U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
The Venerable Cutter Gentian
C. William Bailey
A day in the life of a 180-ft Buoy Tender Class Cutter can be anything but dull and routine. Like her many sister ships built during WW II this Coast Guard representative served her country well for more than half a century and is still going strong.
Looking back on the exciting five years that I was privileged to sail in her I think of some of the many things that went beyond the basic “Tending of Buoys”. After a couple of years on Search and Rescue duty (in which we never worked a buoy, only sailed past them), we were given a change of home port to Miami and ordered to help a Navy “Sea Bee” Battalion construct a new Loran Station in the Bahamas. Now this involved transporting building materials from one island 20 miles over to another island. Port facilities were meager at the loading location and practically non-existent at the destination.
On arrival our first problem to solve was to find an anchorage. The project was to require several months and the ship we relieved reported that they had remained under way their whole time on station. There was insufficient water at the small pier on Grand Turk, and there was but a tiny ledge along the shore upon which to drop an anchor before the sea bottom dropped off abruptly to over 600 feet, and thus no possible room for the ship to swing on her anchor when the prevailing offshore wind petered out in the evenings. This was solved by setting the port anchor in three fathoms on the ledge and backing straight off over the escarpment, lowering carefully the starboard anchor to hang just below the edge, thus keeping the stern in good water as we swung to the prevailing current at night.
Building a road on South Caicos Island was the first construction requirement and we were tasked with transporting a heavy bulldozer, a mobile crane, a dump truck, and a large road grader across. All we had to work with was a tired WW II 50 ft. twin screw landing craft (LCM) and a small flat deck barge. Fortunately the bull dozer would just fit in the landing craft. Scouting out the shore line at Caicos we found a channel inside the barrier reef leading to a sandy beach, so putting the bulldozer ashore would be easy. The mobile crane and grader would have to go on the barge so with the ship’s boats towing, we put the barge ashore on Grand Turk and bulldozed a sand ramp up to the bow. Laying down a path of Marsden matting (widely used over soft ground in WW II) the grader, truck and crane drove themselves aboard the barge.
Loading the dozer in the LCM, nicknamed “The Creep” and painted with shark’s teeth on the bow, our tiny fleet was towed across to South Caicos. Island. Beaching the barge and the LCM, all was put ashore and they made themselves a road over to a tiny harbor with a shallow draft bulkhead just big enough to accommodate our barge. Here we established the mobile crane and were ready to do business.
Several months passed by with continual trips towing the barge back and forth with construction material and even tons of crushed rock, and all went well until one day a careless crane operator topped his boom too high and the boom swung back, collapsing over the cab in a tangled mess of wire cables. This became a first class problem and the Navy expected the CG to solve it. Ordinarily one would use another crane to lift the boom back past the vertical. Well, buoy tender people are well known for their ability to improvise, so we took a couple of the barge’s mooring lines and secured them to the crane boom amidships, leading one to the dump truck to pull, and the other back to the barge to the mooring bitts to hold-back. This coordinated effort worked fine and our Navy boss was well pleased.
When the Navy job was completed, Gentian went back to more routine tender duties which included servicing all the buoys on the South Florida coast and chipping and painting the manned light stations on the major Florida reefs. Putting fresh water aboard these manned stations was our job. Again the bottom sea floor contour was not accommodating. One could not anchor outside the reef and let the ship tail in from the prevailing wind towards the station. So we had to drop both anchors well spread apart, and steam dead slow ahead in towards the station in the “vee” of the two anchor chains, while running long lengths of fire hose over the bow to put the water aboard the station. Later, when servicing Navassa Island Light, located in the much-used passage between Haiti and Cuba, where we had to put eight heavy large cylinders of acetylene gas ashore on a bold rocky coast, this practice of steaming ahead against an anchor “vee”, again held the single screw ship steady as in a vise.
One day in May just as the rainy season began in Panama, we set out on a most interesting cruise which was to take us to the three remotest and most dangerous coral reefs in the Caribbean, to a wild and wicked city where sin of all sorts ran rampant, to an isolated Pacific Ocean Coast Guard Light Station where four men were cut off from the world except for the semi-annual visit of the supply vessel, and to two remote navigation lights high on bluffs in the Panama jungle.
Our best-laid plans for a recreation stop enroute were abruptly canceled by news that Seranna Bank Light was extinguished. This light was established on a tiny islet of about one and one-half acres in size and only a few feet above high water. The light was acetylene-operated atop a 40-foot steel skeleton tower that is a mighty small target in the vast Caribbean Ocean. The reef that it marks is nearly twenty miles long and has a long history of wrecks of all sorts of vessels over the years. Therefore it was necessary that we make all haste to get it re-lighted.
After several days of steaming through placid seas down around the coast of Cuba, and following the depth contours of numerous reefs as a help to navigation, we took departure from our early morning star sight (one of the few days that we did not have clouds suddenly forming at daybreak) and laid a course for Seranna Bank. It is a poor radar target and we had to keep a sharp watch. When finally sighted, we anchored about 800 yards off and put our boats in the water. Landing must be made by pulling boat on a sandy beach on which a moderate surf runs. The ship’s motor work boat is loaded with acetylene cylinders, a spare flasher and sun-valve, and a crew of men with paint and chipping hammers, and towing the pulling boat, they head for the light. It takes quite a while to get everything transferred to the small boat and finally ashore.
The crew attacks the light in all directions, some with chipping hammers to fight the rust, others with red lead paint, while others climb to the top of the tower to overhaul the lantern and flashing mechanism. The tanks of gas are replaced. We all occasionally steal a glance at the swarm of gooney birds that surround us. Servicing the light takes most of the day but all hands get a chance for “swim call”. on the sandy beach. Sharks and barracudas lurk in the shallow water of the reef and one must watch not to step on the poisonous spines of the sea urchins. Our ship’s dog got his first chance to swim in salt water and, being a retriever, naturally went at it with enthusiasm. We had lunch in the shade of the thatched roof of a native shack built by some former turtle fishermen who occasionally visit the island. There are no inhabitants and no food or water on this island.
That evening we waited for the sun to set so we could check the light for proper operation and then laid a course for Roncador Light, another of the three remote and isolated Caribbean Lights. These lights are on the direct approach to the Panama Canal and thus are very important to shipping.
Roncador Light is located on a rocky coral patch not even as large as Serrana, and has no sandy beach for landing. The ship rolls heavily as the trade winds set up heavy swells that roll in around the point of this reef. This make launching the boats difficult. Again the motorboat and pulling boat are both used with a large working party. This is the only way that it is possible to complete the work at each light in one day. On Roncador the gooney birds are plagued by frigate birds who snatch the very food out of their mouths. Many beautiful sea shells are found and on one trip we saw a complete jaw of a barracuda with so many sharp numerous teeth that one could use it as a saw. .
Leaving Roncador that evening we steamed at moderate speed to save fuel and so as to arrive at dawn at Little Corn Island. There was a privately maintained light here which we had to inspect. Again using the same ship’s boats combination, we landed on a curving sandy beach filled with gaping natives. Many palm trees waved low over the beach giving a true impression of a typical tropical island. The natives remembered some of us from a previous visit. Incidentally, no ship of our size or larger had stopped at this island since a previous visit.
There were plenty of volunteers to go ashore so our inspection team to make the trek up the hill was huge. There were no gas tanks to haul up here. When our people found out that the natives had been paid only 20 cents per tank to carry them over a mile up the hillside, there was no further discussion about how hard we worked putting tanks ashore at Serrana and Roncador. This island is quite fertile and each of about 60 families has their own farm and cattle.
We found the light in good condition and after giving the native light keeper more instruction about adjusting the sun-valve to save gas, we went swiftly back down the hill, eager to have a swim on the beach and enjoy some fresh coconut juice. At noon we left Little Corn to make a rendezvous with the Panama Canal Company’s ship “Taboga” at Quito Sueno Reef Light, the third of the infamous Caribbean Lights..
Queto Sueno means “without sleep” and that is exactly how a navigator feels when in the proximity of this reef, perhaps the most dangerous in the Caribbean. We waited until we could get a strong sun line in the morning before approaching the supposed location of this reef, since, as is usual in these parts, it was cloudy at star-taking time. Fetching the light a little on the port bow (where it was supposed to lay,) we anchored near Taboga at 0930. The anchorage is several miles away from the light. The wind was brisk and Taboga’s motor launch bringing her Captain and the Panama Canal officials over for a conference had a sloppy passage. We all decided to go ahead and work the light today anyway as there appeared to be no weather improvement in sight and both ships were on a tight schedule.
Again using our boat combination together with Taboga’s boat towing a small flat-bottomed skiff, we set out for the long haul upwind to the light. We had to dodge around breaking reefs and unmarked coral heads and by the time we arrived within a few hundred yards of the light, we were all thoroughly soaked, sunburned, windburn, and caked with salt spray in spite of covering tarpaulins. The tide was low and even our pulling boat could not make its way up to the light structure which sets in a few inches of water surrounded by breaking reefs. This was the most exposed light of all. The main reef extends 25 miles south and has caught many ships in past years. Fortunately we had Taboga’s little flat-bottomed skiff. It was just the thing to get in with until the tide rose several hours later..
It was nearly sunset before the last man came down from the tower, painting the ladder hand holds as he came. On the trip back to the ships we sometimes had to keep hauling around into the fading sun in order to be able to see the breakers and to go around them. All hands were really tired and particularly the young crewman on the steering oar of the towed pulling boat who had to keep his stern into the following seas that were building up the further we got from the main reef. Since time did not permit taking an easy course or a comfortable speed, he really had himself a job.
We stayed to check the operation of the light as usual and after the evening movies we got under way to steam with Taboga back to Serrana Bank to make the joint inventory and inspection. We were thrilled to learn that The Panama Canal Company was to take over the maintenance of all the three Caribbean Lights henceforth.
Arriving, we were surprised to see a number of native canoes on the reef filled with fishermen. They said that they had seen us there the other day from way out but that they could not reach us in time. They reported being out of food and water, and that their fishing schooner was long overdue. They were from Old Providence Island, about 80 miles away. Naturally they wanted to be taken aboard and brought back to their home. We could not refuse, so after the inspection we loaded 18 natives, 8 canoes and 2 turtles.
.Our next step was to revisit Roncador, 40 miles away. Since this was “steak day” I suggested that the Panama Canal people ride with us. They appeared so eager that I wondered about their cook. The inspection proceeded without incident and we wished the Taboga Godspeed and parted company to head for Old Providence Island to get rid of our passengers and their smelly cargo. Putting them off a mile off shore, we then headed for the Canal and a few days of R. and R.
Arriving off Limon the next day, the boarding Quarantine and Customs officials were surprised when we showed them all the necessary forms completely filled out and ready. Since I had pilotage for the port we were allowed to proceed alone to the. dock.
Now how I obtained that pilotage is another story .
On a previous trip through the canal in Papaw I had a rumble with one of the old timer canal pilots when I had explained to him how we should not let the ship fetch up hard on the lock wall at any time in the area where the removable buoy ports (bulwark sections) were installed because they would bend and jam and we would have much difficulty removing them later when we went to work. He promptly did just that on our very first locking. The rest of the trip through the canal was not pleasant, Later when he was docking the ship at the Naval Station in a torrential downpour, he drifted the ship in as if he had a monster tanker, and of course, ended up with the tide pushing us too far from the dock to pass heaving lines. After backing out and this happening similarly for the second time, I remonstrated with him that “enough was sufficient” and suggested he leave the bridge, which he did amid shouted protest that “I could not do this to him, and that I would hear from his office.” He disappeared, we made our landing, and all hands went below to dry off. Nothing further was heard, but when the new pilot came to take us out a few days later, it was a nice young Irishman who threw up his hands in mock alarm and said “Now, Captain, I am not here to pilot you out. I’ll just ask you a few questions and you can do you own damn piloting in and out of harbor from now on.” Fortunately I had seen a copy of the Pilot’s Handbook on a previous voyage and knew the drill. :Later I received a letter from the Canal Company stating the same thing but in polite legal language.
Tying up at Coco Solo Naval Station on the Atlantic side, we were the only ship in port at the time and soon got all our needed supplies. We granted liberty for the city of Colon which proved to be the dirtiest, most sinful and downright crummy city we ever made liberty in. In spite of warnings, several men got painful reminders of their visit when they broke out a few days later. None of the experienced old hands had any trouble and we had no visits from the Shore Patrol or the Panamanian Police. Colon is, however, a good place to shop, being a free port with bargains in carved furniture from India and China. After a day of sightseeing we were ready to continue our voyage to the Pacific where we had a major light and radiobeacon station and more coastal lights to check
We started early and were the first ship to transit. Meeting the pilot out in the harbor, we headed down the first cut toward Gatun. The pilot was a nice young man, talkative and pleasant, and we enjoyed the entire trip. Passing up the three lift chambers at Gatun in about an hour's time, we steamed out to Gatun Lake with several hours to kill before the lockage down at Pedro Miguel could take place. So we ran down the lake into Gamboa Reach and tied up to some barges at the dredging base. This put us in a good position to reach the locks earlier should the schedule be changed. They were having a rash of northbound ships that day and the locks were busy getting all of them started through. So we had to wait until mid-afternoon .before locking down. Passing through the single lock at Miguel and the double locks a mile further down at Miraflores, we finished just before dark and moored at Rodman Naval Station early in the evening.
The next day was spent on liberty in Panama City. Again shopping was good here and nocturnal activity was sufficient to suit the most hardy individual. Official visits were exchanged with the Commanding Officer of the Naval Station, the Commandant of the Naval District, and also with officials of the Panama Canal Company.
The following day we departed for Jacarita Island accompanied by two officials of the Panama Canal Company and here is where the Coast Guard Got Into The Jungle. This island has an unattended light situated on a high rocky bluff, and which ought to be tended by mountain goats instead of people. Arriving off the island about noon, we sought anchorage in a little cove to get away from the ever-present swell that rolls the ship heavily in these areas. The water was very deep so we had to approach the shore closer than was comfortable. The Executive Officer had to remain on the bridge to watch the ship all the time that I was on the beach.
Again using our motor-pulling boat combination we landed on a tiny sand beach, the only one on this rock-studded island Hitting the beach, all hands jumped out to steady the boat and run it up the shore before the next wave.. It was quite a walk along the rocks around to where the gas tank house was located. By the time we reached the foot of the 483 nearly vertical rock steps cut into the mountainside, we were feeling as if we had already climbed the mountain rather than just beginning the real climb.
There was a wire cable strung along the steps, or one could never have made it. The steps were slippery from wet leaves and as you looked down (which you were not supposed to do) you think.— well, it’s a lo-o-ong way down. After reaching the top (which is about 900 feet above sea level) you start down a path along the ridge for about a mile, up and down, and in and out around gigantic trees with gnarled roots for you to trip on. Everywhere you see bright colored land crabs scurrying about, and ahead of you are signs and sounds of running animals as you stump noisily through the brush. The island is replete with wild animal life. You to have to keep a sharp and wary eye out for snakes. Nearly all of them are poisonous. Here and there along the rocks you can see where the wild pigs have been rubbing themselves. Up in the trees are several species of birds and hanging from the limbs are large ant hills, much like a bee’s nest. It was delightfully cool under the trees and when once in a while you did come out into the sunshine and felt the heat beating down, you were quite content to duck back into the shade for a while.
Finally after about a mile, you come to the high rocky bluff where the tall skeleton tower is situated. It is a magnificent view but you are hardly in condition to appreciate it. Meanwhile we were thinking about the beach with the tide rising and how we had better get going or there would be no beach left to walk on when we get back. So after inspecting the light and taking lots of pictures, back along the trail we went, still watching carefully where we stepped to make sure it was not on the back of a snake.
The climb down the 483 steps was almost as bad as going up as it was slippery from the rains and the hand rope was in poor repair. Often the cable did not follow the steps themselves. Also, it was still a long, long way down. The tide was coming in fast and in several places we had to wade waist deep along the beach to get back to where the boat had been left with a couple of men. The surf was really high. Wet and sunburned and thoroughly tired, we got off and back to the ship with a feeling of satisfaction that another task had been completed and that this was one rough light we would never have to worry about again. The Pan Canal people were welcome to it..
Next on our schedule was one more remote light structure at Morro Puercos. This again was an un-watched light high on a bluff and reached by 688 steps this time. It was too rough for us to land here so it was put off for a more favorable time, and the ship was put on a course for Cape Mala, a four hour run back towards the Canal Zone. This was a manned major light station operating a powerful radio beacon. Four men are stationed here and rotated annually, two at each semi-annual tender supply trip. Landing is made in a sheltered bay which drys out bare at low tide. Only by carefully watching the breakers around the point and waiting until nearly high tide can the ship’s motorboat safely get in to the dock where we had erected a small hoisting boom several years ago. A hoisting engine is located up the hill quite a ways from the dock and must be controlled by hand or flag signals. Fairly heavy cargo such as a replacement diesel generator can be hoisted out of the small boat, and then winched up the hill on a sled..
The boat can usually make two cargo trips each high tide. One year we had an LCVP landing boat that carried a lot of cargo per trip. We put a landing party of 20 men to do the maintenance and we worked around the cloak to take advantage of both tides. Diesel oil was brought ashore in drums and pumped up to the station. The weather was good to us this visit and many extra maintenance jobs were accomplished...
We still had the Morro Puercos Light to do, so leaving a small working party to continue at Cape Mala we went back and got what looked like good weather for a change. At least it looked calm, until we got down into the small boat when the swells became much more apparent. We had to start early this time because of the tide, and again it was necessary to use our pulling boat. There was only a small space of sand between two wicked jagged rows of rocks and it was a case of “stand by the oars” and just after a big swell the command “Pull for the beach” required a maximum effort to get in before the next crashing breaker broached the boat. Few of the shore party ever got there dry. While the inspection party started their climb it was necessary to keep men attending the boats. The motorboat had been anchored well off the beach when we saw. them appear to be dragging toward the rocks. We watched breathlessly, hoping they would realize it and would know what to do.—get underway and stand offshore out of danger.
They did nothing and time was running out. We learned later that the Duty Officer aboard ship was having a fit as he watched. and was about to launch the other motorboat until he saw us row off the beach towards them.
Yes, that was what we had to do. We turned our small boat around until the bow was facing the breakers. Then with two men ready to row in the bow, and two men aft using their oars as push poles, and two men pushing alongside, we climbed a breaker, the bow pointing towards the sky, then dropping like an express elevator, the oars pulling mightily, the pushers scrambled aboard. We climbed a second wave and then they grew smaller and we pulled clear of the beach and went after the motor boat crew who were still trying to start a stalled engine. Once this turmoil was over we had to go back to the beach to pick up the inspection party.
We retrieved our people from Cape Mala and headed back towards the Canal and Home, knowing that Gentian had completed her job like always, and that she sure had a one hell-of-a fine pulling boat’s crew.