Change of command for Coast Guard cutter Thunder Bay

By Shlomit Auciello | Jul 04, 2011
Photo by: Shlomit Auciello Shown aboard the 140-foot Coast Guard cutter Thunder Bay, Lt. Jerry Lynn Smith Jr., Coast Guard Sector Northern New England commander Capt. Christopher Roberge and Lt. Matthew B. McKeown talk after a change of command ceremony that relieved McKeown of duty and placed Smith in charge of the ship that is one of four Coast Guard stations in Rockland.

"From Commander, Coast Guard Personnel Service Center, to Lt. Matthew B. McKeown, US Coast Guard. Subject: orders, separation. Detach upon relief, proceed and report for reserve duty at Coast Guard 8th District. These orders constitute a voluntary and honorable separation from active duty service."

Those words, read during a change of command ceremony July 1 at the Coast Guard pier on Tillson Avenue in Rockland, announced the end of active duty service for McKeown, who has commanded the 140-foot Coast Guard cutter Thunder Bay since 2009.

"What you are about to witness is a solemn, time-honored maritime tradition," said Lt. John Forster, executive officer of Thunder Bay, and master of ceremonies for the morning’s events. "The Change of Command Ceremony is conducted before the assembled officers and crew and restates the continuing authority of command. It represents a transfer of total responsibility from one individual to another."

"Command at sea is a special and privileged trust, one which is not given lightly, or to all," said Forster. "It demands dedication to duty and country, commitment, honor, respect, and the public trust. But most of all, it demands leadership."

The ceremony opened with the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" by Rockland resident David Meyers. Affording the national anthem its solemn respect, there was no applause, but later Meyers received acknowledgment from the dais and received ringing approval from the 50 or more witnesses present.

Chaplain Cynthia Kane, Lt. Cmdr. U.S. Naval Chaplain Corps, offered an invocation.

McKeown and Lt. Jerry Lynn Smith Jr., who would later take command of Thunder Bay, then proceeded to inspect the cutter's crew, with soft-spoken conversations punctuating McKeown's final conversations with those who have served under him.

McKeown praised for leadership, community service

Capt. Christopher Roberge, who himself has only recently taken command of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, presided over the presentation of awards to McKeown and his crew. As sector commander, Roberge is the operational commander for Thunder Bay and oversees all maritime and Coast Guard operations from Merrimack River, Mass., to the Canadian border including Lake Champlain.

His served in Operation Desert Storm, as well as in the Pacific. Domestically, he has served in Boston, New York, San Diego, Toledo, Detroit and Miami.

"I know I speak for many people when I say McKeown will be missed here," said Roberge. He praised McKeown's family for their support of his work as commanding officer, which placed the responsibility for the ship, its crew and its mission as McKeown's highest priority.

Thunder Bay is considered a multi-mission station, with duties including ice breaking, search and rescue, port and waterway security, and flood relief. Under McKeown's command, Thunder Bay responded to calls for ice breaking from the Hudson River to the Kennebec, provided security escorts for LNG tankers in Boston Harbor, served as patrol commander for security zones in New York Harbor during the Republican National Convention and United Nations General Assembly summits, as well as for the inaugural and now annual Rockland Lobster Boat Races. Thunder Bay served as a command and control center during the effort to contain the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Each year, the cutter assumes primary ice-breaking responsibility for the Penobscot River, assisting commercial vessels as far north as Bangor. Thunder Bay has been called for ice-breaking assistance in Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod Canal, Boston Harbor, the Hudson River, and in the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes.

In addition, Roberge said McKeown was responsible for the creation of an intelligence program for law enforcement boarding teams.

"Matt, congratulations on a job very well done," he said. Roberge said McKeown had "the steady hand of a skilled leader."

He presented the outgoing commander with the Coast Guard Citation Medal, and Thunder Bay with the 2010 Intelligence Unit Award.

Outgoing commander honors crew

McKeown addressed the audience and the crew he was about to leave.

"There have been many opportunities for you to excel and you have done so," he said. He told Smith that he was chosen for his new role because of demonstrated leadership qualities, and that he was inheriting a well-trained and professional crew.

He thanked the people of Rockland and those at the Knox Center for Long Term Care, where he has volunteered throughout his tenure.

McKeown's most generous praise was for his wife, Heidi, and his children.

Speaking to his crew, McKeown said his proudest moment was during their deployment to the Gulf of Mexico.

"I never saw the crew rise to the occasion as on this trip," he said. "Be proud of your accomplishments. I am."

Calling himself "a sea-struck kid from the Appalachian Mountains," McKeown thanked the Coast Guard for the opportunities he had received.

Finally, he expressed gratitude to those who work on the waters where he has served.

"I'd like to personally thank the lobstermen of Rockland for their professionalism and stewardship of this important resource," he said. He said he never found an illegal or undersized lobster on any of the dozens of boardings conducted by Thunder Bay crews under his command.

McKeown then read his orders, and introduced Smith.

Training and experience highlight incoming officer's career

Smith graduated from Recruit Company A-160 in August 2001 and was assigned to a reserve lighthouse maintenance team in Baltimore, responsible for repairing and maintaining lighthouses on the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2003 he graduated from Officer Candidate School and was assigned as a deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Sycamore in Cordova, Alaska, where he served as navigator and operations officer. Responsibilities there included operations involving aids to navigation, fisheries enforcement, vessel escorts, ice breaking, and joint operations with Alaska State Troopers.

In 2005, Smith reported as executive officer on board the 123-foot cutter Nunivak in Key West, Fla., and later on the cutter Chandeleur, where he conducted alien migrant interdiction operations, fisheries enforcement, and a multitude of operations with the Royal Bahamian Defense Force.

Smith qualified as a master training specialist while serving as course coordinator for the freshman nautical science course at the Coast Guard Academy’s Professional Maritime Studies Branch.

A 2002 graduate of the University of Delaware, Smith earned a master’s degree in international transportation management from State University of New York Maritime College in 2010. He has held a merchant marine license for over 10 years.

Smith has received two Coast Guard Achievement Medals, the Commandant’s Letter of Commendation and various service and unit awards. In 2010 he was the recipient of the Coast Guard Academy’s Spirit of the Bear Award for outstanding mentorship to officer candidates and the corps of cadets.

Smith opened his remarks by calling Rockland "a beautiful Coast Guard City." Then he addressed Thunder Bay's crew.

"I've watched you, all week, preparing the cutter for his event," he said. Describing the changeable weather New England is known for, Smith said, "It seems you have to paint in 30-minute intervals."

"Thunder Bay looks fantastic," said Smith. He said he was impressed with the crew's performance during drills conducted in his first week in Rockland.

"I'm excited to be your commanding officer and committed to your personal success and that of the ship," said Smith.

Following Smith's remarks, the company was dismissed and invited to a reception on the dock.

McKeown said he planned to return to Tennessee, where he would seek a master's degree in business administration at the Chattanooga campus of Bellhaven University.

Thunder Bay is one of four Coast Guard units homeported in Rockland. Station Rockland, in the Bird Block building on Tillson Avenue, is under the command of Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Arnsdorf. CWO Paul Dupuis commands the 175-foot Keeper Class coastal buoy tender Abbie Burgess, and Boatswain's Mate Jesse Deery commands the 65-foot harbor tug Tackle.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by email at

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