook crews, who continue to patrol the rivers and shallower waters with four response boats. But either big vessel will not hesitate to get out and help.

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“For us and the Shrike, summer is definitely a busy time with all the public boaters on the water,” said Blevins. “With more people in the water, there will be more people in distress.”

What Sitkinak and Shrike do best, thanks to their notable size, is assist in far offshore missions, ranging to 50 miles out into the ocean. That consists of ensuring the safety of large rigs, as well as checking catch aboard commercial boating vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard serves as the law enforcement arm for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which regulates catch limits in national waters.

Both Blevins and Wray said they will regularly and randomly board commercial vessels to check on safe equipment and amounts of catch on board, to see if the fishing companies are legally harvesting their catch. Commercial companies like the ones based in Belford and Point Pleasant would be usual stops, although both coastguardsmen noted these businesses usually police themselves well.

Station Sandy Hook Recovery 

The Sitkinak and Shrike were able to return to Sandy Hook earlier this month in part because of the amount of work happening at home base.

New floating docks, significant dredging, brand new pilings and new breakwater barriers mark the notable dock work finished this summer.

That work is part of a $45 million renovation well underway at Station Sandy Hook. Additional construction includes the creation of an immense, two-bay boathouse; a two-story, multi-mission building; and a 10-lane firing range, all on site, said Chief Petty Officer Jeremy Mitchell.

Mitchell has been stationed at Sandy Hook since 2014, and said there was so much coastal shoaling after Sandy that at low tide, “you could walk out and put beach chairs and tiki torches up.”

Yet beyond the ongoing construction, being back at Sandy Hook is a breath of fresh air for the crew members, Blevins, the commanding officer, said. It provides the enlisted crew with a sense of hominess.

“Outside of being better equipped to perform the mission, we’ll also be able to be a better part of our community here,” Blevins said. “Bayonne was only temporary. Here at Sandy Hook, this is our home.”

This article was first published in the Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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