At Aids to Navigation Team Astoria on the western edge of Tongue Point, 10 active-duty Coast Guardsmen are responsible for maintaining five lighthouses and 328 aids to navigation.
Their responsibility stretches from Grays Harbor, Wash., to Tillamook Bay on the coast and from the entrance of the Columbia River, the Graveyard of the Pacific, upriver to Portland.
The base also serves the Coast Guards buoy quality assurance expert, Coast Guard Cutter Fir, and other visiting Coast Guard cutters.
But it was recently the Tongue Point Job Corps Centers instructional vessel, the Ironwood, that discovered a lurking danger off Tongue Point.
It all started when James Van Wormer, a Tongue Point Job Corps vessel captain, walked into our office to report an aid to navigation discrepancy (on) Oct. 29, 2012, said Chief Petty Officer Kevin Bentle, officer-in-charge at ANT Astoria. His report was simple; Cathlamet South Channel Light No. 2 was missing.
The Job Corps teachers and students had been underway for their weekly training on the river when they realized a navigational aid in Cathlamet South Channel that had been there in the morning was gone. The side channel of the Columbia River runs behind Tongue Point. Branching off the main channel, the waterway supports commercial and recreational vessels and the Tongue Point Job Corps Seamanship Program fleet.
The Coast Guard believes an inattentive mariner ran into the structure, severing it from the foundation and sending it to a watery grave, though nobody ever took responsibility for the casualty.
The previous structure consisted of a 3-foot block concrete foundation with a steel tower, lighting equipment and daymarks that marked a hazardous rock formation encroaching on the channel at the tip of Tongue Point. Depths there average 50 feet but quickly rise to zero at the rock.
Commercial, Coast Guard, Tongue Point Job Corps vessels and thousands of recreational boaters transit the waters near the rock on a routine basis. Without a marker on the rock, mariners not familiar with the area could have been in serious danger.
ANT crew members and Doug Cameron, the 13th Coast Guard Districts ANT hardware specialist, quickly verified the reported discrepancy and marked the hazardous rock until a permanent correction could be made.
Seven days later, ANT crew members set a temporary lighted buoy to assist mariners in navigating the channel. Strong current and tides at Tongue Point meant a bigger, heavier mooring and buoy would be required.
ANT crew members requested assistance from the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Bluebell, homeported in Portland, to set a 6-foot by 20-foot buoy Dec. 15.
This temporary fix provided quality assistance to mariners but would not be the permanent solution ANT Astoria was looking for.
A sufficient replacement structure needed to be placed directly on the rock to prevent large commercial vessels and smaller, more susceptible recreational vessels, from running aground.
Building a buoy
Lt. John Adams, an engineer from Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Oakland, Calif., who specializes in aid to navigation construction, called for a large steel pipe to be flown in using an MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Astoria.
ANT crew members, 13th District hardware personnel and Job Corps students, supervised by Cameron, worked together to construct the pipe, filled with nine yards of concrete, capped with a 14-foot galvanized tower and fitted with two daymarks and a self-contained light-emitting diode for use at night.
Springtime provided a series of minus tides during daylight hours to prepare for the aid. After verifying that no marine mammals habitate on the rock, ANT crew members verified its surface area was sufficient and began leveling the rock on April 7 using jack-hammers powered by small generators.
From April 23 to 28, ANT crew members completed the complex drilling and bolting work required to prepare the structures foundation for the concrete pour April 25.
Dropping the buoy into place
Coast Guardsmen from multiple units came together on April 27 to complete the new structures foundation. ANT crew members staged themselves on the rock to hook up and receive the pipe and concrete buckets. Cutter Bluebell crew members kept the area clear and provided backup should anyone end up in the river. Air Station Astoria provided an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew to fly the pipe and concrete for the foundation.
With four large bolts already drilled deep into the rock, the Jayhawk aircrew worked with the ANT crew members on the rock to gently guide the steel base of the pipe onto the bolts each having only a quarter inch to spare. The helicopter pummeled the ground crew with 100-knot winds and spray as the steel structure finally fell into position. A loud metallic bang echoed over the Columbia River, inspiring hoots and hollers from the friends and family members watching the show from shore.
We only had six hours of low tide to work with, and we needed every minute, said Cameron. This required everyone work together as efficiently as possible.
The tide rose, eventually covering the workers feet as they poured 12 buckets, totaling nine yards, of concrete into the steel structure.
ANT crew members returned May 8 and erected scaffolding used to set the tower onto the now solid foundation.
A Jayhawk aircrew flew the 14-foot tower in on May 9. ANT crewmembers once again positioned themselves on the rock to set it on the bolts that were anchored into the foundation. Setting it into place in less than 20 minutes and bolting it down, ANT crewmembers used concrete to fill in and taper around the newly-affixed tower.
Finally, after months of work and preparation, the lantern was removed from the temporary buoy and placed on the new structure June 19. Bluebell crew members removed the temporary buoy and the mission was complete.
The project was a true testament to cooperation among Coast Guard units along with the Tongue Point Job Corps, said Bentle.
It was a massive undertaking. The final result is an important aid to navigation back in place to serve the area for years to come.