An old school Coastie

Fri, 05/29/2015 - 10:15am

“You know, out on Block Island news can travel pretty fast,” says Bill Muessel, “so when I heard of what was going on out at the Coast Guard Station, well, I had to go out there to investigate.”

Many years ago, Bill Muessel was Group Commander of the United States Coast Guard, and was based in Newport; he was referring to some indiscretion and, ahem, shenanigans, going on out at the Block Island Station. He and his crew took a USCG 40-foot utility boat and headed south from Coast Guard Station Castle Hill in Newport to resolve this issue.

Bill Muessel is a salty guy. His speech is direct, clear, and unbridled — as I said, “salty.” He does not mince words. Bill is clearly a man who is capable of making decisions popular or unpopular. In other words, he is a leader of men. For example, on his watch as CO at the Castle Hill Station, his job was to oversee all of the lighthouses on Narragansett Bay: staff, maintenance, and supplies. He had 100 men under his command and three utility boats. “There was a guy who, while on duty at Rose Island Lighthouse, would go ashore and hit a few bars in downtown Newport,” he says, “so one night I went out there and took his launch away so that he’d stay on station.” Bill said that he referred to the Coastie as “Alki Al.”

Bill Muessel, who hailed from Duluth joined the USCG in 1939. He began his career as a “hawse pipe” sailor aboard a buoy tender. A “hawsepiper” is a maritime term. It’s a dirty part of a ship where the anchor chain is flaked as the capstan hauls the anchor. It’s where a sailor begins his climb up the ship’s rank to eventually and hopefully end up as an officer of the deck or in the wheelhouse as a master. “There is no easy way to the wheelhouse,” he says. Bill did just that. He started at the bottom and worked his way up the chain, from second class seaman to commanding officer. Furthermore, you can see that he is a man who would not ask a man to do something he would not do himself. 

While moving forward with his career, aboard a 170-foot buoy tender, Bill was also stationed at the “Rock of Ages Light” on Lake Michigan, which was a lonely sentinel marking dangerous shoal water. “We needed a crane to hoist up our utility boat, there was no dock for this lighthouse,” he says. As a Group Commander, he was in charge of the Point Judith and Block Island Stations. He did that for four years and then became the CO at Castle Hill Station. “In 1963, we were on the Jamestown Ferry heading over to see a show at the Warwick Musical Theatre — a.k.a. “The Tent." He says, “the ferry broke down halfway across the bay, so I called the Castle Hill Station, and ordered a 40-footer over to assist us.” The utility boat got the ferry docked in Jamestown and Bill, his wife and friends made it to the show.

Bill Muessel retired from the Coastguard in 1973. His kids were raised, and he wanted to work so he took on the job as an Assistant Harbor Master in Newport. When the Navy left Newport, there was nothing going on in the harbor as far as recreational boating. There were a few moorings in the northeast corner of the harbor, and a few over in Bretton Cove. “There was no order in the harbor,” says Bill. The Harbor Master basically came down to Long Wharf in his car and looked out at the main harbor to check things each day. Bill, acting as Assistant Harbor Master, was a more hands-on guy. “I saw an old shack down at Easton’s Beach that was not being used, so I asked the town if I could have it, so we’d have a base of operation,” he says. In the back of the Newport Yacht Club on Long Wharf, is where the shack still stands.

I first met Bill there about 15 years ago. I was working at Fort Adams in those years when the ferry company ran the M/V Nelesco from the fort in the summertime. I’d stop in from time to time to visit with Bill. I was living aboard my sailboat in those days and one night my dinghy got loose from my boat. One day I rode my bike over to the Harbor Master’s shack to see if the boat was found. “Oh, yeah, it was found a few days ago,” says Bill, “let’s go get it.” So we go out to the back of the shack to grab my boat. As I tried to help him, he said, “I got it,” and muscled it over to the dock and slid it into the water. He had to be least 80 at that time – like I said earlier, he’s a “hands on guy.”

As stated earlier, there was no order in those days in the early 70s, and there had to be order when people started putting in moorings. Bill’s son Mike began Old Port Marine at that time. (Because of Mike’s vision of an expanding mooring field, there is order now.) “We were like the police on the water in those days,” says Bill, “we chased people who were speeding, kept an eye out for people’s boats in bad weather, and helped retrieve jumpers from the bridge.” After a 34 year Coast Guard career, and 40 years as an Assistant Harbor Master, Bill Muessel finally retired. “I went, but did not go voluntarily,” he said. Before that, however, the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club appealed to the City of Newport, to keep Bill on a few more years. He officially retired in 2012.

Bill did get to the bottom of the issue on Block Island. “So we got to Block Island Coastguard Station at 0300, we tied up the 40-footer and headed for the CO’s headquarters, and resolved the issue,” he said. The word got around Block Island that there was, ahem, a woman who had been “visiting” the CO on his watch. “So I went to his quarters and knocked on the door, and there they were right in the nest. And that was that,” he says.  Among the Coasties, this became known as the “Block Island panty raid.”

Today, Bill Muessel is still salty, and feisty as ever.