Innovation from a life at sea

Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Spratt demonstrates the use of his hammer hook invention at the Smithsonian’s Military Invention Day, May 19, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Kendrick.

From machinery technicians to boatswain’s mates, all have an equally important role in aids to navigation work. Known among mariners as ATON, it’s an integral part of living and working on a Coast Guard buoy tender in Alaska that consists of maintaining navigational aids and buoys over countless hours of difficult, dirty and dangerous work. These factors of ATON work inspired the creation of a new tool to increase efficiency and workplace safety: the hammer hook.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Spratt, a deck force Boatswain’s Mate and hammer hook creator stationed aboard the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR, has been served on many buoy tenders, so he has seen and worked buoys for most of his Coast Guard career, he said.

“I wanted a functional tool, and I want to be able to do my job,” said Spratt. “I did it because there was a flaw in the system, so I fixed the flaw.”

He mentioned that necessity could be the mother of invention.

“Working in ATON, you have multiple tools that you have to use,” said Spratt. “You have to use a sledgehammer and chain hook. The sledgehammer is used to seat and set the chain in the pelican hook and chain-stopper. Then you also need the chain hook to pick the chain up and put it in the pelican hook before setting it. Both tools are crucial and you have to use them. So, I decided to put them together. It seemed simple.”

Spratt went to Petty Officer 1st Class Taylor Konlin, a damage controlman also stationed aboard the SPAR, and told him of his idea of welding a chain hook on the back of a sledge hammer.

Spratt said Konlin and Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Lake, another damage controlman aboard the SPAR, had cut and formed the metal, and welded the sledgehammer and chain hook together within about an hour, creating the world’s first hammer hook. Konlin and Lake created two hammer hooks and the crew began using them to work buoys the next day.

“We started using it, and we haven’t stopped since,” said Spratt. “It just makes sense, and it works.”

Although it may seem simple, the hammer hook not only reduces the amount of clutter on the deck for ATON workers, but it also increases workplace safety and efficiency. It can save as much as 10-15 minutes per evolution. Spratt said this equates to being able to squeeze in that ninth buoy for the day when you have jobs that take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours to complete. Since its creation, this innovative tool has seen little use in the rest of the Coast Guard, but that’s all about to change. Under the category of operations and readiness, Spratt received the 2016 Capt. Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Award for the hammer hook.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Spratt displays his hammer hook invention aboard the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Dean.

Spratt was floored. He said he had no idea it would get this big.

According to Spratt, during his trip to Washington D.C. in 2017, Vice Adm. Charles W. Ray and a BM master chief stated that he didn’t know how the Coast Guard has been working ATON for almost 200 years without anyone ever thinking to make this tool before.

Spratt said he told Ray he was tired of watching people struggle.

To speak for the hammer hook’s growth, the Smithsonian holds an annual military invention day. This year is the first in which the Coast Guard was invited, Spratt said.

The Smithsonian’s Military Invention Day 2018 will highlight inventions from all five branches of the military to display cutting-edge technology that is shaping the future of the armed services. Spratt will display and demonstrate the hammer hook’s use.

Spratt is not the only Coast Guardsman who can attest to the practical application of his tool.

The buoy deck training team stationed in Yorktown, Virginia, travelled to Kodiak as part of a biannual inspection. They ensure all equipment and gear is in proper working condition. The team was extremely impressed with the hammer hook and they intend to push it out to the fleet, said Chief Warrant Officer Eric Dieckmann, a Boatswain on the SPAR..

In the near future, the hammer hook could see warmer weather as both Spratt and Dieckmann are transferring to another buoy tender in Florida.

“Dieckmann will be my commanding officer on the Cutter Joshua Appleby, and he told me that the crew will make the hammer hook and use them on the buoy deck,” said Spratt.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Spratt displays his hammer hook invention aboard the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Dean.

“If it wasn’t a good tool, we would not be using it,” said Dieckmann, with a chuckle. “It would probably be thrown overboard.”

Regardless of where these two men find themselves, buoys and the need for the hammer hook will surely find them aboard any buoy tender.

Spratt talked about how there are a variety of buoy sizes and shapes; some bigger or smaller, wider or narrower, some foam and some steel. Even though buoys come in all shapes and sizes, the key to his invention is that it works on any type of buoy, and it still does the job.

“For anybody that plays on the buoy deck, it’s going to be a useful tool,” said Spratt. “I don’t think it’s going to be a standard item, but, crazier things have happened.”

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