Station Oak Island US CGC Bayberry
The only U.S. Coast Guard Station in Brunswick County, Station Oak Island works to coordinate the safe passage of maritime traffic and protect North Carolina’s southeastern coast.
Brunswick County is big in boating. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, more than 10,000 recreational boats are registered here. Brunswick County is also home to a large fleet of commercial fishing and work vessels. The Cape Fear River is North Carolina’s busiest river — it’s the passageway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Wilmington, North Carolina’s busiest seaport, and it also leads mariners to the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point, America’s largest munitions port. Hundreds of ocean-going vessels, including some of the largest vessels in the world, some carrying hazardous cargo, pass through the region’s waterways every year.
All of these vessels navigate through challenging shoals and crowded channels to reach their destinations. Some vessels will experience emergencies at sea; they’ll be involved in collisions, run aground or catch fire. Some vessels may contain contraband like drugs or have persons onboard who are prohibited from entering the country.
Coordinating the safe passage of all this marine traffic and assisting the mariners aboard these vessels are the United States Coast Guard personnel assigned to the only Coast Guard station in Brunswick County: Station Oak Island.
Station Oak Island is easy to find. Located at the base of the Oak Island Lighthouse, the station is a hive of activity around the clock. It actually is home to three distinct units: first, the small boat station, a Coast Guard descriptor for a station that operates smaller vessels intended for search and rescue missions, law enforcement operations and coastal and maritime protection missions; second, the Coast Guard Cutter Bayberry; and third, the Aids to Navigation Team.
Each of the units has a particular set of missions, but all the units work together when needed.
Station Oak Island is strategically located at a major maritime crossroads. The ocean, the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal Waterway intersect close by. In this unique location, snowbirds transiting south to Florida pass 1,200-foot container ships and king mackerel fishermen returning from offshore trips navigate alongside commercial shrimpers heading out to sea.
The station has served southeastern North Carolina for many years. Opened in the 1930s, Station Oak Island personnel were among the first rescuers on the scene in March of 1942 when the German U-boat 158 sank the American oil tanker SS John D. Gill just off Southport. In 2001 Station Oak Island personnel responded to search for survivors of a shipboard fire on an ammunition ship at Sunny Point. Every year they respond to Mayday calls from Wilmington to Myrtle Beach, often during the most severe weather.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Josh R. Meyer, USCG, serves as the Officer-In-Charge of Station Oak Island. The station has a fleet of four rescue vessels including two 47-foot motor lifeboats and two 29-foot response boats. These vessels are multi-mission boats that serve as rescue vessels capable of serving in rough seas in offshore waters as well as law enforcement and maritime security vessels. According to Senior Chief Meyer, “Station Oak Island provides critical rescue, law enforcement and maritime security services to all the different types of mariners in our area: recreational boaters, commercial fishermen, ocean going vessels, two ferry services, military vessels and more. I am very proud of the work done by our personnel, who train and work hard to provide the best possible service while partnering with other government agencies.”
Senior Chief Meyer also notes that the Cape Fear maritime and coastal communities are safeguarded every day due to working relationships with law enforcement and rescue partners.
These partners include the North Carolina Marine Patrol, the Brunswick County and New Hanover County sheriff’s offices, Wilmington Police Department and the local fire department marine units, including Oak Island Water Rescue, a valuable and efficient volunteer organization.
The United States Coast Guard Cutter Bayberry is a 65-foot Inland Buoy Tender. Bayberry is commanded by Chief Petty Officer Christopher Thompson, USCG, who describes the ship as: “a unique platform designed specifically to work in the types of waterways we have.” Bayberry and her crew members repair and reposition buoys from Morehead City, North Carolina, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and spend days at sea while traveling to assignments. Chief Thompson, a resident of Brunswick County, says, “Our primary mission is keeping the shallow-water inlets and crossings safe.”
The Aids to Navigation Team is a specialized unit that manages and repairs all the aids to navigation between Little River, South Carolina, and the Onslow Swing Bridge near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The Aids to Navigation Team is commanded by Petty Officer Christopher Fuentes, USCG, and is responsible for the management of more than 800 aids to navigation as well as 55 range light systems. One of their most visible aids to navigation is the Oak Island Lighthouse. The team is currently doing a major repair of the lighthouse.
Petty Officer Fuentes described his team’s job as “keeping the buoys, beacons and light systems operating so that mariners can find safe water.” According to Petty Officer Fuentes, the greatest challenge is shifting shoals and keeping buoys where they need to be to guide vessel operators.
Scott Aldridge is the co-president of the Cape Fear River Pilot’s Association. Local pilots guide the largest vessels from the ocean to the Port of Wilmington and Sunny Point. According to Aldridge, the job done by Coast Guard personnel from Station Oak Island is “highly valuable work and they do a job second to none.” He is particularly impressed by the work of the Aids to Navigation Team. “I can’t say enough about them,” Aldridge says. “Even with today’s technology, there is no substitute for an aid to navigation.”
Recreational boaters also appreciate the presence of Coast Guard patrols on local waterways. Mike Bearden operates his 19-foot Carolina Skiff in search of fish and crabs and occasional sunsets.
“Anybody who has been on the water knows that things happen, and you never know when you might need help,” Bearden says. “It is comforting to see the Coast Guard boats on patrol.”
If you work or recreate on the waters of Brunswick County, know that the men and women of Coast Guard Station Oak Island stand ready to assist you.