Listen to this photograph - U.S. Coast Guard Surf Station Barnegat Light

At the northern end of New Jersey’s Long Beach Island stands a quiet U.S. Government outpost dedicated to serving the community as much in 2012 as in its establishment in the 1800’s.  United States Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light is a year-round operation that provides search and rescue and law enforcement coverage to a large portion of the New Jersey Shore and Intercoastal Waterway along the eastern coast of the United States.

On a recent expedition in the United Kingdom, I had the pleasure of embedding with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), an all-volunteer organization which operates the U.K.’s equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue boat stations.  Upon returning home, I was interested in comparing the RNLI’s people and operations to that of our own U.S. Coast Guard.  Working with my active-duty brother at Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light, I was able to highlight just that over a few days in mid-June.

Station Barnegat Light responds to a variety of situations ranging from disoriented boaters, flare sightings, medical emergencies, vessel collisions, sinking boats, and countless other scenarios that require a response from one of the Station’s four rescue boats: a 24-footer for quick, shallow water operations; a 25-footer for fast, multi-purpose response; and two 47-footers for towing and heavy weather / offshore work.  Powered by about 45 active-duty members, station personnel assume roles from Communications Watchstander and Officer of the Day, to Boat Crew and Boarding Team Member.  Arguably the “brains” of the operation, Communications Watchstander and Officer of the Day manage incoming calls for assistance, track boats underway, and ensure the unit’s day to day plan is carried out.  The Boat Crew Members take unit assets (boats) out on missions and Boarding Team Members perform federal law enforcement in a maritime environment.  At the top of this qualification hierarchy are the unit’s Surfmen, a qualification that represents the highest level of boat operators in the world, working in the worst conditions imaginable .  Station Barnegat Light is home to six of about 160 Surfmen in the entire U.S. Coast Guard.

Standing duty resembles that of a local fire station, with Barnegat’s crew working 48-72 hours “on” followed by an equal period “off”.  Some duty periods come and go without much excitement (this is actually a good thing) while others are fast paced from reveille to taps, frequently running late into the night.  Typically the summer season brings a heavy caseload as thousands of visitors flock to Long Beach Island each day to enjoy the warm ocean beaches, great fishing, and calmer back bay.  Though much slower by comparison, the winter months can bring unexpected Nor’easters- storms that present high winds, a deluge of rain, and massive seas- acutely threatening the community’s year-round fishing fleet.

No matter the season, Station Barnegat Light works and trains constantly to maintain proficiencies and ensure the unit’s equipment and apparatuses are always ready to respond to any situation.  The motto of the Coast Guard’s Boat Forces is “Train, Maintain, and Operate” and Station Barnegat Light lives this credo to the letter.  During my brief visit, Engineering Department conducted preventative lube oil changes on the 47’ motor lifeboat’s massive V6, 435HP Detroit Diesel engines, and did corrective work on one of the lifeboat’s reduction gears.  While the engineers were busy at work in the engine room, Deck Department spent several hours pulling out rescue gear from the boats, inspected, cleaned, and prepared it for next use.  Before turning the station and boats over to the oncoming duty section, both Deck and Engineering Departments conducted a thorough relief process, cleaning and shining the boats inside and out for the next rotation.

My brief  experience of training was even more comprehensive and complex.  Over the weekend, the crew got underway to conduct towing training and man overboard drills, also practicing engineering casualty control measures.  Back at the station, qualified crew sat down for one-on-one lessons with new trainees to teach law enforcement tactics, boat crew seamanship, and communications watch procedures.

While the majority of the station’s crew serves as active duty members of the Coast Guard, there is also a Coast Guard Reserve contingent attached to the unit.  As the service’s “Weekend Warriors”, Reservists maintain civilian jobs on the outside and assist the Coast Guard on weekends and during exceptional times of need.   Reservists operate to the same standards as their active duty counterparts and as such, train just as extensively.  Towards the end of my visit, about half of the unit’s Reservists reported for duty  to work on their Boat Crew qualifications and train alongside active duty members.

In addition to the primary station at Barnegat Light, there is also a Coast Guard presence in Beach Haven, near the southern tip of Long Beach Island.  During the summer months, Station Barnegat Light operates a small detachment near the old Coast Guard station on Liberty Thoroughfare.  On weekends, this station operates with a small crew and one of Barnegat Light’s small boats to provide additional search and rescue and law enforcement coverage for the southern portion of Barnegat Light’s area of responsibility. 

As comprehensive as my visit was, I’m certain that even more work goes on behind the scenes to keep operations running smoothly and readiness paramount at all times.  Many thanks to the command at Station Barnegat Light and the personnel who provided the unique opportunity for such an extensive visit.


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