Teamwork on Shag Rocks Beacon

The Coast Guard Cutter SPAR's boat crew tows a base section from the cutter to shore using a foam buoy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Keith Arnold.

The Coast Guard Cutter SPAR’s boat crew tows a base section from the cutter to shore using a foam buoy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Keith Arnold.

Written by Lt. j.g. Keith Arnold, Coast Guard Cutter SPAR

The Coast Guard Cutter SPAR set sail Sunday, January 26, in a joint effort with Aids to Navigation Team Kodiak to rebuild Shag Rocks day beacon, a fixed aid to navigation located in Whale Pass that had been knocked over by strong winds, currents and debris. Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Emery, a boatswain’s mate, Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Stocks, a damage controlman, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Bryan Adams, an electronics technician, of ANT Kodiak sailed with the SPAR to Whale Pass in northern Kodiak to lead the rebuild. The SPAR crew supplied the transportation and additional manpower.

Shag Rocks day beacon is an essential navigational aid for vessels transiting through Whale Pass, which often is subject to currents in excess of five mph. Because the beacon’s base submerges during high tides, it was necessary that the planned rebuild coincide with low tides sufficient to expose the reef for a long enough period to actually conduct the work; it was also critical that the weather remain within parameters for a 24-foot boat.

Shore team members set the first section into the base. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman George Benjamin.

Shore team members set the first section into the base. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman George Benjamin.

“The biggest challenge was the logistics of moving gear from the cutter to the shore aid team within a short five hour tidal window,” noted Chief Warrant Officer Travis Laster, the deck force supervisor. “The small boat had to be on station early each day to assess tidal shifts that did not match prediction in this time critical evolution.”

The first day proved challenging, but the coxswain, Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Joyce, learned the best location to put workers on the rocks by observing the pattern for the tides and currents.

“I watched the waves flow over the rocks and found a good place to put the bow to offload the shore party,” said Joyce. “From there I just had to make sure we didn’t get pushed onto the rocks by the waves.”

After landing two groups of personnel on the rock, the boat crew proceeded two miles back to the SPAR to load the 125 pound base onto the small boat. The difficulty of handling the weight of the base was compounded by perpendicular seas on the small boat, proving too dangerous for the offload from SPAR’s buoy deck as originally planned.

Several tactics were considered for the unique challenge including floating the section with a cherry fender and sending a request for helo air support from Air Station Kodiak. The crew settled on floating the first section with a foam buoy and towing alongside the small boat . The tow proved to be safe and successful but too time consuming to repeat for the remaining four sections. As the sun set and the tide continued to rise, the shore party made it clear over a radio call to the cutter that they were rapidly losing real estate and ready to be shuttled back to the ship.

Tuesday, the team agreed to place rubber mats on the bow of the utility boat to carry the sections to the rock faster. Deck Force manually lowered the metal sections with lines onto the bow of boat where the sections were strapped for transport  This tactic proved to be much quicker than the float and tow approach taken the previous day.

The erected tower with a custom made winch on top. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman George Benjamin.

The tower with a custom made winch on top. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman George Benjamin.

Once close to the rocks lines were given to the shore party to drag the bases ashore. This kept the boat from being in danger of running aground and kept the shore party safe from the falling metal. To lift the heavy sections on top of one another, a special winch was bolted atop the highest section and used to lift the next section into place.

“We had to maneuver [the bases] around the uneven, 20-by-15 foot rock and hoist them on top of each other with a small pulley,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Mercado, an electrician’s mate aboard the SPAR who assisted with the build.  “It wasn’t easy, but it has been one of the highlights of my Coast Guard experience in Kodiak.”

The team made great progress on Monday and Tuesday and constructed the base and bottom three sections of the tower. Unfortunately, high winds and choppy seas on Wednesday forced the mission’s cancellation, leaving several sections yet to be installed.

The team plans to resume progress once a favorable tidal situation occurs in about a month. The difficult task of maintaining the 1,382 aids to navigation throughout Alaska is never done.