Marking hidden danger: Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Astoria, Ore., keeps mariners clear of hazards

Pacific Northwest Coast Guard News
by Cmdr. Nevada Smith, Chief Petty Officer Kevin Bentle and Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn

ASTORIA, Ore. — Coast Guard helicopters in the skies above and Coast Guard cutters in the Columbia River below provide a highly visible Coast Guard presence. Just ten miles upriver from the mouth of the Columbia River and the famous Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash., a lesser-known but critical unit to the area, Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Astoria, sits at Base Tongue Point, Ore. Ensuring the safety of traffic on the river and the ocean beyond, ANT crewmembers keep aids to navigation in the ‘Graveyard of Pacific’ and Columbia River functioning properly. ANT Astoria crewmembers are essential in preventing maritime casualties.

Ten active-duty Coast Guardsmen serve at ANT Astoria, and are responsible for maintaining five lighthouses and 328 aids to navigation in an area stretching from Grays Harbor, Wash., to Tillamook Bay, Ore., on the coast and from the entrance of the Columbia River all the way to Portland, Ore. ANT Astoria’s base at Tongue Point also serves as a support unit where members load and unload buoys and other equipment for the 13th Coast Guard District’s buoy quality assurance expert, Coast Guard Cutter Fir, and other visiting Coast Guard cutters.

ANT Astoria recently led a local project that warns thousands of recreational fishermen and professional mariners of a hidden danger lurking in the river, just off Tongue Point in Astoria.

“It all started when James Vanwormer, a Tongue Point Job Corps vessel captain, walked into our office to report an aid to navigation discrepancy, Oct. 29, 2012,” explained Chief Petty Officer Kevin Bentle, officer-in-charge at ANT Astoria. “His report was simple; Cathlamet South Channel Light #2 was missing.”

The Job Corps teachers and students had been underway for their weekly training on the Columbia River, when they realized a navigational aid in Cathlamet South Channel that had been there in the morning was gone. Cathlamet South Channel is a side channel of the Columbia River running behind Tongue Point. Branching off the main channel, the waterway supports commercial and recreational vessels and the Tongue Point Job Corps Seamanship Program fleet.

Chief Petty Officer Kevin Bentle, officer in charge of Aids to Navigation Team Astoria, installs a light-emitting diode atop the new Cathlamet South Channel aid to navigation, just off Tongue Point in Astoria, June 19, 2013. The placement of the light completed the new navigational aid after months of planning, preparation and construction. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn

Chief Petty Officer Kevin Bentle, officer in charge of Aids to Navigation Team Astoria, installs a light-emitting diode atop the new Cathlamet South Channel aid to navigation, just off Tongue Point in Astoria, June 19, 2013. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn

It is believed an inattentive mariner ran into the structure, severing it from the foundation and sending it to a watery grave, though nobody ever took responsibility for the casualty. The previous structure consisted of a three-foot block concrete foundation with a steel tower, lighting equipment and daymarks that marked a hazardous rock formation encroaching the channel at the tip of Tongue Point. Depths in that part of the channel average 50 feet but quickly rise to zero at the rock.

Commercial, Coast Guard, Tongue Point Job Corps vessels and thousands of recreational boaters transit the waters near the rock on a routine basis. Without a marker on the rock, mariners not familiar with the area could have been in serious danger.

ANT crewmembers and Doug Cameron, the 13th Coast Guard District’s Aids to Navigation hardware specialist, quickly verified the reported discrepancy and plans were put in place to mark the hazardous rock until a permanent correction could be made.

Seven days later, using their Trailerable Aids to Navigation Boat, ANT crewmembers set a temporary lighted buoy to assist mariners in navigating the channel. Strong current and tides at Tongue Point meant a bigger, heavier mooring and buoy would be required. ANT crewmembers requested assistance from the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell, homeported in Portland, Ore., to set a bigger buoy that could withstand the extreme currents in the area. A six-foot by 20-foot buoy was set Dec. 15, 2012. This temporary fix provided quality assistance to mariners but would not be the permanent solution ANT Astoria was looking for.

A sufficient replacement structure needed to be placed directly on the rock to prevent large commercial vessels and smaller, more susceptible recreational vessels from running aground. One of the biggest challenges for placement of such a structure would be finding a sufficient window of ‘minus’ or lower than normally low tides, that would provide enough exposure of the rock and enough time to complete construction.

Plans came from Lt. John Adams, an engineer from Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Oakland, Calif., who specializes in aid to navigation construction. The plans called for a large steel pipe to be flown in using an MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Astoria. The pipe would be filled with nine yards of concrete, then capped with a 14-foot galvanized tower and fitted with two daymarks and a self-contained light-emitting diode for use at night.

ANT crewmembers, 13th District hardware personnel and students from the Tongue Point Job Corps worked together to construct the proposed aid in accordance with the civil engineering plans. Supervised by Cameron, Coast Guardsmen and students spent countless hours welding, grinding and preparing metal to serve as the next tower.

“Tongue Point Job Corps Center highly values its long and mutually beneficial relationship with the Coast Guard,” commented Kim Shillinger, Tongue Point Job Corps Center director. “As our partner in training Job Corps students through our work based learning program, 13th Coast Guard District’s Doug Cameron has mentored and taught many welding students as they earn their certifications. Welding graduates long remember the structures they build with Doug and ANT members as well as where those structures are placed.”

To complete the build, ANT crewmembers needed seven days of at least four hours of exposure of the rock per day to prepare for the setting of the pipe and concrete. Springtime provided a series of minus tides during daylight hours. The first stage of the prep work required three site visits to ensure no marine mammals used the rock for habitat. Once that was verified, ANT crewmembers closely examined the rock to ensure the measurements of the new structure would work in the small area of exposed rock.

ANT crewmembers began leveling the rock on April 7, 2013, using jack-hammers powered by small generators.

Two weeks later came five days of minus tides during the early morning hours of April 23 – 28. ANT crewmembers completed the complex drilling and bolting work required to prepare the structure’s foundation for the concrete pour on April 25.

Coast Guardsmen from multiple units came together on April 27 to complete the new structure’s foundation. ANT crewmembers staged themselves on the rock to hook up and receive the pipe and concrete buckets. CGC Bluebell crewmembers kept the area clear and provided backup should anyone end up in the river. Air Station Astoria provided an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew to fly the pipe and concrete for the foundation.

With four large bolts already drilled deep into the rock, the Jayhawk aircrew worked with the ANT crewmembers on the rock to gently guide the steel base of the pipe onto the bolts – each only having a quarter of an inch to spare. The helicopter pummeled the ground crew with 100-knot winds and spray as the steel structure finally fell into position. A loud metallic bang echoed over the Columbia River, inspiring hoots and hollers from the friends and family members watching the show from shore.

Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Astoria,Ore., members complete construction of Cathlamet South Channel Light #2, just off Tongue Point in Astoria, June 19, 2013. The aid to navigation marks the Columbia River's Cathlamet South Channel, and warns mariners to avoid the dangerous rock it was built upon, only visible during low tides. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn

Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Astoria,Ore., members complete construction of Cathlamet South Channel Light #2, just off Tongue Point in Astoria, June 19, 2013. The aid to navigation marks the Columbia River’s Cathlamet South Channel, and warns mariners to avoid the dangerous rock it was built upon, only visible during low tides. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn

“We only had six hours of low tide to work with, and we needed every minute,” said Cameron. “This required everyone work together as efficiently as possible.”

The tide rose, eventually covering the workers’ feet as they poured 12 buckets, totaling nine yards, of concrete into the steel structure. Despite a few snags, the crews got the job done.

ANT crewmembers returned May 8 to prepare for the final stage of the build. They erected scaffolding used to set the tower onto the now solid foundation.

A Jayhawk aircrew flew the 14-foot tower in on May 9. ANT crewmembers once again positioned themselves on the rock to set it on the bolts that were anchored into the foundation. Setting it into place in less than 20 minutes and bolting it down, ANT crewmembers used concrete to fill in and taper around the newly-affixed tower.

Finally, after months of work and preparation, the lantern was removed from the temporary buoy and placed on the new structure June 19. CGC Bluebell crewmembers removed the temporary buoy and the mission was complete.

“The project was a true testament to cooperation among Coast Guard units along with the Tongue Point Job Corps,” said Bentle. “It was a massive undertaking. The final result is an important aid to navigation back in place to serve the area for years to come.”

Click here for additional pictures from the operation.

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