Risen from the river: A tender’s journey of mud, ice and modernization

Coast Guard District 8 NewsBy Petty Officer 2nd Class Bill Colclough

Winter loitered on the banks of the Missouri River in Leavenworth, Kan., in 1979, at about 5:30 p.m., as seismic echoes rippled beneath the feet of two Coast Guardsmen. They were working aboard a drydock that held the Coast Guard Cutter Scioto, a 65-foot river buoy tender and its 90-foot aids to navigation barge. Like boot heels crushing a bag of corn flakes, a cacophony of thwacks, cracks and pops erupted as ice tore free from the banks.

The river quaked and the Missouri Valley Shipyard drydock pushed off en masse like an aircraft carrier, carrying with it the Scioto, its barge and its crew. Chief Petty Officer Douglas Robinson, the executive petty officer, and another crewmember leaped onto the Scioto as it began to free float down the river.

Robinson darted to the pilot house and alerted the engineering petty officer. “Light off the engines!” He screamed. The rest of the crew sprinted to their general quarters positions. Within seconds, Robinson throttled both main engines ahead, away from the stern of a moored barge. The drydock was resting on the outboard side of the ATON barge as the ice shuttled them down the Missouri like an out-of-control industrial flotilla.

Robinson left the engines at full throttle attempting to keep the Scioto as close to the banks as possible. The engineering petty officer yelled for Robinson to watch out for a barge spud. The Scioto and the spud nearly collided with each other, and Robinson fought to keep control of the ship. The spud passed by the ship so close, Robinson could have touched it from the bridge wing.

A minute and a half after the incident began, it ended abruptly as wires broke and metal tore, and the Scioto struck a barge. Robinson kept the engines at full-ahead to keep the ship near the bank, allowing the crewmembers to abandon ship safely. Scioto sustained a gaping hole, which caused a 40-degree list.

It was March 2, 1979, and the Scioto, aground in a muddy clutch, nearly became dead-in-the-water, not just on, but actually in the Missouri River.

On April 1, 1979, Seaman Apprentice Jay Bealer reported to the Scioto fresh from boot camp. Once he arrived, he found that his unit was little more than a lighted handrail. As the river stages rose and fell by a foot or two every day, the hand rail was the only part of the Scioto that remained above the water.

“Just before boot camp graduation, the company commanders congratulated me, tongue-in-cheek, for becoming a new submariner,” said Bealer, who retired in 2009 as a Chief Warrant Officer. “When I reported to Group Leavenworth, the boat was half in the water buried in the middle of dark ice.”

For two and a half weeks, Bealer and his shipmates labored day and night to raise the boat from its watery grave. The work was intensive and deliberate.

“The objective was, go in the compartment, strip it and get the mud and water out of it,” Bealer remembered.

They disassembled the twin Caterpillar D353 main diesel engines and removed them from the side of the ship. They ran fire hoses and P-300 dewatering pumps underneath the hull, as other crewmembers removed mud and silt. According to Bealer, the powerplant removal was a decision point for salvageability. The Coast Guard, at the time, was considering whether or not to keep the vessel in the fleet.

The Scioto did not get underway again until 1981. Operating out of Leavenworth, the Scioto’s area of responsibility extended from just north of St. Joseph, Mo., to Jefferson City, Mo. In 1983, she and the crew moved to Keokuk, Iowa, where they assumed the responsibility of 100 shore aids and 1,000 river buoys along 322 miles between Alton, Ill., to Clinton, Iowa. Although the ship had been given a stay of execution, her time seemed to be coming to an end.

Fast forward 32 years, 3 months and 2 days from the Missouri River incident to June 4, 2011. The Scioto once again finds herself in drydock, this time in Memphis, Tenn.

The Scioto was selected to receive a major upgrade to her aging systems as part of the Inland River Emergency Subsystem Sustainment project. The Scioto was the last river tender that would receive a service-life extension by renewing specific systems in lieu of replacement.

During drydock for the IRESS, which occurred during a four-month period from June to September 2011, contractors overhauled the propulsion, firefighting and steering systems.

First, contractors cut a square out of the starboard-side beam and removed both of the Caterpillars, the same workhorses that had been in place since 1962. Then, they installed the new Isotta Fraschini Motori twin V-12 diesel engines.

“The new engines allow me to drive the ship without operating at max capacity,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Ellis, officer-in-charge of the Scioto. “We were running the Caterpillars at 120 percent.”

Double the cylinders and more than twice the horsepower, the IFM V-12s are actually lighter as well, which poses a slight problem.

The new, lighter engines reduce the cutter’s weight by approximately 3,000 pounds, and with the propellers a foot below the waterline, cavitation becomes a potential issue.

Designed to operate at 1,400 horsepower, engineers detuned them to 670 horsepower, which is still nearly double the power of the Caterpillar D353s at maximum capacity.

“They tend to suck air in because the engines are pretty powerful,” said Ellis.

On Sept. 10, 2011, the crew successfully completed sea trials, and all that remains until their estimated departure in October is detail work. The day prior to returning home, the crew will conduct ready-for-operations drills complete with a series of main space fire drills and fog navigation drills.

“My main goal is to provide all assurances that we are ready to respond to any emergencies,” said Ellis. “The most dangerous period for any crew is the one immediately following an extended drydock. The crew might be rusty, breaking in new equipment.”

“This drydock period was a stark reminder for us. You have to be ready – because this boat was at the bottom of the river, ” concluded Ellis. “There were no yardworkers back then. The crew did it all by themselves.”

If what’s on the inside is what’s important, the Scioto received a new heart of sorts. Mud, floods and river tides subside, but for the Scioto, it’s the mud to modernization that defined the journey.

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