Coast Guard cutter for port will be commissioned today

Rankin to tend buoys, perform rescue duty

Maritime

May 01, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

People in the U.S. Coast Guard don't generally treat $12.5 million work vessels like giant toys, but sometimes Paul Dilger can't resist.

As he pulled away from the pier yesterday, in command of the 175-foot cutter James Rankin, Chief Warrant Officer Dilger kicked the ship's bow thrusters and pivoting "Z-drives" into a maneuver best described as a floating doughnut.

Without moving forward so much as a foot, the ship spun in circles asi if it was drilling a hole into Curtis Creek. From the bridge, the horizon zipped by left to right, until the guests started getting dizzy.

"It's so fun to drive," said Dilger, commanding officer of the James Rankin. "Everyone on board wants to drive this thing."

Port officials in Baltimore are also counting on the James Rankin to do a lot of work. When it is commissioned today, the ship will become Baltimore's only Coast Guard cutter, taking responsibility for the buoys and channel markers that guide ships through the Chesapeake Bay to the city's commercial piers.

Buoy tending is tedious, dangerous work, but Coast Guard officials say it will become infinitely simpler with the modern propulsion and navi- gational systems on board the James Rankin, fifth of the Coast Guard's new "Keeper Class" of buoy tenders.

"This boat is so far advanced from anything the Coast Guard has ever had before," said Chief Dave Lewald, the ship's navigator. "And it's Baltimore's boat. We are here specifically to support commerce through the port of Baltimore."

The Chesapeake Bay's "aids to navigation" -- 375 buoys of various sizes and designs -- are routinely knocked out or sunk by ships, dragged by ice or made obscure by failed batteries and bird nests. Using its 42-foot crane, the James Rankin will make about 450 buoy "visits" a year, fixing them, resetting them or swapping them with ice-worthy versions in winter.

"Have someone divert the power from all the traffic lights or steal all the stop signs and see what happens to the traffic in the city," Dilger said. "It's the same thing out here. Without the aids, the commerce stops."

The ship's first official mission is scheduled for Monday, and will be largely ceremonial. It will set the red, white and blue "Francis Scott Key Buoy" marking the spot where Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.

Named after a 19th-century lighthouse keeper, the James Rankin will also pull ice-breaking and search-and-rescue duty. But its precision navigational equipment and enhanced maneuverability are for tending buoys.

Its twin propellers, connected to 999-horsepower diesel engines by a set of axles called "Z-drives," can pivot 360 degrees. Using the pivoting propellers and the thrusters on the bow, the ship can spin in circles and sail sideways. At full throttle, the ship can spin 600 degrees in a minute.

Using satellite positioning systems accurate within a yard, the ship's computers can pinpoint a buoy's location, send commands to the engines and the cutter work as if both were anchored in place.

Also new for the Keeper Class: Its 18-man crew is nearly half the size of previous buoy tenders. The Coast Guard refers to the ships as "optimally manned," or sometimes "minimally manned." Most crew members say privately that they wish more people were on board, but they also count the ship's reduced operating cost among its virtues.

Yesterday, Dilger and his crew docked the James Rankin at the Inner Harbor, where it will be commissioned during a ceremony at 11 a.m. The public can tour the ship today from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As nimble as ships half its size, the James Rankin chugged into Constellation Pier without help from tugs and with just a few feet to spare on each side. Backward.

"The maneuverability of this ship is so far superior to anything we've had in the past," Dilger said. "I wouldn't try that with any other ship."

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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