River Coasties – The Coast Guard Cutter Kanawha

by Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Thomas M. Blue

The fog lifts and increases visibility. The diesel engines knock and the deck department makes their rounds and prepare the trip’s work. With one sound of the ship’s whistle, the Coast Guard Cutter Kanawha leaves it’s homeport of Pinebluff, Ark., and steams down the Arkansas River toward the “Mighty” Mississippi.

The Kanawha is one of 16 Coast Guard inland river tenders responsible for maintaining the Western River’s aids to navigation in the Eighth Coast Guard District.

“This 75-foot tender and 130-foot work barge and crane was commissioned into the fleet in 1969 and is still performing the job it was constructed for almost 40-years ago,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Randy R. Merrick, the Kanawha’s commanding officer. “We do the job we are suppose to do with 40-year old Coast Guard boats.”

“We run this boat hard, and the crew maintains it so we can continue to do the job,” he added.

The Kanawha’s area of responsibility (AOR), consists of more than 150-miles of river, spanning the Arkansas, White and Mississippi river systems.

Within the Kanawha’s AOR, the crew is responsible for servicing 425 floating navigational aids, and more than 90 shore aids, which the crew must brush-cut around. Brush cutting is done, to ensure the undergrowth does not grow above the beacons.

In addition to the annual services the crew of the Kanawha also repositions the floating aids, if needed, to give commercial and recreational boaters the safest possible route to transit, explained Chief Petty Officer Charles G. Piland, the cutter’s executive petty officer.

“In the summertime, the crew is constantly moving buoys to widen or narrow the channel so the buoys have the right amount of water under them,” Piland said.

The river stages change on a daily basis. The command has an old, but established formula used when setting buoys. The 10-day river stage forecast from the Army Corp of Engineers and the weather forecast from the National Weather Service are the determining factors on the placement of the buoys, Merrick explained.

The Mississippi River handles more waterway traffic than any other river system in America. Billions of dollars of economic trade from around the world moves up and down the river each year. It is the job of the Kanawha, along with other inland river tenders in the Coast Guard’s fleet, to ensure the aids to navigation beacons are in place and working properly.

“We have to ensure the buoys are on-station, to keep commercial traffic running smoothly up and down the Mississippi River,” Merrick said. “If the buoys and markers aren’t right, there could be a mess on the river.”

The Kanawha is not only a working cutter, but also a floating office for the command and the crew.

“Underway we are always working, said Merrick. “We’re either, setting and pulling buoys, training, working on qualification packages or conducting some type of maintenance.”

The inland river tenders are old cutters, and maintenance and repairs can accumulate. Routine rounds of the cutter keep the engineering department constantly working.
“We keep up with the maintenance the best we can,” said Chief Petty Officer Jonathan M. Mills, the Kanawha’s engineering petty officer. “We’ve been fortunate to not have major problems like some of the other boats have had. With such a small crew there is a lot of opportunity for junior members to gain knowledge and understanding.”

Along with maintenance and repairs, the crew must contend with the high temperatures of the summer. “The deck of the work barge can easily reach temperatures in an excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime,” said Piland.

To be able to handle the extreme temperatures and the long hours on the deck, the Kanawha’s crew must be in top physical condition.

“We have a stationary bike and a weight set, so we can work-out and stay in shape while underway,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Moran, the Kanawha’s damage control specialist. “Since we are underway every other week, we try to have some of the same amenities as if we were in port.”

No matter if it’s servicing aids, conducting maintenance, training or staying in shape, the Kanawha’s crew accomplishes all of this and still maintains aids to navigation on more than 150-miles of river.

“We’re never in the papers, we just enjoy what we do,” said Merrick. “The job satisfaction comes instantly, as soon as the day is over.”

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