A local U.S. Coast Guard crew took a shot at Olympic gold last week, but it wasn't in any event you'd catch at the traditional world competition.
The crew of the cutter Fir, homeported at Tongue Point, competed against personnel from four other buoy tenders as well as multiple Aids to Navigation teams at the annual Buoy Tender Olympics, an event that showcases some of the toughest and most taxing work carried out by the Coast Guard.
Competing in events such as the "chain fake," the "heat and beat" and the "shackle split," they hauled out tangled metal chains 90 feet long to lay them straight without a single kink, twist or crossover, and they dragged heavy pumps across the decks.
For crew members on buoy tenders like the cutter Fir, who regularly hoist 9-ton steel monsters aboard for maintenance and repairs, the backbreaking work is routine.
"It is a physically grueling and demanding job," said Lt. Tim Brown, the cutter's executive officer. "But we do these things every day when we're underway working on buoys."
Boaters rely on buoys and the various aids to navigation - fixed lights, sound signals and other markers - to safely guide them through the nation's waterways. Several thousand buoys and signals float in waters off the West Coast, designating paths and marking hazards. The 225-foot-long Fir maintains at least 150 of them in its area of responsibility, in the Pacific Ocean from Oregon's boundary with California to the U.S.-Canadian border, and up the Columbia River to Longview, Wash.
"It's very specialized work," said Lt. j.g. John Backus, operations officer on the Fir. "It's not something you pick up right away ... Generally, you have to work 30 to 50 buoys before any person on board is considered qualified."
And the Fir doesn't just service navigational helpers. Periodically, the crew enforces fisheries laws off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. The cutter also responds to oil spills and sometimes tows disabled boats.
The local cutter's team took first place at the buoy tender contest in the heat and beat, where shackle pins are torched until soft enough for crew members to pound flat with sledgehammers. It's a process typically used to attach a new length of chain to one that already exists on a buoy.
"That went very well," said Brown. "Our time was just over four minutes of heating and smacking the pin with that sledgehammer."
They also edged out the competition in a non-Olympic chili cook-off. Other competitions included a tug-of-war with a mooring line, used to secure the ship to the pier, and a heavy line toss.
All of the activities were part of the West Coast Aids to Navigation Conference, also known as the Buoy Tender Roundup, a five-day event at the Everett, Wash., naval station.
But it wasn't all play for the buoy tender crews. Some attended classes in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and studied maintenance of buoy power systems, while others learned to work the control system for the 20-ton crane aboard the Fir. Training was also available for cooks to learn sanitation and fund management.
The conference ended a three-week patrol for the cutter Fir. And while the buoy tender's crew may not have won the contest's Golden Swivel Award - which went to colleagues on the Portland cutter Bluebell - Lt. Brown thinks the crew likely gained something more.
The conference offers an opportunity for team-building, he said, and for learning tricks of the trade that "would take a long time to develop on your own."
"With all the events in the competition, it's great for building teamwork among the ships and among other members of the Coast Guard," Brown said. "It provides a great opportunity for folks from all the ships to get together to share ways they perform things on their own ships. And to meet someone at the Olympics and to know that when you have a problem on board your ship, you have someone you can call and ask for advice ... For me, that's what it's all about."