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.
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 Dec. 8, 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.
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.