‘Like a family’: Dubbed ‘Station Vacation,’ Destin’s Coast Guard station celebrates 35 years

Coast Guard Station Destin Officer-in-Charge Master Chief Glenn Bucklin.

In 1977, TV sets used vacuum tubes, telephones had cords, and U.S. Coast Guard Station Destin was commissioned.

Station Destin turned 35 years old in November. Its mission is the same, but the facilities and tools at Station Destin’s disposal have changed.

Officer-in-charge Master Chief Glenn Bucklin said the station has always been what he characterized as a “bare-bones” operation — waterborne law enforcement and search and rescue.

“Without those boats operating,” said Bucklin, pointing out the window of his office toward the docks, “without those crews being trained properly, there’s no reason to being here.”

Station Destin has four vessels, two 41-foot-long utility boats, one 25-foot-long response boat and a shallow-water boat.

The 41-footers are to be retired, one potentially as early as March when Station Destin hopes to get a 45-foot-long response boat-medium. The RBM is a state-of-the-art, water jet-propelled vessel fitted with the latest electronics. It’s also designed to be more comfortable for the crew and rescued people it transports.

“The job is still the same, search and rescue and law enforcement,” said the master chief. “The only thing that has changed is the technology. We can respond faster.”

Station Vacation The location of Station Destin created the setting for a nickname, “Station Vacation.”

Retired Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Kurt Rommerdahl, officer-in-charge at Station Destin from 1996 to 2000, recalled his days as a young coast guardsman in the late 1970s. Rommerdahl said the popularity of the moniker among Coast Guard leadership at the station ebbs and flows.

He had no problem with the nickname because of what it represented – autonomy. “Station Vacation, you know the officers-in-charge are kind of proud of that,” he said. “We’re not a tenant of anybody’s.” The six-acre plot is all Coast Guard, so it’s able to improve the land or permit its use or the use of facilities without worrying about getting approval from other agencies.”

Plus, added the retired master chief, there’s no point in denying the Emerald Coast’s beauty. Current OIC

Bucklin agreed, noting Station Destin isn’t the only Coast Guard base that’s nicknamed Station Vacation. “I’ve been to a lot of Station Vacations,” he said, smiling. “Everywhere I go, I have waterfront property. I have an awesome view.”

Despite the nickname, Station Destin Coast Guardsmen know that their jobs are serious. Seaman John Moon is a boat crewman and boarding team member. Before boarding a vessel to check for safety violations or enforce fishery laws, for example, the tall 24-year-old from Georgia dons a bullet-proof vest and arms himself with pepper spray, a baton, and .40-caliber pistol. But, Moon, who is one of 33 active-duty coast guardsmen at the station, noted one of its other benefits — a sense of community. “I really like it here,” he said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s more like a family.”

Getting there, getting back Rommerdahl, a coxswain in the 1970s, used a paper chart and compass to set the course of the boat. He got his latitude and longitude numbers from the LORAN system.

“Basically, you ran a compass course and maintained the time,” he said. To reach home, he would turn the boat to head in the opposite direction, while keeping track of the time to get an idea of when the shoreline should appear.

These days, among the sophisticated equipment aboard Coast Guard boats are navigation aids such as GPS receivers and electronic map plotters.

Most of the changes that occurred at Station Destin over the years paralleled changes happening throughout the Coast Guard, according to the retired master chief.

Crew safety, though always important, has improved. The Coast Guard, like the U.S. Armed Forces of which it is a part during wartime, also is paying more attention to the families of Coast Guardsmen.

New infrastructure, old tradition Over the years, Station Destin hasn’t grown much in square footage, but a couple of new additions have proved very useful.

Rommerdahl started the process that led to the station getting an on-shore boathouse and ramp to pull boats from the water for maintenance or protection from storms. Before that, seamen did as regular folks do.

“We had to use one of the public ramps,” he said. “We got to go to the front of the line, but that pissed people off sometimes.”

Today, Station Destin is undergoing a less obvious improvement. Attic insulation is being replaced to reduce the cost of cooling and heating the main building.

Keeping watch at the station as workmen and other visitors come in and out aren’t only human Coast Guardsmen. A Labrador with lustrous black coat, intimidating build, and friendly personality roams the station and even joins crews on patrols.

Rudder is the third in a line of mascots, all dogs, that have called Station Destin home over the years. Rudder’s predecessor was Buoy and, before him, there was Gizmo.

REMEMBERING THE FALLEN Near the water’s edge behind U.S. Coast Guard Station Destin is a memorial for Petty Officer 3rd Class Lonnie Jones. The machinery technician died in East Pass March 30, 1981 during a rescue mission.

According to a Coast Guard blog, that day was cold, seas heavy, and water temperature 58 degrees. Jones was one of three seamen aboard a 41-foot-long utility boat deployed to search for a capsized vessel carrying passengers.

Jones’s UTB was hit broadside by a wave. Struck by a second wave, the vessel eventually lost power and rudder control, capsizing.

The crew was swept forward into the passenger’s cabin. As water filled the cabin, the crew took action.

Exiting through a cabin window after breaking it, the three seamen swam toward an East Pass jetty. Two survived the ordeal but Jones drowned.

During a memorial ceremony for Jones two years ago at Station Destin, his wife, Jacqueline, spoke lovingly of her husband.

“For me, that was the day my life stopped,” she said. “I lived for my husband. … My husband was a gentleman and they just don’t make men like him anymore.”

In its 35 year history, Jones is the only Destin Coast Guardsman who has died in the line of duty. BY THE NUMBERS Ten years ago, U.S. Coast Guard Station Destin conducted between 450 and 490 search and rescue missions, which included boater-in-distress responses. That number was 110 in fiscal year 2010-2011, a decrease of between approximately 76 and 78 percent.

Station Destin Executive Petty Officer Jason King attributed the decline to several factors. Commercial and private boaters have access to GPS-aided navigation and, when boats break down, mariners can call a commercial salvage operator for a tow or on-water repair.

He added that over the past 10 to 20 years, recreational boats have improved in reliability.

And, there are mandatory boater education courses, which teach everything from basic seamanship to safety. The result is private boaters who are better able to take care of themselves.

Though there are fewer search and rescue missions out of Station Destin these days, its other principal function is keeping crews plenty busy. Boat safety checks, fishery regulations enforcement and other law-related missions that require boardings numbered 500 during FY 2011-2012.