Digest>Archives> June 2004

All in a Good ATON Day

By Senior Chief Dennis Dever


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Senior Chief Dennis Dever presents Auxiliarist ...
Photo by: Jeremy McConnell.

The Coast Guard recently presented Bob Trapani the enviable U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Meritorious Service Award when he unsuspectingly arrived at Cape May’s Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) early on March 3, 2004 for a routine day of not so enviable volunteer ATON work. I gave Bob his medal before the crew while the Auxiliary Flotilla Captain took pictures and the Executive Petty Officer read from the gilded certificate signed by the Fifth District Commander. The contributions were specific, well quantified, and particularly impressive: “You demonstrated exceptional professionalism and dedication investing 410 hours and 28 boat excursions... to compile a comprehensive 250-page survey of our 42 substantial aids to navigation (ATON) structures.” That endeavor was the first of its kind and saved the Coast Guard over $17,000. “You laboriously spent 240 hours participating in dozens of aids to navigation missions, including the high profile Cape May Lighthouse beacon modernization, complex under-sea cable installations at Miah Maull Shoal and Elbow of Cross Ledge lighthouses...masterfully photographed and documented these events...exposing this priceless Coast Guard mission in magazines, books, and organizational websites.” Wow. But even our best writers find it impossible to convey the depth of what Bob does and the superhuman truth about “a good ATON day.”

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Right: (L to R) Auxiliarist Bob Trapani & SN ...
Photo by: Dennis Dever

Many lighthouse lovers are also bird lovers, except for most ATON technicians. Various bird species are particularly found of our light towers, primarily because the towers provide remote, comfortable nesting sites in their aquatic environment. “Yikes!” Bob exclaimed “No Delaware Bay ATON experience is ever complete with out a visit to Delaware Bay Main Channel Light 32.” This is one of those that we call a “cormorant condo.” You might call this both a visual and olfactory aid to navigation; you can smell it nearly as far away as you can see it and its one of the aids Bob visited in his comprehensive survey. As the boat approaches the tower, dozens of large cormorants take flight, usually lightening themselves with a quick defecation beforehand. “I distinctly remember reaching for each rung of the steel ladder on my climb to the top (about 40 feet). With each grip on an ascending rung, pulverized guano exploded airborne in the form of a ghastly white powder.” Bob further describes an astonishing six inch deep guano frosting at the top and how “the combination of slimy guano and its foul stench, enhanced by the baking sun, makes for quite a shock to the senses. One sickened electrician’s mate discharged his breakfast over the side. No one leaves this forsaken location without being plastered head to toe.”

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Auxiliarist Bob Trapani helps lift the motor for ...
Photo by: Jeanne Heinold

Last spring Bob enjoyed another memorable encounter with our feathered friends while visiting Delaware Breakwater, a mile-long stretch of osprey territory out in the bay that resembles a jumbled avalanche chute more than a man-made seawall. We have a fine balance between our responsibility as environmental stewards and our commitment to safe navigation; we don’t disturb active bird nests. Even if the nest is an eight-foot-tall osprey castle, 50 feet atop a tower, enveloping a major light that is vital to a busy ferry system. Reaching said tower to set up another lantern system below the nest required Bob to make two trips carrying as much as 80 pounds of equipment along the entire length of the jagged breakwater. With six-foot wingspans and talons extended, the eight resident adult birds swooped, flailed, and screamed continuously while juvenile ankle-biters struck out from several other nests along the way. In the end, no blood was shed, the birds returned to their homes, and the boaters had their important light.

One of our caisson lighthouses rising out of the middle of Delaware Bay has a particularly sinister character despite its cute round living quarters with roman arch windows and a bright red facade. “Miah Maull Shoal Lighthouse proves quite memorable, but not always for the right reasons,” Bob explains, “Each visit usually offers a new experience...I remember looking up at the cupola on one trip to see the carcass of a seagull that suffered a tragic demise by impaling itself on the ventilator ball spike. On another occasion we nearly swamped a 21-foot boat evacuating two telephone technicians from the light in a sudden, unpredicted change of weather.” In June of 2002, our ATON boat dropped Bob and two others off at Miah Maull for routine service, expecting to return in an hour after inspecting another lighthouse. Finishing their work in about 25 minutes, Bob thought a half-hour rest sounded good. “Yeah right,” Bob says, “Murphy’s Law was in full force that day as one hour turned to two, then three...” Making matters worse, the air was dead calm while heat and humidity grew profoundly oppressive, luring every available biting insect to the lighthouse while the crew grew hungrier and thirstier. Lively conversation slowly diminished. “I remember looking at the light’s boiling cast-iron superstructure amazed at the thousands of flies clinging to it.” Bob recounts, “The rest were gnawing on us oblivious to our bug repellent.”

Birds don’t treat lighthouses very nicely either, leaving a buffet of decaying fish parts and skeletons in a fragrant guano sauce about the exterior decks to heat up and aromatize in the scalding sun. At Miah Maull, this is exacerbated by a peregrine falcon who likes to “dine out” there. This majestic animal, as big as an eagle, loves to eat flickers- the dark brown birds with yellow specs that are present in great flocks around Cape May. The falcon leaves countless heads, feet, and wings about the structure which plug up the rain gutters so none of this accumulating mixture ever washes away...until we arrive to clear it out. Naturally, this added significantly to the day’s dread.

Bob recalls, “It got so bad that the electrician’s mate resorted to talking about the legend of a ghost that haunts the light...just what we needed! This was one day that wholeheartedly disproved the notion that lighthouses are romantic places of relaxation.” His humbling experience with the dreaded phragmites soon followed.

Not many crewmembers volunteer for missions into Port Mahon, Delaware, which reminds us of Tolkien’s not so fictional place, “the dead marshes.” People used to live in Port Mahon once; there was a lighthouse too, until hoodlums burnt it down. Now only an Air Force fuel pier exists that we provide with an excellent system of navigational aids. Phragmites communis is a highly invasive reed grass that grows 20 feet tall in vast expanses far thicker than a cornfield, covering countless square miles of the Delaware Bay shore. It is home to green-head flies, mosquitoes, spiders, gnats, wasps, chiggers, ticks, poisonous snakes, bats, irritating vines, and the Port Mahon Directional Light, which Bob set out to examine for his structure survey. He noted beforehand that with a focal height of 14 feet, this light is substantially shorter than the jungle between them. At the ANT we have a few cases of MILSPEC issue permethrin arthropod killing clothing spray, to use with a topical insect repellent closely resembling Elmer’s glue mixed with DEET. But most people take their chances without it.

Bob recounts, “This was a classic ATON experience for me. First I stood on the roof of my van hoping the added height would reveal the light’s location, but no such luck. I tried gaining a better vantage point from a fishing pier up the road, but that was a fruitless endeavor too.” Alone, Bob walked into the phragmites and rolled the dice. He beat down a solid path as his boots sunk into primordial ooze that soon coated his legs with generous clumps of reeking muck. Eventually he lost all sense of direction in the towering growth. “I came to a clearing thinking I had found the light.” Bob describes, “Wrong; I never did find the light during that attempt, and decided to try again another day.” He retraced his looping path to the primitive road and found the structure on a subsequent visit.

ANT Cape May has about 40 small buoys that we pull out for the winter in Indian River and Rehoboth bays. Usually the 100-pound buoys have about 20 feet of chain and a 50-pound sinker. These are all fouled with the summer’s sea-growth and benthic mud that we call “black mayonnaise;” it looks and stinks exactly like the sludge from Boston Harbor in the 1980s, except that the Delaware composition is a natural occurrence. Bob enthusiastically helps us bear hug these buoys and heave, hand over hand, their moorings into our 21-foot boat, occasionally encountering an unexpected 150-pound sinker in the process. Twenty of these hauls make for a good ATON day; the little boat becomes a mountain of crusty buoys, and the exhausted, mired crew lounges into the pile for our return to the staging point.

Bob’s most enjoyable project was the Cape May Lighthouse beacon replacement project. He said, “That lighthouse is such an historic treasure, and the intricate operational elements associated with the new optic’s installation made it cool to take part in an ATON project that is now part of the lighthouse’s history.” In the Coast Guard we’re real good at preserving our equipment. So good in fact, that many of our lighthouse optics in use today were made before the Civil War. A couple years ago, Cape May Light had a pre-World War II DCB-36 rotating beacon that was unreliably operating a few decades beyond its life expectancy and spare parts availability. We decided to replace it with a modern DCB-224 that stands over six feet tall and weighs around 500 pounds.

Bob made numerous trips up the 175 steps with us, taking measurements and photos that we relied on during the lengthy preparation phase to minimize the time the lighthouse would be darkened when we made our move. The weather was usually good and the water clear, so from our 165-foot high viewpoint, we could look across the colorful shoals around Cape May and see well into Delaware. Naturally, the weather turned evil on the Saturday morning we started the project. Bob endured thunder and lightning while hoofing heavy parts up and down the 175 stairs from the truck to the lantern room. Wind-driven rain pelted the storm panes as he helped muscle the cumbersome new beacon onto its mounts, while news crews captured it all for posterity. Now, Cape May Lighthouse shines a brighter, reliable beam across the bay, good to go for another 75- 100 years.

So there’s some of what really lies beneath an award. It’s not about meeting each mission’s entire objective, merely a balance or stalemate with the elements. Bob, like all of us, finds satisfaction from an important job directly proportionate to the invested toil. In the end, when nobody gets hurt, we made a little headway in our endeavors, the trucks and trailers are still operating, and the battered boats moor up, it was “a good ATON day.”

Bob conveys, “The public generally does not understand the hard work and sacrifice that the Coast Guard applies to the effort of ensuring that the lights on our waterways are working to protect the mariner. I relish the challenge of conveying this art in educational and entertaining formats for the general public. At some point in the future, today’s Coast Guard ATON work will pass into history and should be recorded to honor the men and women who gave their all as keepers of the light.” Meanwhile at home, Bob’s three kids scatter when he walks through the door sporting that permeating aroma from a hard day’s work, and his wife Ann just shakes her head, reminding him not to mix his uniforms with the family’s regular laundry.

This story appeared in the June 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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