A Life on the Water: Sheila Lucey

Coast Guard Station Brant Point Senior Chief retires

by: Terry Pommett

The Nantucket waterfront will lose one of its most dedicated guardians May 4 with the retirement of Coast Guard Station Brant Point Senior Chief Sheila Lucey. Her five-year assignment as head of the small-boat station has been a rewarding collaboration for mariners, townspeople and servicemen alike. Under her leadership, community relations between the Coast Guard and Nantucket have never been better.

When Lucey arrived in 2002, she was placed in command of 26 crewmen, mostly raw recruits, who knew little about Nantucket and lacked training on the boats. Fortunately, Lucey was not unfamiliar with the island, having visited here numerous times while serving on Cape Cod in Chatham, Provincetown and particularly Woods Hole, where she was the first female commander of the aids to navigation team. Tending buoys in Nantucket Harbor was a two-week project that she relished each summer.

“I’ve been in every harbor on the Cape and Islands and was well acquainted with Nantucket. It was a place I wanted to get assigned to for a long time. Once there, I realized I had a lot of work to do with the new crewmen. It was ‘ground zero’,” Lucey said of Nantucket.

Her approach, gleaned from 20 years of experience, was to build morale employing a team concept, setting goals based on what was expected by the boaters, the townspeople and the Coast Guard.

“I’ve always been high on training. My biggest concern is not being ready for a challenge. I had kids who had never seen a 47 before,” she said, referring to the 47-foot motor lifeboat her crew takes offshore on search and rescue missions.

“They were right out of boot camp. My responsibility was to make them competent and confident. Once people have a job and know what they’re doing, what their role is, morale goes up,” she said.

Although diminutive in stature, Lucey, a South Boston native, has the tough demeanor of a leader, a no-nonsense commander with a heart of gold. Her tactics produced results. Within a year, the station began winning awards for high standards of readiness.

Readiness awards are no small accomplishments in the Coast Guard. Inspectors will “white glove” a boat, crawling through bilges and engine rooms, sometimes taking up to six hours looking for “gigs” or discrepancies. All crewmen have to take written tests for their positions and have their personal survival gear inspected. In addition, vigorous sea trials are conducted and judged, including underwater drills, day and night drills, search patterns, navigating in fog, dewatering and towing other vessels, man-overboard and engine-room casualty exercises. In 2004, the station received a score of 49 out of a possible 50, the highest in the country.

“The crew has a lot to be proud of. But the way Nantucket has treated us is a big part of our success. Nantucketers are our morale boosters.

People know us, they thank us and make us feel good. We are respected and welcomed. That goes a long way,” Lucey said.

Therein lies the special commitment Lucey has brought to the community.

Harbormaster Dave Fronzuto, who once commanded the Nantucket Loran Station, has worked closely with Lucey the past five years. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the focus of Station Brant Point has been all-encompassing, he said, including Homeland Security, law enforcement, fishing, oil spills and search and rescue. That’s a lot to have on your plate. A commander can choose to focus on serving out his time and move on or he can choose to be a part of the community.

“It’s what you decide to put into it,” said Fronzuto. “Lucey has chosen community. She’s served us well and we’re all better for it. She’s been a great asset.”

The list of community events that the Coast Guard participates in is extensive. They are involved with island events throughout the year.

Just before Christmas Stroll, the first week in December, the crewmen hang a huge wreath, Coast-Guard style, on the Brant Point lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor. Down on Main Street they always exercise their creativity during the holiday season by decorating a Christmas tree, always with a mariner’s theme. They often win first prize, as they did once again in 2006. And it is the Coast Guard that delivers Santa to the island, at the end of Straight Wharf aboard the 47. Come springtime and Daffodil Weekend, another themed wreath is hung on the lighthouse, and in June Station Brant Point usually pulls together a team to run in the Iron Teams relay race that generally benefits a chosen island nonprofit group. Less apparent but more educational to the island’s youth are the open-house days for the schools, the Boys & Girls Club, summer camps and participation in the middle school’s Shadow Day where eighth graders choose to spend a day with someone in an island profession. Visits to the Brant Point Coast Guard station are always popular.

Monitoring the many water activities such as the fireworks displays, regattas and the Thanksgiving Cold Turkey Plunge are annual vigils. One of Lucey’s favorite functions is the Valentine’s Dance at Our Island Home.

Former Brant Point chief Jack Downey, her mentor, started the tradition in 1993. It was abandoned in 1998 but Lucey helped revive it.

“The folks at Our Island Home really appreciate our visit. They follow our stories in the paper and are concerned about us,” she said.

Nantucket is special for Lucey in many ways, but what sets it apart from other locations is that everything revolves closely around the water, she said.

“We have a critical role here even more so than the Cape. Things get here either over the water by air, or on the water by boat. I feel a stronger sense of how pivotal our role is for the community and how well they respond to us,” she said.

In Florida, where she served two and a half years on a 110-foot cutter, patrolling the waters off Haiti and Cuba, it was an entirely different scenario.

“No one knows you from Adam and no one takes the time to get to know you. The Cape opens its doors to us but it’s nothing like I’ve seen on Nantucket. Even on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s not nearly as close-knit. We called over to the station there to make a bet on the Whalers-Vineyard football game and the guys didn’t even know when it was scheduled,” said Lucey incredulously.

Of course, living on Nantucket has its drawbacks. There is no access to the commissary or other benefits such as MWR (morale, welfare and recreation). Still, as Lucey sees it, “the community has made up for those shortcomings ten-fold. If we really want to do something or get somewhere, there’s always someone around to help us out.”

The life rhythms of Nantucket are not lost on Lucey, who sees a spike in her workload every summer. There’s never a dull moment. During her first week here, she was reminded to expect the unexpected. Looking out her office window, she spied the Steamship Authority’s fast ferry Flying Cloud traveling around in circles. She wondered if that was common practice, although it didn’t make sense. Just then a Mayday call came through. The ferry had lost an engine and was taking on water in the engine room.

“We boarded her and managed to get her to the dock but then had to call on the marine and fire departments to assist in pumping her out. I was up to my armpits in water on the lower passenger deck,” said Lucey.

A few days later, a building in the Coast Guard’s Gouin Village compound went up in flames. Lucey laughed, remembering fire chief Bruce Watts telling her, “I’m glad to help you whenever I can, but I already had a job before you got here.”

On average, the Coast Guard receives about 150 calls for assistance a year, with roughly 80 percent of its annual workload between May and October. With four boats at her disposal, the 47-foot heavy-weather motor lifeboat, a 41-foot utility vessel, a 25-foot all-seasons platform and a 21-foot harbor craft, one would think there are more than enough vessels to respond to any emergency. One of Lucey’s most memorable experiences, however, occurred several years ago during Fourth of July weekend, which proved her passion for readiness is not excessive.

“In the middle of the day, the fog rolled in and we got 47 calls in 45 minutes. Some of the people were really freaking out, screaming at us over the radio. All we could do was treat them like they were in a deli line. ‘O.K., you’re number 16, we’re coming to get you’,” Lucey said.

“It was crazy, the switchboard was lit up, phones, radios, even our cell phones were all going off at once. We had three boats out there in the sound and harbor and the harbormaster had two. We took the worst cases first. One boat went up on the Jetties with 16 people on board, including a bunch of kids. The skipper was pulling his hair out on the way back because everyone was shooting their cameras in his face, flashes going off while he was trying to navigate back in. We got them all back safely. Naturally, as soon as the last call was answered, the visibility cleared and you could see to Mars,” Lucey said.

While the summer is the busiest, what takes place in the winter months can be challenging as well. During one of this winter’s most brutal cold snaps, with a wind chill of 15-below and northwest winds of 30 knots (36 mph), two men were trapped after dark in the Creeks after their dinghy overturned. The Coast Guard was dispatched and was able to locate them, wet and freezing, after a call came through that a light was seen flashing in their vicinity.

“Their body temperatures were 92 and 94 degrees. We definitely saved two lives that night. We were really pumped up. We thought we’d kick back and get some training in,” said Lucey.

Her elation with the rescue effort was quickly tempered by the loss of the New Bedford fishing vessel Lady of Grace the following day. “It was a boat we had towed earlier in the month so we were familiar with it. After finding an oil slick, we searched for three days in the main channel just north of the island and along the coast for debris. The boat was eventually found sunk,” she said.

While running the boats is Lucey’s favorite part of the job, going out on the water is generally limited to training exercises. When an S&R (Search and Rescue) call comes in, she stays at the command center in order to direct operations with an eye on the big picture.

“When you’re on the boat, you tend to have tunnel vision. Back at the station, I can focus on the wider perspective. I can engage other units, judge the coxswain’s demeanor and answer calls. But the training on the boats is special. It’s rewarding to get a kid from Idaho who doesn’t know what a bow or stern is and eventually ends up running a million-dollar boat and saving lives,” she said.

Leaving the Coast Guard after 25 years will be difficult, Lucey admitted. “Most days I wake up and can’t believe I get paid for what I do,” she said.

Still, she knows she has accomplished just about everything in the Coast Guard that she wanted to do. Although she has been with a new crew for only a year and feels she has a lot of knowledge to pass on to them, ultimately, she knows it’s time to go.

Lucey said she is thankful to all the Nantucketers who have helped her during her tour on the island. While there are too many to mention, she did express special gratitude to Fronzuto and Nantucket Boat Basin dockmaster George Bassett, both retired “Coasties.”

“George is a gentleman and class act who has bent over backwards for me: a true professional. Call him on a bad day and he’ll make you laugh or change the subject. He’s answered my questions and given me guidance,” Lucey said.

“Dave and I have been together in the trenches a lot,” she said of Fronzuto. “I’ve worked with him almost every day. He has the best interests of Nantucket mariners on his mind at all times. We put our guys on his boat whenever we’re unfamiliar with something. He’d give you the shirt off his back and his dedication to the community is second to none.”

Leaving the service does not necessarily mean leaving Nantucket. Lucey has solidified a number of friendships and contacts on the island and believes there could well be another place for her on the waterfront. For the Coast Guard’s first female surfman and first female officer in charge of a station in the Northeast, there are no doubt more firsts on the horizon.

Terry Pommett is a freelance photojournalist and a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.

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