Coast Guard Cutter Northland is back home, but the work doesn't stop for the crew
By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: November 29, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — On their last patrol, down in the
Chalk up another project for the to-do list now that the 270-foot medium endurance cutter is back at its home port in Portsmouth. That’s why Petty Officer 2nd Class
Time in home port is busy for Portsmouth-based cutter crews.
Their 50- to 100-day patrols take them from
It’s hard on a class of cutters built in the 1980s.
To make things easier for ships and crews that are often called to make fast turnarounds once one patrol is over and the next one looms, the
The idea is to have on hand a large, central store of parts and repair equipment the ships need as well as the land-based experts of the Coast Guard Naval Engineering Department’s Maintenance Augmentation Team stationed at Portsmouth.
Those onshore engineers were the ones who rigged seven chain hauls and provided the muscle to inch a blown, 15,000-pound generator off its base and through the 6-foot-by-7-foot hole that Northland’s own damage control team had cut in the starboard side of the cutter. Once through the hole, the MAT crew then grabbed the big yellow generator with crane they’d brought alongside on barge, and them lifted in and chain-hauled into a place a replacement from the Portsmouth stores.
But it was the Northland’s engineering crew that had to disconnect all wires linking the generator to the ship’s electrical system, as well as the dozens of fuel and air pipes snaking around it before it could be moved. That was an 11- or 12-hour job, Petty Officer First Class
They also had to cut the 7-inch diameter cable that creates the electric circuit that “degausses” the ship — neutralizing it magnetically so mines can’t attach. The damage control team has rewelded steel to close the hole and Northland’s own electricians have rewired the new generator into the ship’s system, Petty Officer 1st Class
“Let me tell you, it’s heavy,” she said.
Shifting it back into place and then reconnecting each of the 19 conductors inside the cable is the work of several days. She has to splice each of the cut conductors with copper ferrules, crimp them tight, and then fit all 19 new connections into a small, watertight steel box.
“Lot of scraped knuckles,” she said. “Don’t look at my hands.”
After testing that she connected everything correctly and the complicated electric circuit is working correctly, her to-do list will send her up to the hangar, testing, replacing and rewiring its lighting as well as the electric motors that retract the roof and sides when the helicopter needs to take off and land.
Wearing several hats
The old pump’s motor had seized up — or so they thought — while the Northland was on patrol. But after bringing it into the cutter’s “aux” — auxiliary — shop, when Powell twisted the main shaft, it spun.
He and Petty Officer 3rd Class
That investigation won’t stop there, either. There was still the wiring and pressure sensors in sewage system itself to check when the replacement pump was in.
In addition to a constant flow of maintenance and repair work, whether underway or in port, Powell and McKenna also serve on the small boats Northland launches to intercept smugglers or migrants or dispatch a boarding party.
Both played key roles — though it took a shipmate’s prompting to get them to talk about it — in a major drug bust during the Northland’s last patrol.
The suspect vessel was an aging merchant ship that was on the verge of sinking. They were on the boarding party.
“I was trying to keep the pumps running, keeping the generator fueled up, checking wiring,” Powell said. “The pump motors kept stopping.”
McKenna, meanwhile, was searching through the ship’s mechanical system, looking for drugs. He found a huge stash in the ship’s wing tanks.
“We have to do it all,” he said. That’s true while underway — when doing it all can often mean designing and making temporary parts on the fly when something breaks or wears out — as well as in port.
The work in port
The difference, besides being able to get parts, like the replacement vacuum pump, or generator or new dishwasher to replace the one installed on the Northland nearly 40 years ago, is that Northland’s crew can count on getting a chance to sleep every day when they’re in port.
“When we’re underway, if it needs to get fixed, there’s time pressure,” McKenna said. “We’ll do 20-, 24-hour days ... if there’s an operation, we may have to do something at night, when it won’t interfere.”
Sleep underway, when it’s time, happens in a triple-decker bunk bed for most of the crew.
There’s maybe 18 inches of headroom, an 8-inch deep drawer beneath the mattress for clothes, toiletries and personal effects. The enlisted women’s berthing has 12 beds, a single toilet and shower and some lockers similar to what you get in high school. Some of the male crew share a 21-bed area, first class petty officers get a nine-person berthing. Most of the officers and chiefs share compartments, too.
That’s why a high priority on Frazer’s to-do list is the Northland’s four washers and four driers.
“There’s 95 of us on board ... those washers and driers are very important,” she said. “They’re going all the time.”
She, McKenna and Powell have all qualified as engineering watch standers — that means being in charge of the engine room for a four hour watch, listening for the bells on the ship’s telegraph that relay commands from the bridge — those famous “full ahead,” “dead slow ahead,” “stop” or “slow astern” directives.
For a watch-stander, there are hourly rounds to check on oil and cooling-water levels for the two main V-18 engines and two generators and the propeller pitch hydraulics — the system that sets the propellers at the correct angle for going forward or backward.
And there’s sharp ear you have to keep for unusual sounds.
“These engines are great, very reliable. But when they make a funny noise, it’s not like your car. It’s serious,” said Chief Warrant Officer
Learning on the job
Her team had just finished replacing fuel pumps on the port-side engine — not too long after they’d done a complete top-end tuneup — fuel pumps, oil filters, feed lines — on the starboard engine.
Replacing the portside engine’s fuel pumps was just an early step in the trouble-shooting that’s still their top job before the Northland goes out again on its next patrol, after the holidays.
But the fuel pumps need fuel lines, or they can’t do their job — which is why the less than a quarter inch gap between the upper end of the narrow nine-inch long steel tube and the fuel pump intake was Martinez’s problem of the late morning.
The fuel line is a narrow, quarter inch diameter steel tube that comes straight and smooth to the ship. Fireman
Shumski was worried he’d somehow cut the tube too short, but Martinez said it just needed to be bent.
“Not by hand, it’ll kink,” he said. That could slow the flow of fuel, or even eventually crack the line.
He headed back to a tool chest to grab a pipe-bender — it looks like a giant set of curved pliers with a protractor at one end. Martinez laid the fuel line between the two jaws and squeezed — hard. The protractor told him how sharp a bend he’d made.
But it wasn’t the protractor that finally told the tale. After the first bend, Martinez tried to fit the line, eyeballing the gap that remained. It took several times to get it right.
All the cutters engineering group — Reid’s engine room team, aux shop machinery techs like McKenna, the electrician’s mates and damage control team — had to learn a lot about engines, mechanical equipment, electricity and hydraulics before they came to the Northland, said Reid, the engine room boss.
But they learn a lot more on the job.
“They’re problem solvers,” she said. “They’re creative people, they’re working and they keep trying until they’ve got it; they’re not just parts fetchers.”