Unit Spotlight: Station Valdez
Posted by PA1 Bill Colclough, Friday, March 24, 2017
Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough
Coast Guard Station Valdez is the northern-most station in the Coast Guard and has one of the largest areas of responsibility, covering the entirety of Prince William Sound including the towns of Cordova and Whittier. Tucked into the Chugach Mountains, Valdez is the northernmost ice-free port in North America, but the Station’s stalwart crew still endures an average yearly snowfall of 326 inches per year to conduct Coast Guard operations.
“Without the Coast Guard sending me to Alaska, I’d probably never go,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Fishler, a crew member of Station Valdez. “I always had a feeling there was going to be something special for me up in Alaska.”
As it turned out, Fishler met his wife Kelly in Anchorage. A boarding officer and qualified crew member on both of the station’s 45-foot Response Boat-Medium and 25-foot Response Boat-Small vessels, Fishler oversees the deck department. Before he and Kelly got married and had a child, Fishler was stationed at a unit in Kodiak as a single member two years ago. He noted it was harder at that time to find things to keep you busy while single.
“Being in a small town like Valdez, which is family friendly, it’s a lot easier, especially for younger children,” said Fishler. “I do know it can be hard for single members coming straight from boot camp when they are used living in bigger towns with more activities available, especially in the winter when the weather restricts you.”
Seaman Charles Albright, a fellow crew member who is single with no children, discovered Valdez about a year ago, reporting to the unit straight from boot camp. Like Fishler, Albright is assigned to the deck department where he rigs fenders, maintains towing and mooring lines and, when underway, he acts as a lookout for his shipmates.
“Housing in Valdez can be a challenge. It’s expensive and can be hard to find places, but the people are super-friendly and they are really welcoming,” said Albright. “The mission out here is wonderful. I’ve already had a couple of search-and-rescue cases. It feels really good to help people.”
The station and its 24 crewmembers ensure the security of the Alyeska Marine Terminal as part of the Coast Guard’s Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security mission. Their primary missions consist of search and rescue and maritime law enforcement on Port Valdez which is the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System that carries crude oil from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. Large oil tanker ships export the oil from the Alyeska Marine Terminal to distant refinery facilities.
During the summer, the crews stay busy boarding vessels engaged in halibut and salmon charter fishing to make sure they have the required number of life jackets, flares, fire extinguishers and other safety equipment. The industry contributes toward $1.2 billion of total economic output for the region according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce statistics.
Operations and cases dwindle gradually with the daylight during fall and winter, but that doesn’t mean the station’s crew can rest easy. In December 2015, the station received a call from boaters whose battery went dead. These types of cases occur often throughout the Coast Guard in the lower 48, but this is Alaska.
On Fishler’s first case as a newly-minted coxswain aboard the 45-footer, he recalled a storm approaching near Perry Island where boaters with a dead battery needed help. The three people aboard the boat and their dog were grounded near the beach of Perry Island in water too shallow for the 45-footer crew to approach, but the crew managed to take the boaters into tow.
“I had to do a maneuver where I swooped in and had their guys pull up their anchor and, at the same time, I had my crew throw lines over their boat,” said Fishler. “I pretty much just yanked them out into deeper water by the lines of their boat. Then we were able to rig a normal tow. Just one wrong move and we were going to end up on the beach stuck and disabled.”
Once under tow, it started snowing. Then all means of communications died. No cellphone. No satellite phone, no radio. Nothing.
“It was a dead zone, pitch-black fog and zero visibility. We had to drive by feel, and I had to anticipate where the waves and rollers were coming in from. The transit normally takes two to three hours, but it took five hours.”
Fourteen hours later, the crew arrived safely back to Valdez with the boat under tow and its passengers aboard. Fishler credited the standardized training he received to help him through the stressful situation. He eventually received a Coast Guard Achievement Medal for his actions.
Whether they are conducting vessel inspections, search and rescue or even just helping to dig their neighbors out from under 12 feet of snow in the dead of winter, the men and women at Station Valdez can be counted on to serve through some of the toughest weather Alaska has to offer.