PA3 Cindy Beckert contributed to this article
The CGC Hammer and Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Jacksonville Beach, Fla. turned a seemingly ordinary job into an extraordinary accomplishment through hard work, out-of-the-box thinking and a little bit of luck. For their efforts, they were awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation for repairing a critical navigational aid along a main trade artery in Northeastern Florida.
The Hammer, a 75-foot construction tender and ANT Jacksonville Beach share the load of building and maintaining more than 1,400 aids to navigation covering more than 40,000 square miles of ocean and inland waterways. These waterways account for more than $2.7 billion in economic activity and 50,000 jobs for the Florida state and regional economy.
When pilots who navigate ships on the St. Johns River on their way to the Port of Jacksonville informed the Coast Guard that a key navigational aid was not operating, the Hammer and ANT Jacksonville Beach immediately understood the severity of the situation and began the process to address the problem.
“We have pilots transiting the St. Johns River on a 24/7 basis that rely on the visibility of the light range to bring their ships safely to port,” said Chief Robert Lehmann, Officer in Charge, ANT Jacksonville Beach. “This was a huge issue for them and we wanted to bring this to resolution as quickly as possible.”
The St. Johns Bar Cut Range, the principal transit route into the Port of Jacksonville, relies on two lights to help pilots navigate the river’s dangerous entrance and stay aligned in the deepest sections to avoid groundings. The river’s rear range light had fallen, creating a hazard to all vessel traffic entering the river.
The location of the light added to concerns. It was located one mile into a marshy, shallow creek and in an environmentally sensitive area. Due to the complexity of the situation, it was determined that reconstruction could take up to six months at a price tag of $1 million.
“After investigating the area, we realized that it was deeper than it was charted, allowing us to bring the Hammer in there,” said Senior Chief Mark Kempton, Commanding Officer, CGC Hammer. “That enabled us to save a lot of time.”
The next major challenge was replacing the tower. The Hammer’s crane is 60-feet and the tower is 80 feet on top of a 15 foot base.
“We have a great crew,” said Kempton. “Most of us have been together 3 to 4 years and everyone contributes. We got together and came up with out-of-the-box solutions to the challenges we faced.”
The crews needed to figure out a solution to lifting the tower onto the base. One option was for a helicopter to come in and lift it into place. This would have considerably increased time and expense to the project. It also created major safety concerns.
The crews developed a method of lifting the tower into place by hinging it to the platform and then using the crane to lift it into a vertical position. Instead of waiting days for a helicopter, hinges were welded into place and the tower was fastened on site within an hour.
“This solution eliminated safety concerns and made the project much more manageable,” Kempton said.
The crew was also able to place the tower on new steel standings and increase its height 15 feet to make it more visible to mariners transiting the river. This eased environmental concerns of removing trees that blocked visibility.
With the tower in place, the ANT Jacksonville Beach and Hammer crews worked non-stop to get the light operable. Welders worked at night, enabling the 14 person crew to work during the day.
“We benefited from seasonal tides that were higher than normal. At times it was touch and go with just a few feet underneath us, but we were able to get by,” said Kempton. “Our crews on the tower were also dodging thunderstorms,” he said.
Despite the challenges, the crews were able to complete the project just three weeks after the fallen light had been reported at a savings of $750,000.
“Our crews did a great job,” said Chief Lehmann. “Their flexibility and problem solving helped overcome the challenges we faced and got the job done. It’s assuring to know that the new light will make the St. Johns River safer for trade and recreational purposes.”
Rear Admiral Steve Branham, commander, Coast Guard Seventh District in Miami, Fla., thanked the crews for their extraordinary effort and accomplishment in an awards ceremony held last month.
While toiling in relative obscurity, Coast Guard Aids to Navigation (ATON) teams take pride and satisfaction in knowing that their work helps save lives but also helps fuel a vital economic engine of the nation. Bravo Zulu to ANT Jacksonville Beach and CGC Hammer for their dedication, ingenuity and hard work in maintaining the waterways of Northeastern Florida.