Unit spotlight: Aids to Navigation Team Kodiak
Posted by PA3 Lauren Steenson, Thursday, March 16, 2017
Every mariner who takes to the sea plots their course and navigates day and night, through storms or calm seas with one constant to rely on; navigational aids. The Coast Guard has been committed to keeping the maritime community safe by maintaining navigational aids since the first American lighthouse was illuminated in Boston Harbor in 1716. The United States placed its first aids to navigation in Alaskan waters in 1884.
Today, Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Kodiak services all the aids west of Kodiak Island, out to the Aleutian Chain and up to the North Slope; an approximately 300,000 square-mile area of responsibility.
ANT Kodiak is responsible for 108 shore aids, along with assisting Coast Guard cutters Hickory, Sycamore and SPAR, the Coast Guard 17th District buoy tender fleet. Over half of the navigational aids they maintain are serviced between April and June.
Common types of navigational aids mariners seek for guidance include lighthouses, buoys, day beacons and fog signals. These are used to keep boaters safe whether they are in unfamiliar waters or areas they are used to. They are used to mark shoal water to prevent vessel groundings, organize traffic patterns in ports and harbors to prevent collisions, hazardous areas, points for triangulation to determine the ship’s position and as references to determine a ships distance and position to land.
“All of our aids are shore aids, including two lighthouses: Cape St. Elias Lighthouse and Cape Hitchbrook Lighthouse,” said Chief Petty Officer John Lacroix, the officer in charge at ANT Kodiak. “We maintain the majority of them in the summer because it’s a lot easier to deal with the environment that time of year if we have to rebuild or do any structural work.”
Lighthouses are there to notify mariners of a hazard or serve as a point of contact for navigating around landmasses.
As one of the largest areas of responsibility as a single ATON unit in the Coast Guard, ANT Kodiak crews are sent to specialized schools for lighthouses and ATON and act as electrician’s mates or electronics technicians. Many of the navigational aids they service require a several-day trip.
“There are around 20 aids that we base around a week-long trip to Nome,” said Lacroix. “They range from Kotzebue to near Port Clearance over a week with two teams. They’ll fly up on a C-130 with the equipment and try to time with having access to helicopters to help service aids.”
Scheduling and logistics in traveling to service aids is especially challenging when taking into account the distance, weather and scheduling with Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, whom they rely heavily on.
“The vastness of the geographical area is the biggest challenge we face. It’s almost a two-day flight to Dutch Harbor to service one aid if we have a discrepancy there, said Lacroix. “Also, trying to share assets with the air station understanding that search and rescue is very important and will take precedence over our mission. Sometimes ATON has to be flexible and take a back seat to a SAR case.”
Mariners use electronic and paper charts that should ideally be updated by referencing information the Coast Guard puts out weekly via Notice to Mariners messages listing any changes or discrepancies to navigational aids that help mariners navigate safely.
Mariners should be aware of any changes to ensure safe, reliable navigation with the most up-to-date information.
“Maintaining navigational aids is a point of professionalism and pride in what our job is in Alaska. We are providing a service to our customers out here from the fishing fleet to cargo ships to recreational boaters,” said Lacroix. “The aids we service are our form of communication to let them know where it is safe to transit. It is our mission to make sure they are functional and accurate.”
Lacroix pointed out the vast area of the 17th District can be challenging to deploy resources out to remote areas where a simple light or navigational aid could prevent any number of vessel groundings.
ANT Kodiak works closely with Air Station Kodiak for reaching remote areas to service aids and to help air station personnel stay proficient by training with the ANT boatcrew.
“We have a 38-foot boat that we provide surface training for Air Station Kodiak,” said Lacroix. “The air station has a matrix of some 300 pilots and crewmembers who depend on our boatcrews to maintain currencies and provide training for hoisting and lowering swimmers and baskets so they can stay proficient for search and rescue cases. We have a symbiotic relationship with them flying us to service aids and us providing a training platform for them.”