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Coast Guard relieves Montauk station commander

A Coast Guard 47-foot rescue boat trains about

A Coast Guard 47-foot rescue boat trains about 8 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2009, in the surf off Montauk Point. The Coast Guard said the driver was unqualified to handle the conditions. Credit:

The officer in charge of the Coast Guard's Montauk Station has been relieved of command after he and one of his subordinates took a pair of million-dollar rescue boats into heavy surf even though they were not officially qualified to do so, the agency said.

Chief Petty Officer James Weber, a 21-year-veteran of the Coast Guard and a popular figure in the Montauk community, will lose his position permanently unless he successfully appeals, said Capt. Daniel Ronan, commander of Sector Long Island Sound.

"We relieved him because he put boats and crews in a dangerous situation they weren't trained for," Ronan said.

Coast Guard higher-ups learned of the incident after photographs appeared on the Internet in August of two $1.2-million 47-foot motor lifeboats, one from another station, training off Montauk Point in 10- to 15-foot surf generated by Hurricane Bill. Ronan initiated an investigation and recommended Weber be relieved.

The decision stunned the maritime community in Montauk.

Ed Michels, the East Hampton senior harbormaster and the former commanding officer of the Montauk station, said, "he was well-liked by his crew and the people of the town. The whole community feels like we've lost something."

Rear Adm. Joe Nimmich, commander of the 1st Coast Guard District in Boston, relieved Weber because of "a loss of confidence in his ability to command the unit," the agency said Friday.

Pending a decision on Weber's fate, Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Guthlein will be in charge of Station Montauk.

Weber could not be reached to comment.

Ronan said "he violated our heavy weather training policies" because neither Weber or the Coast Guardsman steering the other boat was qualified to operate in surf.

Ronan said Weber had qualified as a "surfman" - allowing him to operate a boat in surf up to 15 feet - at a different unit but had not been recertified since moving to the Montauk station. His current level of certification allowed him to work in seas up to 20 feet but not in surf.

The other person piloting the other boat was not qualified to be in seas higher than 8 feet or in any kind of surf, Ronan said.

"Chief Weber is a great guy and a great Coast Guardsman who unfortunately made a decision that day that led to this action," Ronan said. "This was a very, very difficult decision."

"Coast Guard policies and procedures have been developed over many years to guide operations in the safest and most effective way," Nimmich said in a statement. "It is paramount in our day-to-day operations to follow the appropriate safety procedures. The relief of a command is something I never take lightly, but in this situation the safety of the crew has to be my primary concern."

The decision did not sit well with civilian observers.

"I find it a shock that he would be relieved from his duties for having his men get heavy weather experience," said Chuck Weimar, captain of the Montauk-based fishing boat Rianda S. "You need practical experience on the water as much as training. We rely on the Coast Guard 24/7 and the more experience they have out in heavy weather, the better for all of the lives in the community."

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