“Aids” to “Air dales”

Sometime during my tour at Lake Worth Inlet, maybe after I made Bosun’s Mate Third Class, I was assigned the maintenance of the aids to navigation inside the Intracoastal Waterway between St. Lucie Inlet and Boca Raton.

Seems to me that’s about thirty miles. It’s a section of what’s known as the “I.C.W.” which runs along the entire East Coast of Florida. A charted channel, inside barrier islands and hence sheltered (for the most part), it is maintained at certain depths and is marked with day boards and with lighted markers on pilings along its length. Red triangular markers and square green markers define the channel in the daytime and red and either white or green flashing lights guide at night.

This day marker has an … accessory…

Here’s one with a light … no platform. Has to be reached from the boat.

You could navigate the channel through the dark by shining a light forward and searching for the Scotch-lite reflective borders and numerals that beam back at you, marking your course. A chart aboard will show each aid and mark the depths and the courses that keep you in the channel.

There are a LOT of those markers. Many are only wood or concrete pilings with plywood shapes mounted on them painted red or green and bordered and numbered with reflective tape. In critical places … turns … narrows … intersections, a light is mounted on the marker and it flashes in a certain color and pattern to identify that location at night.

They are called “Aids to Navigation.” or “Aids.”

Pretty original. huh?

Anyway, all along the coast someone is responsible for maintaining them … y’know, making sure they’re secure and facing the right way and that everything that’s supposed to be readable is … and … making sure the lights work:

The lights are triggered by sensors, come on at night, and have bulb changers in them which are motorized devices that sense whether the light is burning when it’s supposed to be. There are four bulbs in the changer so if a bulb fails, the changer rolls the next one around and the light continues to serve, unless all four bulbs burn out. They used to be run on batteries … lead acid batteries … that were sealed in a box on a platform. The batteries would go dead unless they were monitored and changed as needed.

… and I was given the job of seeing to it that every single one of those aids to navigation along a thirty mile stretch of the ICW was working properly.

Each and every one had a “sheet.” It was an official form, government, y’know, the ones with the numbers on’em? When I took over the job the paperwork on the station’s assigned thirty miles of aids to navigation looked as though it had been salvaged from a flood.

Every single visit to, and all the work done on, each and every aid was to be noted on a page for that aid. The dates on the forms I could find were almost as random as if they had been chosen by throwing darts at several years of calendars spread across a wall … utterly incomprehensible. There was no way to know what had or hadn’t been done, or when, or since when, or what might be due.

So I started fresh.

I had a boat: The “T.I.C.W.A.N.” … “Trailerable Intracoastal Waterway Aid to Navigation” … I think it was 19 feet long. Cathedral hull, big black square-lookin’ thing about 7 feet wide with a platform mounted over the coxs’n like a roof, just about at the bow for either reaching the day boards or climbing up to get onto the platforms to reach the lights and batteries. It was kind of a “Bow Rider” on steroids. Same six cylinder Chevy engine as the pursuit boat. Same MerCruiser out drive.

The TICWAN from astern in the boat.  This is not me.

This is SN Dan Yurcik and “Buster in the ”TICWAN.”

Same power … just not as fast … built for muscle, carrying and stability.

… and an engineer and I would careen up and down the ICW wide open and visit marker after marker … assessing the conditions … making notes … doing repairs … and that was pretty cool.

One evening, though, well after dark in the Florida mid-summer we got a call. There was a light out up in Hobe Sound … all the way at the north end of the territory. It twas the muggy, buggy, sweltering Florida summer … in the middle of what was at that time a vast salt water “coastal wetland” … a marsh …

The engineer rigged the “Thousand Yard Sealed Beam Lights” and we took off north. It was flat, glassy calm and I just let it eat, the engineer picking out green and red reflective markers with the lights and me flying among them … noting the conditions of the lighted aids as we passed them …

“working” … and we reached the bottom of Hobe Sound, slowed and began to search for the reflective borders and numbers on the board with the failed light.

“There it is.”

I throttled back and slipped into “neutral” and let the boat fetch upwind toward the foot-square concrete piling with the dead light on it … backed eeeeeassy to a stop as we reached it, and the engineer threw a line around the pile. I stood up, picked up the tool belt and the heavy flood/flashlight to work by up on the platform and climbed up onto the “roof” of the boat, then up onto the light. I switched on the flashlight and began to loosen the fasteners on the lens to check the changer and bulbs. There was an audible buzz … it grew louder. It was a high-pitched buzzing whine every Floridian knows.


A cloud … of mosquitoes … salt water, marsh mosquitoes, whining noisily … and swarming … thick … everywhere. They covered my face … they covered my hands … the back of my neck under my collar. It was nearly impossible to breathe without inhaling them … mouth … nose … it didn’t matter … wave them away and many would fly … most didn’t … like a coating.

I had to open the dome of the light, a plastic lens about the size of an old galvanized bucket, check the bulbs, and check the voltage from the batteries at the changer to make sure the thing was getting the right power. The mosquitoes covered every exposed trace of skin and I spit and sneezed them out and the engineer was flapping frantically and cursing with a fluency that only non-lethal torture can induce.

It seemed forever and I got the light returned to service, scampered down off the marker and plunked my ass into the seat with the wheel in one hand and the shifter and throttle under the other. He cast us off and I backed hard about three seconds with the wheel all the way against the stops on one side. When I knew the stern would clear, I spun the wheel over to the other stop, shoved the transmission “forward” and opened the throttle. The stern dug deep and swung, the boat leaned into the turn and we pivoted until we were pointed at water deep enough to run. I brought the wheel amidships and shoved the throttle open wide and we … took … OFF.

The warm, moist night whistled around our ears, accompanying the roar of the Chevy and the urgent “shushing” of the water under the divided hull … we fled.

… and we went home. There wasn’t anything particularly memorable about our condition as we left.  Once that boat reached speed and the air rushing past swept away all the mosquitoes and we were running in the flat at flank speed I would have been a lot more attentive to coxs’ning a hurtling 19 foot hulking cathedral hull through the dark at top speed than I would to any mosquito bites at that time … and I don’t remember anything about the ensuing days that seems related to being swarmed by blood thirsty, stinging insects … I’m a Florida native … mosquito’s nothing new.

A new Engineman came aboard the station, second class I think he was, from up the coast somewhere. Tennessee boy, very businesslike, very “Coast Guard.” Good at it. He and I got on pretty quickly and I used to like him engineering my boat. He told me a story about his wife teaching him not to hit. He said he slapped her once one night pretty early in their marriage. He was satisfied he’d made his point and went to bed.

Said when he woke up the next morning there was a lock of his hair … and a straight razor … on his chest.

Point taken.

He hadn’t been there long and we took a call that a lighted marker was out down the waterway from us. I took the chart and I took a temporary marker buoy in case the thing was down. We rambled down there and looked around. I couldn’t find the marker and so I dropped the buoy where I thought it should be, made sure it was working and then we took off for home, radioing in the fact that “Marker (such-and-such) was down.”

The call went out to “District” that a lighted marker was down and a temporary buoy was on station in its place. District called in the crew of an inland construction tender stationed in Miami. It was a pusher and barge thing and they got underway and came up the ICW, ducking under bridges and waiting for the tenders to swing up center spans all the way from Miami to, I think it was, somewhere around north Lake Worth itself …


Something like this one.

… and they arrived on scene to find the marker in question standing right on station, just where it was supposed to be, with all the bulbs burned out.

They had come from Miami. They had brought the pile to drive and all the new markers and lights and batteries to replace what they thought was a downed aid to navigation in the Intracoastal Waterway, and arrived to find the marker intact. The bulbs were burned out.

I had misread the chart and called a whole ship fifty miles north up the Intracoastal Waterway to do something I could have done in an hour.

… and I think it was Christmas. Really …

Now … the Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet was a Warrant Officer … a man who had worked his way up through the enlisted ranks past Chief Petty Officer and become an officer. He didn’t much care for me anyway, probably owing, at first, to the general suspicion that I was an undercover Coast Guard Intelligence officer sent to his unit to investigate a cook who pretty clearly was … misusing funds. Add to that the fact that I was an arrogant asshole and you have the basis for our working relationship. There had been a few other … episodes:

I had come to the Port to pick him up one morning in the station’s forty foot steel utility boat:

A “Forty Boat”

The “Forty Boat” was an iconic and cherished working boat throughout the Coast Guard. Ours was 40485: twin engine, twin screw, steel hull, pull Hell right off its hinges if you could get a hitch over it.


A twin screw boat with rudders, like a forty boat, will waltz, ballet, polka or foxtrot under the loving and nimble hands of an experienced coxs’n. If you’re alongside a dock and you turn the rudder toward the dock and ease the engine on that side ahead while easing the other engine astern, that boat will “walk” absolutely sideways away from the dock.


I did that on the morning I picked up the “Ol’ Man …”


He looked at me as though I had just cracked a bean fart during the prayer at his daughter’s wedding.


I thought it was “Cooool!!!” … him? … not so much.


Sometimes as you navigate a shipping channel there will be a “range” to guide you. This is two huge rectangular billboards set on end, each with a stripe down the middle. To stay in the channel, you line the “Rear” and taller range up directly over the “Front” and lower range, lining up those two separate vertical stripes to form a continuous vertical line. Doing this keeps you in the channel. At night, there are two lights blinking in idiosyncratic patterns and you keep THEM lined up one above the other and accomplish the same thing.



See how they’re placed in the lower corner?


If the lights go out at night, the range is useless. If you’re in charge of maintaining the station’s aids to navigation and a light goes out … YOU get to fix it. Since the lack of either of the range lights renders the channel “invisible” … YOU … get to fix it … quickly.

… and sure enough, daarrrrk and eeeaaarly one morning I was awakened from my sleep and told the rear range light in the Port of Palm Beach was … “extinguished” … and it was my job to “UN-extinguish” it.


The rear range light in the Port of Palm Beach was on top of a building … on top of a steel tower on top of a building … on top of a steel tower “in excess of” 100 feet tall … on top of a building … on top of a steel tower in excess of one hundred feet tall, on top of a building up a steel rung ladder with no “back” … just two steel rails with rungs between them welded to the side of the tower in excess of 100 feet tall … on top of a building …


… and it was pitch-assed black, and “dewy” … and I notified one and all that the likelihood of my scaling that bare assed, wet steel ladder over one hundred feet up that tower in the black-assed dark was VERY … slim … in … DEED.


They promised me a court martial.


Sooo … I asked for one critical piece of information: Was there ANY ship traffic inbound that channel before dawn? There was a lot of sputtering and fuming and I was emphatically assured that such information was totally irrelevant to the fact that I had been ordered to climb that tower.


Well, I didn’t think so.


In fact, I insisted. Was there ship traffic?


Wellll … No … there wasn’t …


Then you don’t need my ass to scale that slick-assed wet ladder in the pitch-assed black dark to fix something no one’s gonna use … now do ya …?


I thought my logic was flawless in the matter.


The officer of the deck was much less impressed and utterly unconvinced and assured me that, “There are legalities involved.” and that I would be in the very middle of said “legalities” if I failed to carry out that order. I decided further inquiry was in order … just after I noticed that the sky was lightening out over the Atlantic …


… and we discussed the matter very, VERY thoroughly … until I was comfortable with not only the details of the situation, but, it turned out, the ambient light level … at which point I acquiesced humbly … and went over to the Port and climbed that tower in the very cool early morning light.


I must say that there was a point, probably seventy five feet or so up the ladder, when “climbing” gradually became a very … very … very … thoughtful … and … quite … deliberate … sequence … of … movements. First one hand released, reached up and firmly tested the next purchase, then, utterly welded to three points, weight was taken from one foot and it was raised to the very next rung and planted … firmly … traction tested … and with three new points of contact welded onto the ladder, the other hand released (This, it turns out, requires VERY firm instruction and VERY deliberate muscle command … and the mental urging against the action is VERY loud between the ears, something like a scream, actually.) and reached upward … et … cetera.


There was a rail around the platform where the light was, in excess of 100 feet up a steel tower, on a building. I don’t know who decided how high that rail should be, and I’m pretty sure whoever it was was WELL below six feet tall. The “rail” reached the part of my legs quite far beneath my center of gravity, such that leaning on it at all INStantly imparted the sensation of cartwheeling over it into freefall.

… and I “relamped” the rear range in the Port of Palm Beach, returned it to service, and spent a lovely hour at the top of the steel tower surveying my domain in the clear bright early morning. Most invigorating. Reverse above procedure for descent.


Another part of our normal duty was to sit watch in the radio room of the station, monitoring four radio frequencies, a telephone or two and a teletype machine (yeah … really … TTY) and regularly overnight we were to walk the couple of hundred yards down to the boat docks and open the hatches on the boats to prevent flooding and the loss of the boat. It was a pain in the ass and most of us more often sat in the watch room and drank coffee and bullshitted with the other guys on watch up and down the East Coast by TTY or gossiped with the local “Palm Beach Marine” operator by phone.


One night they “taped” the hatches … stuck tape across’em to show if they’d been opened. If ONE of us had gone to the boats overnight and opened the hatches the seal would have been broken.

No one did.

One at a time we were all called before the Ol’ Man. I absoLUTEly inSISted that I HAD checked the boats …


I lied …


… he didn’t buy it and he told me as much, but all he did officially was delay my weekend liberty by giving me two hours “Extra Duty” one Friday afternoon.


I was however, by that time, more or less enGRAVED very near the tippy-top of his “Shit List” and remained so from that time on, and despite my EXcellent official “on air” radio presentation, my flashing 100 WPM TTY speed, my genuine skill with the boats and my general affability, the cumulative effect was to motivate him to get me off his crew as soon as he possibly could.

… and so I ended up at Coast Guard Air Station Miami … at Opa Locka airport west of the city and just east of the Everglades. I became “General Service” on a unit of “Air dales.” “General Service” are the people who “support the mission” … onna counta we can’t DO “The Mission” … and barracks need cleaning, and buildings need painting, and parking lots need stripes, and switchboards need operators, and Detex clocks need to be punched through the night watches and … well, you get the picture.


I went from “Joe Coast Guard,” braving the seas and gales in dashing rescues, to “coxs’ning” a swab down a corridor in a barracks full of men who flew around in and worked on airplanes and helicopters and didn’t … give … a … SHIT … about “boats.”


It was quiiiiite an “adjustment.”


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