People who are hunkering down right now can at least imagine being active by reading “New England Coast Guard Stories: Remarkable Mariners,” by Dyke Hendrickson.
As the veteran reporter describes it, this federal service performs so many duties, it can be hard to keep track of them all.
“The official manifesto of the service includes the following responsibilities: port and water security, drug interdiction, aids to navigation, search and rescue, preserving marine resources, defense readiness, migrant interdiction, marine environmental protection, ice-breaking operations, and law enforcement,” he wrote.
But rather than present a straightforward account of the Coast Guard’s actions, Hendrickson focuses on the experiences of individuals who are serving or have served in its ranks.
“I wanted to get something that showed, not traditional institutional history, but to show the people who do the work, why they go into it and what they find there,” he said.
Hendrickson, who is currently writing a book about the Merrimack River, has worked at newspapers in Maine, Louisiana and Boston, as well as at The Daily News of Newburyport. He said he got interested in the Coast Guard while writing another book, “Nautical Newburyport,” in 2017.
“It mentions that Newburyport is the birthplace of the Coast Guard,” Hendrickson said. “Not many people know that.”
In a chronology that appears in a late chapter of the new book, he explains that the city claims that honor because the first cutter that the service commissioned, named Massachusetts, was built in Newburyport in 1791.
“That claim was confirmed in writing by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965,” Hendrickson wrote. “A marine cutter had four officers, four enlisted men and two cabin boys. It was armed with around six small cannons. The Massachusetts was about 60 feet long.”
Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, had been authorized by Congress in 1790 to build 10 cutters that would collect taxes and stop smuggling.
Known at first as the System of Cutters, Revenue Service or Revenue Marine, this small fleet adopted the formal title United States Revenue Cutter Service in 1863.
It didn’t become known as the U.S. Coast Guard until 1915, when it joined with the Life-Saving Service.
“In 1939, the Lighthouse Service also came under the Coast Guard,” Hendrickson said.
Out of 42,000 men and women on active duty in the Coast Guard today, around 7,000 serve in New England, and Hendrickson focuses on around 25 current or former members of the service in his book.
Among these, readers are introduced to Daniel May, who is now a retired rear admiral but held the rank of commander when he led the search for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s lost plane off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999.
President Bill Clinton took full responsibility for initiating that search, which some people questioned. But given a job to do, the Coast Guard delivered.
“The search for JFK’s plane started as a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” May said in the book. “We didn’t have much to go on initially, and in true Coast Guard fashion, we sent all assets that we had available, including boats, helicopters and planes.”
Readers of “New England Coast Guard Stories” will also meet Cmdr. John Christensen, a native of Sunapee, New Hampshire, who works out of Boston but has led operations in the Caribbean that impounded thousands of pounds of illegal drugs.
Christensen actually began his career in the Navy, but he switched to the Coast Guard after three years.
“In the Navy, there’s a lot of routine and drilling and not much to do when not in war,” Christensen said. “The Coast Guard has many missions, and we’re all over the world. I like the opportunity of helping people.”
Hendrickson’s book also features a story that many Gloucester residents already know, about the failed rescue mission conducted by a civilian pilot boat, the Can Do, which tried to save a tanker that was foundering in rough water during the Blizzard of 1978.
But the story gets a fresh telling in Hendrickson’s book from Ralph Stevens, who was serving on a 41-foot Coast Guard boat at the time and remembers when the distress call came in.
“We couldn’t see because of the snow and wind, and it was decided by an officer that we would not be able to find the boat under these conditions,” he said. “We didn’t leave the harbor.”
The crew of five on the Can Do who tried to reach the tanker were lost, and the heartbreak from their sacrifice is still felt today, Stevens said.
“Going out during a blizzard is dangerous,” he said. “I was on the same 41-foot Coastie boat when we rushed to save the Chester Poling in another tough situation, and I’m lucky we made it back from that one.”
Hendrickson also devotes a section of his book to women who are serving or have retired from careers in the Coast Guard.
“One of the stories for me was that women were accepted into the Coast Guard basically in 1976, in the Academy, and they had their challenges, and the whole institution did,” he said.
Some of them had unpleasant stories to tell, but as the culture of the service changed, so did the nature of their experiences.
Readers of Hendrickson’s book get the chance to meet Claudia Gelzer, who retired in 2018 and was sector commander in Boston, which meant she oversaw every Coast Guard mission between the New Hampshire border and Plymouth, Massachusetts.
“I never saved a life myself — that’s not what officers generally do — but I was responsible for thousand of lives on the water every day,” she told Hendrickson.
Readers also hear about life in the service from Amanda Fenstermacher, who spent her first tour serving on a buoy tender in Kodiak, Alaska.
“After growing up in Minnesota, Kodiak wasn’t that cold,” Fenstermacher said.
A buoy tender is a type of ship that hoists buoys, and everything that keeps them anchored to the ocean floor, onto the deck for repairs.
“If not maintained, buoys will be lost,” Fenstermacher said. “Without buoys, ships can run aground.”
But Fenstermacher has also traveled to Uganda, Peru and several other countries to train security teams to prepare for events like the World Cup or the Olympics.
She was also posted to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2015, where she was qualified to pilot a 47-foot rescue boat, along with a 25-footer.
Fenstermacher helped save a kayaker who had flipped over in the fast and frigid waters of the Piscataqua River and was clinging beneath his vessel.
“He couldn’t have held on much longer,” Fenstermacher said.
Hendrickson said that the members of the Coast Guard whom he interviewed for his book all shared this desire to help, whether it was to benefit an individual boater or their country as a whole.
“It’s a very vibrant organization, but not a lot is known about it,” he said.