Cutter Frank Drew: ATON of fun

Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki

The first thing I learned upon getting underway with Coast Guard Cutter Frank Drew is that it is impossible to wheel a large rolling backpack up a ship’s metal brow without making an absurd amount of noise and attracting unwanted attention.

EM2 Aaron Haynes came to greet me, probably drawn by all the noise, though he was too polite to mention it.

I had never been underway on a cutter before – at least not for an honest-to-goodness, multi-day trip – and I had no idea what to expect. While I’ve spent countless hours zipping around on various Coast Guard small boats and aircraft, I was excited to earn even a tiny fraction of legitimate sea time.

Or in this case, river time.

The crew of the Frank Drew, a coastal buoy tender home-ported in Portsmouth, Virginia, was slated to cruise up the Elizabeth and James Rivers, performing routine maintenance on buoys and servicing others that had been displaced by winter’s latest freeze.

Cutter Frank Drew crew members prepare the buoy deck while waiting for the fog to dissipate, Feb. 20, 2018.

But a dense fog had rolled in overnight and seemed intent on making itself at home on Base Portsmouth. Standing on the bow of the cutter, I had to squint to make out the shapes of the 270-foot medium endurance cutters just down the pier. Word trickled down from the captain: as long as the fog stays put, so do we.

Despite the delay, the crew of the ship moved busily throughout the interior spaces. At the very bottom lay the engine room and machinery spaces where engineers tend the components that keep the ship moving and functioning. Above that lay the galley, the main hub of crew socialization and nourishment, perhaps the most valued space on the cutter. From the berthing rooms on the next floor, crew members can both smell the aromas of food cooking below and hear the footsteps of those steering the cutter and operating radios on the bridge above.

A large portion of the cutter’s 175 feet, however, is occupied by the buoy deck, the broad, aft platform where the majority of the action happens.

BM2 John Meek briefs the deckhands on the day’s list of  buoy maintenance tasks, Feb. 20, 2018.

When the fog finally thinned, the Frank Drew parted ways with the pier and slid into the silvery mist, the ship’s boisterous fog horn announcing our presence to other mariners. Five minutes hadn’t even passed when the crew flew into action, scurrying up and down stairwells, yanking on hard hats and gloves.

Buoy operations had begun.

The cutter approached the first buoy, a hulking green shape bobbing and spinning in the water. The crewmen on the buoy deck huddled up to discuss the plan, then broke into groups and started gathering tools. Meanwhile, the crane’s massive yellow arm swiveled and dipped overhead, its hydraulic tendons hissing.

SK2 Roger Gilgeours sat at the crane controls, serenely monitoring the hustle and bustle on the buoy deck. For a man controlling a piece of machinery that can lift up to 20,000 pounds, he seemed remarkably calm.

EM2 Aaron Haynes unfurls a buoy chain while securing a buoy to the deck, Feb. 21, 2018.

The crew on the bridge sidled the cutter up alongside the buoy, and all the hard hats below flocked to the port side of the ship. BM2 John Meek, wearer of the lone white hard hat, shouted nonstop commands, his teammates promptly echoing them back. Servicing buoys is dangerous work, and the constant verbal relays ensure everyone is acting simultaneously and safely.

In addition to keeping up the verbal ping pong game, Meek continuously directed Gilgeours, requesting various crane movements with hand signals.

Meek filled the role of buoy deck supervisor, hence the special white hard hat. The other hard hat colors – yellow, blue and green – designated the wearers as the safety supervisor, qualified deckhands or trainees, respectively.

Now attached to the crane and dangling portentously over the deck, the buoy cast its shadow over them all.

SN Dallas Harvey helps secure the crane’s hook to a buoy, Feb. 21, 2018.

It is difficult to fully appreciate the size of a sea buoy until it is hanging overhead.

The buoys that the Frank Drew crew routinely services weigh between 7,800 and 11,800 pounds, and that’s not including the buoys’ sinkers, the colossal chunks of concrete that anchor the aids in place. The sinker that soon joined the gigantic green buoy up on the Frank Drew’s deck, for example, weighed 5,000 pounds.

The crewmen continued their methodical choreography, orbiting carefully around the buoy, pulling at lengths of chain with special hooks and poles. One green hard hat, SN Charles Maurer, slipped into a harness and scaled the buoy as though it were a small metal mountain. He inspected the light at the top of the buoy, gave his teammates a thumbs up, then carefully repelled back down.

SN Charles Maurer inspects the condition of the light atop a buoy, Feb. 20, 2018.

With each buoy the deckhands hoist, the crew also verifies its position, ensures its stability, inspects its overall condition and scrapes excess barnacles off its surface.

The crewmen divided the work on that misty afternoon, moving fluidly between tasks. Upon dropping the first buoy back in the river, the pilot on the bridge wasted no time in approaching the next. In a matter of minutes, another buoy – this one a sun-faded red – was swaying overhead.

Rinse and repeat.

The crew paused only once for lunch, then resumed dragging buoy chains and hacking away at barnacles until the sun dipped down and the Frank Drew was halfway up the James River.

BM2 John Meek hammers a heated buoy chain to shorten its length, Feb. 20, 2018.

Two crewmen hose barnacles and mud off the buoy deck at work day’s end, Feb. 20, 2018.

When a voice came over the intercom announcing dinner, several pairs of steel-toed boots thundered toward the galley. After swinging 15-pound sledgehammers and dragging chains all day, the crew was ready to eat.

The culinary specialists aboard the Frank Drew, CS2 Dana Humphrey and CS2 Cody Liebeskind, are the two people responsible for feeding the crew whenever they shuffle hungrily in from the buoy deck. Considering how highly the crew values their meals and snacks, theirs is a crucial job.

CS2 Dana Humphrey and CS2 Cody Liebeskind prepare chicken and waffles for dinner, Feb. 21, 2018.

Humphrey and Liebeskind traded quips and bantered with waiting crew members as they plated dinner: chicken-and-waffle sandwiches with a side of blanched broccoli. The meal earned the unanimous approval of the crew and seemed the perfect finale to such a long, laborious day.

Laughter and cheerful chatter bounced around the galley; even with another full day of work ahead, the crew still seemed lively and motivated.

The next day, the deckhands worked just as tirelessly, slowing only to instruct newer trainees on proper technique and to take the occasional water break. By the time the ship’s captain, CWO4 Michael Popelars, wheeled the cutter around to head home, the crew had serviced 11 buoys. Their enthusiasm never waned, and it was clear that they genuinely took pride in their work.

CWO4 Michael Popelars steers the ship down the James River, heading back to Portsmouth, Feb. 22, 2018.

When asked why Aids to Navigation workers always seem so happy, nearly all the Frank Drew crewmen mentioned the instant gratification of physical labor.

In other words, ATON crews work really hard, but at the end of the day, they actually get to see the tangible results of their work. A buoy that has wandered from its proper place, has a flickering light, or has accumulated a coat of barnacles is repositioned, repaired, renewed.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

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