Coast Guard keeps lights on
By James Gonser
Advertiser Staff Writer
From Cape Kumukahi on the Big Island and Makapu'u Point on O'ahu to Lehua Rock off Ni'ihau and the former target island of Kaho'olawe, a small Coast Guard unit is on call 24 hours a day to help make sure mariners in Hawai'i waters do not run aground.
The Aids to Navigation Team Honolulu, with its headquarters on Sand Island, has a crew of just five full-time members who maintain all 104 navigational aids across the state.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael D. Martin has led the unit for the past two years.
"We want to make sure the waterways are safe because we don't want to have an oil spill or anything like that," Martin said. "We do need the oil, but with all these barges coming into the different islands all the time, if we didn't do our job right, an accident could happen."
During a change-of-command ceremony last week, Martin was relieved by Chief Petty Officer Andrew D. Adams, a 10-year Coast Guard veteran from Memphis, Tenn.
Adams has already planned his first maintenance trip to the Big Island next month.
"That's where I'm really going to get my feet wet," Adams said.
Coast Guard-maintained beacons can be found in the middle of a lava bed, on the top of an 810-foot-high crater rim and on the edge of a 400-foot-high cliff. Some are in the back yards of private homes.
Three of the beacons are not accessible by land, so the Hawai'i unit is one of only two across the country that uses a boat to do maintenance.
For Neighbor Island trips, the team assembles two vehicles, a trailer and all the gear necessary to do whatever repairs might be required and has it all flown over by C-130 aircraft.
For the three inaccessible towers, crew members are often lowered by helicopter to the sites, riding in a basket or a sling.
Still, Martin said the job is not glamorous, but more like that of a highway road crew.
"If (road crews) didn't do their job, people would know it when the lights aren't working," he said. "When we don't have accidents and everything is working right, no one notices, and then we are doing our job."
Typical repair work includes painting, trimming bushes and replacing lights and steel poles.
Adams, who was recently stationed in Miami, said natural disasters are a major concern, because if one were to knock out several beacons at once, it could literally leave mariners in the dark. When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, he noted, crews were brought in from across the country to make emergency repairs quickly.
Hawai'i does not have fog, so repairs to fog horns or bells are not needed, but vandals create extra work for the crews. Because some of the Islands' lights are very remote, outages can take several days to be reported and then repaired.
"Unfortunately, we have some people that like to shoot the lights out," Martin said. "That hurts the mariners. It can also be very expensive."
The Aids to Navigation Team is always either on a trip or preparing for the next one. That's just fine with Adams.
"This gives me the opportunity to see so much of the Islands that other people don't get to see," he said. "I can't think of a single bad thing about this job."
Martin, who is leaving to become officer in charge at a station in Saginaw, Mich., agreed, saying he considered passing up his promotion to stay in the Aloha State.
"The best part is being stationed in Hawai'i," he said. "I hate to leave."