Coast Guard reignites the light that guides

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Cindy Beckert

Maritime safety is the heartbeat to the Coast Guard’s overall mission. In 1789 a newly created Congress approved the Lighthouses Act, which declared maritime navigational safety into U.S. ports become a federally funded priority of the former U.S. Lighthouse Service. The Lighthouse Service was one of the many organizations that was absorbed into the modern day Coast Guard.

The building and maintaining of all lighthouses, beacons and buoys is essential to the security and the safety of our nation’s 95-thousand miles of shorelines. Even one misplaced, damaged or missing navigational aid can cause dangerous disorientation for boaters or a vessel to run aground perhaps paralyzing commerce.

The 310-mile long St. Johns River is the maritime highway of northeastern Florida. Thousands of vessels transit the river’s mouth annually each year for recreational and commercial purposes. Along the river are numerous small businesses, marinas and the Jacksonville Port Authority, which feeds northern Florida’s economy with over $2.7 billion a year and provides more than 50,000 local jobs.

Early this summer, Jacksonville commerce was put at risk after a mariner reported a vital navigation aid, used to guide vessels into the St. John’s River, was leaning and about to collapse.

Upon receiving report of the discrepancy, two crewmembers from Aids-to-Navigation Team Jacksonville Beach, Fla., investigated and confirmed the St. Johns Bar Cut Range Rear had fallen and posed a navigation hazard to all vessel traffic entering the river.

Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Jacksonville Beach and the Coast Guard Cutter Hammer, a 75-foot construction tender homeported in Mayport, Fla, share the responsibility of building and maintaining more than 1,400 aids-to-navigation in their area of responsibility. This area encompasses approximately 40,000 square miles of ocean and inland waterways.

Giant ships transporting in and out of Jaxport carry containers, automobiles, dry bulk (crushed rock) and break bulk (wood and metal), said Jeff Price, communication coordinator for Jaxport. In addition, Carnival Cruise Lines operate the cruise liner Fascination out of Jaxport, said Price. If one of these ships ran-aground while transiting into the river, devastation would be imminent.

“Without the light range to guide ships into the river and through the jetties, transiting into the river can be dangerous because of the size of the ships and the depth of the water,” said Petty Officer 1st Class John E. Kopp, a boatswain’s mate stationed aboard the Hammer.

After assessment of the fallen light range, it was determined that reconstruction was going to be difficult. The light tower is located in the marshy, shallow waters of Sisters Creek, which is not an easily accessible place for the Hammer crew to navigate a 75-foot tug pushing a 68-foot barge.

The project was expected to take six months to complete and have a $1 million dollar price tag, a tab that would be picked up by taxpayers.

Using a 26-foot trailerable aids-to-navigation boat from ANT Jacksonville Beach and a small boat crew from the Hammer, the crew collaborated to carefully guide the construction tender into the shallow water of Sisters Creek without running aground.

Once on-site, the Hammer’s 14-man crew spent three long days removing the old wooden, tri-pod-like base and replaced it with a new steel one. The new base was rebuilt with steel to better support the 80-foot light tower’s weight.

Then, the tower had to be stood back up into position, said Kopp.

“The hardest part was raising the tower because it is so high,” said Kopp, “the Hammer’s crane is 60-feet, and it’s an 80-foot tower on top of a 15-foot base.”

Once the tower was standing, crewmembers from ANT Jacksonville Beach spent five days installing lighting fixtures, eight solar panels, and battery pack equipment. Two boat crews took turns sending three-man teams to climb

Florida’s daily thunderstorms made the project challenging, said Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Johnson, a boatswain’s mate from ANT Jacksonville Beach. Atop a high metal tower is the last place anyone wants to be during a storm, he added.

By July 9, 2009, only three weeks after the initial discrepancy report, the St. Johns Bar Cut Range Rear Lightproject was finished. Mariners could again rely on the light range to safely navigate and transit into the busy St. Johns River.

In a congratulatory message to the crewmembers of Ant Jacksonville Beach and the Hammer, Rear Adm. Steve Branham, commander, Coast Guard Seventh District in Miami, Fla., thanked the Guardians for their extraordinary efforts and hard work. Because of these efforts, the time of the project’s original estimate of six months was reduced to just three weeks, and the burden of the American Taxpayer was slashed by $750,000.

Aids-to-navigation is a far from glamorous job. Specialists throughout the Coast Guard, who scrape barnacles, haul chain and climb atop tall, swaying buoys often go unacknowledged for their continual commitment to maritime safety. Many products such as electronics, vehicles and food are often taken for granted because they are readily available for people to enjoy. However, the journey and efforts to deliver such amenities is far and dangerous. Dedicated Guardians in northern Florida work tirelessly to ensure the maritime public calling to Jaxport sail safely through the St. Johns River and local waterways to maintain the communities way of life.

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