Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa: Keeping commerce flowing

Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa crewmembers drag buoys alongside a 24-foot flat-bottom boat across the Mississippi River. The Chippewa’s area of responsibility runs from mile marker 918 on the Ohio River to mile marker 981 in Cairo, Ill. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa crewmembers drag buoys alongside a 24-foot flat-bottom boat across the Mississippi River. The Chippewa’s area of responsibility runs from mile marker 918 on the Ohio River to mile marker 981 in Cairo, Ill. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega.

In May the Mississippi River underwent many drastic changes as high water conditions persisted. Just six months later, Mother Nature reversed course and sent the river to record-breaking low water levels. With the drastic changes to the river levels, the Coast Guard works tirelessly to keep the Mississippi River safe for mariners. One of the many units dedicated to maritime safety is Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa, a river buoy tender homeported in Buchanan, Tenn.

A crewmember of the Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa removes a rusted buoy from the Mississippi River. The crew removed and replaced damaged and defective buoys. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

A crewmember of the Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa removes a rusted buoy from the Mississippi River. The crew removed and replaced damaged and defective buoys. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

The 75-foot Chippewa, with its aids-to-navigation barge, is 205 feet long and 30 feet wide. The cutter was put into service in 1965 and has since maintained navigational aids on the Mississippi River. The Chippewa’s area of responsibility runs from mile marker 918 on the Ohio River to mile marker 981 in Cairo, Ill. Additionally, the crew maintains aids from Chester, Ill., on the upper Mississippi River to Cairo. Cairo is geographically located where the upper and lower Mississippi rivers and the Ohio River all meet.

With a crew of 14, the Chippewa works from sunrise to sunset on underway trips up to a week at a time. Their work consists of moving and maintaining buoys using manpower, the cutter’s capstan and crane, to cutting down the brush and trees that are in the way of navigational aids using equipment such as chainsaws, brush cutters, machetes and hatches.

“I am very proud of what we do,” said Chief Petty Officer Richard Hasenstab, a boatswain’s mate on the Chippewa. “Setting aids down on the river may seem monotonous, but it is very important in keeping commerce flowing through the United States.”

With the current low water situation, the Chippewa plays a vital role, as they are constantly on call as the water levels drop. According to the National Weather Service, the Mississippi was at nearly two feet below gauge on Saturday, and it is expected to reach six feet below around the end of the month. The all-time low for the river recorded at St. Louis was 6.2 feet below gauge recorded in 1940. As the Chippewa arranges buoys in the Mississippi River, the buoys let mariners know where it is safe to sail, prevent groundings and ensures their safe navigation. In the past year, the Chippewa has serviced approximately 1,990 buoys, traveling 7,002 miles across the Mississippi River.

“What we do plays a huge role in the river,” said Fireman Michael Quinones, crewmember on the Chippewa. “Without us going out there and replacing all the buoys, it’s not possible to transit safely up and down the Mississippi River.”

With billions of dollars worth of commerce traveling up and down the Mississippi River each year, Coast Guard units such as the Chippewa ensure vessels transporting goods vital to the nation’s economy make it there safely. According to the National Park Service, the agricultural products and the huge agribusiness industry that has developed in the basin produce 92 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78 percent of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally.

Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa on was put into service in 1965 and has since maintained navigation aids on the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa on was put into service in 1965 and has since maintained navigation aids on the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Kirk, a damage control crewman on the Chippewa, said when his ship pulls up to port, many of the locals wonder what the Coast Guard does in the Midwest. He proudly lets them know about their mission in ensuring navigational safety.

“The job that we do gives us a sense of pride,” said Kirk. “If it wasn’t for us navigating and marking the river, then the industry wouldn’t be able to transport their supplies such as coal. Industries burn the coal and help people receive electricity for their homes.”

Whether high or low water, the Chippewa and its crew ensure aids vital to the maritime community are on station and watching properly. No matter what Mother Nature has in her playbook, the crew will be underway and at the ready.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/vince.patton3 Vince Patton

    Let’s hear it for the “River Rats!” ‘Bout time they got some press & respect!!

  • jcduchock

    My first river tender right out of boot. Worked hard and played just as hard.

  • Aaron

    I have always wondered how they know where to put bouys. Gps? Depth finders?0

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Bacon/1202056954 Matt Bacon

    My first unit out of boot camp was the Obion when it was moored up with the Chippewa in the old base St. Louis back in the early 90′s

  • Joseph Jaglowicz

    I recall accompanying a EN3 in the summer of 1970 or 1971 in our 16-foot johnboat from the KICKAPOO (then based out of its first homeport, Pine Bluff, AR) as we went ahead of the “Good Ship Poo Boat” to retrieve loose buoys on the Arkansas River. The EN3, “Little John” as he was known, showed me how to bob the buoy up and down until momentum allowed him to pull it into our boat. I thought we’d need to take the buoy back to our unit. Instead, we continued upstream, found a second loose buoy, and this time I stood at the bow of the johnboat to bob the buoy up and down and then pull it into the boat. Then I figured we’d return to our mother ship, pull alongside the work barge, and let some crewmates retrieve the two buoys from us as both boats were moving along upstream. But no. We continued upstream and found a third 6th-class buoy loose from its anchoring, whereupon I again bobbed it up and down and pulled it into our little boat and set the buoy atop the other two!!! Then we returned to the KICKAPOO.

    We served under the unit’s first OinC, BMCM D-9 W.J. Bunting, USCG, who, before taking charge of the boat out of the New Orleans shipyard, had served (as I recall him telling me many years later shortly before he died) as OinC of USCG Detachment Arkansas River for six years. In this capacity, he had an EN2, John White, assist him. If I recall, they had a johnboat, a trailer, and a carryall vehicle. He told me they sometimes slept under the stars (or in a tent?) on summer nights. Their job, if I remember, was to chart the dry riverbed, etc. and serve as on-site liason with the Corps of Engineers before the water was eventually backed up to create a newly reopened river.

    One interesting story I heard was how the Corps told the USCG that it wanted the Dardanell pool buoyed, if I remember, not later than Christmas Day 1969 (or maybe it was December 31 of that year). So the KICKAPOO went up river and did what the Corps wanted. It dropped buoys which, instead of bobbing up and down as they normally would, hit river bottom and stuck there. The KICKAPOO’s twin screws were literally kicking up giant chunks of mud and tossing them into the air.

    I later transferred to USCG Depot Owensboro, KY where I served my last two years of active duty (to the day, no less) before RELAD. It was during this period that USCG Group Ohio River moved from the now closed Lifeboat Station Louisville to Owensboro. Our new group commander was LT W.J. Ledoux. Between group and depot personnel, each of us had overnight watch only one day out of every nine days! I also had the opportunity to serve six weeks temporary duty aboard EAGLE in the fall of 1972 from Kiel, Germany to New London, CT via stops at Lisbon, Portugal and Funchal, Madeira. After returning to civilian life, I eventually became a federal civil service examiner. At the time our office closed in mid-1983, I was senior resident federal examiner for Kentucky and Clark and Floyd counties, Indiana. I retired from the VA healthcare system just over thirteen years ago.

  • Joseph Jaglowicz

    Mr. Bacon’s mention of the OBION reminds me that its homeport around the time of my enlistment in mid-1970 was Louisville. When not underway, it would tie up near the Louisville Engineer District’s repair facility on Shippingport Island. Its OinC, if I remember, was BMCM John Davis. By the time I reported aboard KICKAPOO in August 1970, Chief Davis was OinC of BOSDET (Boating Safety Detachment) Branson, MO. His mechanic was EN2 John White, who had previously served under BMCM Bunting on the Arkansas River, both with the two-man detachment and briefly aboard KICKAPOO after it left the shipyard in New Orleans. Davis and White would tie their little white patrol craft aside the KICKAPOO about twice a year during their treks to our area. During my later stint in Owensboro, I saw White aboard the OLEANDER based out of Point Pleasant, WVA (the boat was anchored briefly at Markland L&D so its C.O. could meet with the LANTANA’s C.O, Kenneth McFelea). About a month before my RELAD, Chief Davis — at the request of our group C.O. acting on recommendation of depot and group personnel, and with Admiral Siler’s approval — became our new group X.O. to replace BMCM W.J. Godwin, who had died a few months earlier.

    I should note that our group commander, LT Ledoux, knew BMCM Bunting when both had been stationed together in Hawaii in the early 1950s (I think Bunting was a BM1 and Ledoux a BM3 at the time). One night around 9:30 pm while I had the radio watch in Owensboro, I heard a familiar voice on Ch. 16: It was my former OinC, retired Chief Bunting. I called his motor vessel, we went to a “talking” channel, and the first thing out of his mouth was “Well, Joe, what do ya’ know?” He was pushing a load of coal into Evansville, IN. We talked briefly and I offered to patch him through to LT Ledoux at the end of my watch, 2200 hours (our Ohio River — Pittsburgh to Cairo — radio watch was from 0600 to 2200). I called my C.O. at home, patched him through to Bunting’s vessel, and listened to them catch up on old times!

    My Coast Guard assignments would later somewhat parallel my federal civilian years. I enlisted in Louisville, and a future C.O. (during my time at Depot Owensboro) was based at Station Louisville. I went to boot camp in California in Alameda County. I would later work at VAMC Martinez in neighboring Contra Costa County. I was stationed on a boat in Pine Bluff, AR, and I would later decline a firm job offer from Army’s Pine Bluff Arsenal. During my time in Owensboro, we would have intermittent contact with Engineer districts in Louisville, Nashville, and Huntington. As a federal civil service examiner in Louisville, I would have routine contacts with these same districts regarding hiring, etc. at their operations within or bordering Kentucky.