Coast Guard cutter tends Penobscot River buoys

Posted Jan. 05, 2012, at 11:41 a.m.

Frustration comes in many forms, but this was going to take the cake. After years of dreaming, I was going to get my opportunity to run up the Penobscot River to Bangor on a Coast Guard cutter. So there I stood on the bridge of the Rockland-based Coast Guard Cutter Abbie Burgess, floating just off Stockton Harbor.

The Abbie Burgess is a buoy tender. The vessel’s commanding officer, CWO Paul DuPuis, announced to the crew over the ship’s loudspeakers that we would likely return to Rockland. “So near and yet so far,” said Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Josh Netherton, gesturing towards the nearby entrance to the Penobscot River from his position on the ship’s control console.

The buoy deck crew had just serviced a 12,000-pound Class 826 bell buoy and then lowered it into the water. Then a valve had failed in the hydraulic system that runs the buoy deck crane. With its crane out of commission, a buoy tender can accomplish little and needs to complete repairs before continuing on a scheduled trip.

I had joined the Coast Guard as a seaman recruit in 1968, right out of the University of Maine. I had worked my way up and down the Maine coast with the White Lupine — predecessor of the Abbie Burgess — but I had always missed the Penobscot River run. Today, more than 40 years later, I was headed upriver, but the trip hung in the balance.

DuPuis told his crew and me to get some lunch in the galley while the engineering crew and supply petty officer made phone calls to locate a part. There was at least a chance that the part would be located in Bangor, thus allowing the ship to proceed there and then continue with its work schedule.

While we waited, the ship’s Dynamic Positioning System used periodic thrusts from two rotating z-drive propulsion units astern and two bow thrusters to hold a position just off the buoy. The ship quietly adjusted its position without any intervention from the bridge crew.

Then DuPuis commanded, “Head her for Bangor,” and we were on our way.

Although commercial shipping traffic on the Penobscot River is limited today, there are buoys on the river, and the crew of the Abbie Burgess still services them. On our run toward Bangor, Netherton took the controls for the first part of the trip. He then switched off with Boatswain’s Mate First Justin Posey at the z-drive controls.

Each man carefully watched the screen of the electronic chart, where the vessel’s track line and position were continuously displayed in relation to the river channel. The Penobscot River is narrow and tends to be marshy and muddy along the shore, with little of the dramatic rocky shores seen on other rivers or along the Maine coast.

I was surprised to find the shoreline less developed than I had imagined. There were homes here and there, but there also were extensive stretches of mostly evergreen forest along the riverbanks. This remained the case well along into the Bangor area.

Because the ship is equipped with alarms that sound when the water is less than 9 feet under the keel, we heard them sound repeatedly as we moved upriver. The alarms made me a bit nervous, but the crew took them in stride.

About 1500 (3 p.m. for landlubbers), we slowly steamed under the Interstate-395 overpass and approached Bangor.

When we reached the Bangor waterfront and slowly maneuvered past a Canadian vessel tied up to the pier for repairs, Netherton kept his cool as the instruments indicated that we had lost one of the main engines. Thanking my hosts for their generosity, I departed the Abbie Burgess to stay overnight in Bangor.

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