If you look way back in Homer’s history, back to last century, back before statehood, back all the way to November 1948, you’d see the 269-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northwind sail into Kachemak Bay. Its mission was to provide health care, provisioning, justice and personal transport services to Alaska’s remote communities, according to Darrell van Ness, curator of the Coast Guard Museum Northwest in Seattle.
That visit marked the start of Homer’s connection with the U.S. Coast Guard, a relationship founded 50 years ago with the arrival on Jan. 5, 1969, of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ironwood, the first ship to be homeported in Homer. This year, Homer celebrates the silver anniversary of the Coast Guard in Homer.
The Northwind served as a floating court. While in Homer, a civil trial was conducted aboard ship, Judge Kehoe presiding.
“Thus it is honest to say that Coast Guard’s historical relationship with Homer began at least 70 years ago,” van Ness said in an email.
The Northwind’s visit to Homer was just that, however: a visit. Beginning with the arrival of the USCGC Ironwood, its six officers and 47 enlisted men, the Coast Guard and Homer began a decades-long relationship that has grown stronger over the years.
“Since the very beginning, the Coast Guard has had a special bond with the community and culture of Homer,” said Rear Admiral Matthew T. Bell Jr., 17th District Commander. “The bond continues today with the crews of Cutters Hickory, Naushon and Marine Safety Detachment Homer. We are committed to protecting the people and environment surrounding Homer and Alaska.”
The headline on the Homer News, Jan. 2, 1969, read, “Ironwood to arrive Jan. 5.” Invitations to a celebration marking the arrival of the ship and its crew and sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce reflected the community’s excitement at having a Coast Guard ship homeported in Homer. Among those invited were Gov. Walter J. Hickel, Sen. Bob Palmer, R-Ninilchik, and Rep. Clem Tillion, R-Halibut Cove, as well as Coast Guard, borough and city officials, and the general public.
Tillion had worked hard convincing others of the need to have a Coast Guard presence in the area. With the discovery of the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957 and Cook Inlet natural gas beginning production in 1961, activity on the inlet was increasing. With foreign fishing fleets just off shore, Alaska’s salmon runs plummeted and were considered a federal disaster by the late 1950s.
“The oil companies were dumping their waste oil and junk. The Japanese were running riot along our coast. I needed cops,” Tillion said.
Tillion’s idea was for Seldovia to serve as the Coast Guard’s area base of operations. With the demise of that community’s fish canning industry after the 1964 earthquake, Seldovia was in need of a boost.
It offered “a whole harbor, docks, everything. I thought it would be the perfect place,” Tillion said. Another plus were winter conditions milder than Homer’s. “You could reach anywhere in the inlet and not worry about the ice.”
There was just one problem: no road. That didn’t sit well with “the captain’s wife. She wanted to be able to drive to Anchorage,” said Tillion. And so it was Homer, rather than Seldovia, that was selected as the Ironwood’s homeport.
“One of the fellows in the Legislature said, you get them (Coast Guard) up there and they’ll hassle you with life jackets, inspecting your boat and all that kind of stuff. He was right, they did, but it wasn’t that bad. … If you want to have a civilized world, you have to have policemen,” said Tillion of what turned out to be “a very nice arrangement for Homer. The Coast Guard has become part of the community. They have a bigger impact on the town than the town realizes.”
In a half century, Homer has continually provided a home for the branch of the military whose motto is “Semper Paratus,” a Latin phrase meaning “always ready.” The USCGC Sedge, a buoy tender, was in Homer from 1974-2002; the Roanoke Island, a patrol vessel, in Homer from 1992-2015; the USCGC Hickory, a buoy tender, in Homer since 2003; the Marine Safety Detachment in Homer since 2012; and the USCGC Sapelo in Homer for a short period before arrival of the USCGC Naushon, a patrol vessel, in June 2016.
During that time, the Coast Guard has worked its way into the heart of Homer as each ship and the Marine Safety Detachment have fulfilled the Coast Guard District 17’s mission to “serve and safeguard the public, protect the environment and its resources, and defend the Nation’s interests in the Alaskan maritime region.”
“The Coast Guard helped out with the funding for the Pioneer Dock and over the years the city has been involved with any improvements that the Coast Guard has made to the dock,” said Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins.
The Coast Guard leases land in the uplands for a buoy yard and shop for the Hickory and also for the Naushon’s office at Ramp 8. Dredging is required to keep the Hickory moored at the dock, an activity requiring a cooperative effort between the city, the Coast Guard and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“If anything, our relationship with the Coast Guard has only gotten stronger over the years,” Hawkins said. “As our understanding of their mission and range of responsibility has grown so has our support both locally and when we look towards future expansion. …(W)e are working hard at expanding our port facilities by creating a large vessel harbor, and one of the first goals for this new facility is to make space for the Coast Guard vessels. Let’s get the Hickory off the dock and into the harbor.”
Other activities have snagged the public’s attention and appreciation. The Roanoke helped evacuate tourists and provided emergency personnel after the 1998 explosion and fire of Icicle Seafoods on the Homer Spit. In 2006, it transported scientists near an erupting Augustine Volcano so monitoring sensors could be deployed. The Hickory assisted in recovering items from the Torrent, a three-masted wooden vessel that was shipwrecked in Kachemak Bay in 1868 and discovered in 2007.
Coast Guard personnel coach sports, mentor students and volunteer for nonprofits. They’ve chopped and provided firewood for local residents. Spouses join the workforce. Families add to school enrollments. Halloween festivities for the public began on the Sedge, continued on the Hickory and, as a result, have become known as the Haunted Hickory. With a donated food item as admission, the event has proven a substantial boost to the Homer Community Food Pantry.
“Homer is an extremely supportive community for the Coast Guard members who live here,” said Cory Sonnega, operations officer aboard the Hickory. “We get over 1,000 residents of Homer coming to the ship each Halloween and raise over 70 percent of the Homer food bank’s yearly canned goods supply.”
Ben Mitchell completed his Coast Guard career with an assignment in Homer. While he served as chief boatswain mate aboard the Sedge, his wife Kate, who also had served in the Coast Guard, launched a small business that has grown into NOMAR and their two children attended Homer schools. Staying in Homer after his retirement “was the easy thing to do,” said Kate, who has documented the family’s story in her newly published book, “Bag Lady At the End of the Road.”
Marshall Bullock served on the Roanoke, then the Sedge, and was on the first crew aboard the Hickory. After retiring from the Coast Guard in Honolulu, he returned to Homer in 2011. For him, the decision to return to Homer “just felt right,” he said. “It’s a great community, an educated community with a common-sense way of life.”
After settling in Homer, Bullock worked with the Kachemak Bay Campus to develop marine trades classes and is active with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Homer Flotilla.
“I love to teach and help people learn about boats,” Bullock said. “If I’m showing someone how to tie a knot or how to get a boat underway in a big wind and not cream the dock, I’m very happy.”
There are currently 23 members of the Homer Flotilla. When its charter was signed May 11, 1969, four months after the Ironwood’s arrival, its 22 volunteers committed to promoting boating safety. Craig Forrest joined the auxiliary after moving to Homer in 1979.
“We help the Coast Guard with fundraising, the Haunted Hickory food drive; we’ve done beach searches and we back up the Coast Guard in radio communications,” Forrest said.
The year Forrest joined the Auxiliary, the flotilla provided 400 assists. Forty years later, Forrest has the distinction of being in Homer’s flotilla longer than anyone and recently accepted a plaque commemorating the Auxiliary’s 50-year tenure in Homer.
The Homer Flotilla also teaches an annual boating safety class, offered through the city of Homer Parks and Recreation Department. The class meets from 7-9 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, Jan. 8 through March 7. The curriculum includes “everything you need to know to be safe on the water,” Forrest said.
Within a 3.8 million square-mile area known in the Coast Guard as District 17, on an average month the Coast Guard saves 22 lives, assists 53 people, reports and investigates 25 marine casualties, boards 74 living marine resources, responds to 22 pollution incidents, services 93 buoys and fixed aids to navigation, conducts 13 security boardings and 22 security patrols, performs 143 commercial fishing vessel safety exams, saves more than $1.65 million in property, teaches 375 kids about wearing life jackets, and performs 95 marine inspections.
On Feb. 9, the Coast Guard’s 50 years in Homer will be honored during the Homer Winter Carnival, sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce.
“We want to thank them for all that they do, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Debbie Speakman, the chamber and visitor center’s executive director.
The Coast Guard’s presence is a plus for Homer, considering the area’s strong maritime relationship.
“Kachemak Bay connects with Cook Inlet and having the Coast Guard stationed close, we know in an emergency the Coast Guard is close by. They provide education on safety and enforcement for federally managed fisheries,” Speakman said, adding that the CG’s presence is “great for economic development where they spend monies for rent, groceries and other services.”
“The Coast Guard are good neighbors to have,” Hawkins said. “They fit into our community, are trained to respond to emergencies, and have proven their commitment to our community by the fact that they have been here for more than 50 years. … A lot of people still see them as temporary for some reason. They’ve been here 50 years. I don’t think we can call them ‘temporary’ anymore.”
The Ironwood was decommissioned in Kodiak in October 2000, but continues to serve. It is now a training vessel for the Job Corps’ Tongue Point Seamanship Academy in Astoria, Oregon.
“We use it every day and every Thursday it takes students out to train,” said Chris Gibbs, a security officer at the academy. “It’s the largest of the three ships we have.”