Make Way for ATON Games!

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

USCG ANT Cape May buoy yard
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Coast Guard ANT Cape May buoy yard

Move over Olympics and X-Games, for the sporting world may have just found the ultimate event…“ATON Games!” Indeed ESPN might have missed out on the year’s most spectacular games, for it is possible that no other sporting event can boast such a diverse athletic competition that combines strongman, machinery and concentration skills all in one event like aids to navigation games - or ATON Games for short, as its hardy participants affectionately refer to the competition.

The participants are not million-dollar athletes, but rather Coastguardsmen who keep the waters of the Delaware Bay safe for recreational boaters and commercial shipping on a daily basis. Similar to Olympic athletes, the personnel from Aids to Navigation Team, Cape May, train year-round to perform their duties, but never before has there been a platform where these dedicated individuals could place their vocational skills on display in the form of competitive games versus their peers.

ATON Games is the brainchild of Senior Chief Dennis Dever Officer in Charge of ANT Cape May. He designed the competition to contain five events that included a Forklift Maneuvering Course, Chain Cut with an Oxy-acetylene Torch competition, Foam Buoy Bowling and Throw, a Shackle Toss event, and a Sinker Carry / Chain Pull / Mooring Attachment Medley. “Each of these events incorporates an ATON job skill or piece of hardware we routinely use – unique in most cases,” said Senior Chief Dever.

Senior Chief Dever
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

"Each of these events incorporates an
ATON job skill or piece of hardware we
routinely use - unique in most cases."
- Senior Chief Dennis Dever

Without international media fanfare, the determined participants gathered on the morning of October 17, 2003 near the confines of the ANT’s rugged buoy yard – the perfect backdrop for such physically demanding games. ATON Games officially commenced with a heavy-duty event where man and machine combined concentration and power in the Forklift Maneuvering Course. Using a less than stealth-like machine such as a forklift, the operator was asked to combine superior concentration with adept handling skills in order to weave through a confining course that defies the slightest resemblance to a sleek track.

Rather than sporting the long straight stretches and wide turns that appeal to fast courses, the forklift maneuvering course is designed as a tight “track” with foam buoys that serve as boundary defining stanchions. The concept of the event is to flawlessly maneuver the forklift and buoy through the entire course before accurately placing the ponderous load, upon exiting the course, inside a circular target painted on the macadam.

“Our forklift picked up a 1500-lb buoy and carried it, at times in reverse, through an extremely tight track with insane turns,” said Senior Chief Dever. “Each competitor was awarded points for safety practices, such as fastening the seatbelt or not setting off the forklift’s balance alarms (corrected before continuing), lifting technique, not bumping into stanchions, and accuracy of placing the buoy on target.” SNBM Tony Petralia, who was one of two individuals to compile a perfect score on the course, turned out to be the “forklift maneuvering king” following a flawless performance that turned back the challenges of even his most senior crewmembers.

ATON Games participants
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

ATON Games participants

At the end of the forklift event, the heat was turned up – literally, on the participants with the start of the Chain Cut competition. When underway working buoys in the Delaware Bay, ANT personnel must be able to remove worn-out chain and attach new lengths in a manner of minutes. Working on a buoy boat amidst dangerous conditions such as massive tension on cable and steel, as well as icy-like muck and mire, often times requires a Coastguardsman to be very adept at safely using a cutting torch to dissect yards of barnacle encrusted chain before the crew places the buoy back on station.

Senior Chief Dever alluded to how relatively simple the Chain Cut event is, noting, “The winner is he/she who most quickly lights the oxy-acetylene torch and cuts in half a link of one inch bar diameter (“one inch”) steel buoy chain.” He went on to describe the environment of the competition as one of “searing blue flames that shrieked and spawned showers of sparks, which flew out like demons from hell, leaving behind molten high carbon steel to hemorrhage into the asphalt.” It was in this less than desirable atmosphere that MK2 Rich Wasilius thrived, eventually emerging victorious after he dominated by a tremendous margin over his fellow comrades.

Fork lift maneuvering course
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

Fork lift maneuvering course

By now, the participants in ATON Games were in need of some nourishment. “The 19 competitors polished off 12 huge pizzas and several gallons of complementary beverage,” said Senior Chief Dever, before challenging each other in the arduous “Medley for Time” event. Full stomachs not withstanding, the games proceeded forward with the Foam Buoy Bowling and Throw, Shackle Toss and the Sinker Carry / Chain Pull / Mooring Attachment medley. “Teams of two started by carrying a 300-lb cement sinker 50 feet and placing it within a tight square outlined on the pavement,” said Senior Chief Dever. “Next, in any fashion they chose, the team had to connect one end of the shot (90 feet) of “One inch” chain to a sinker, pull the other end of the chain (weighing around 900-lbs) to the bridle of a large lighted buoy 90 feet away, and connect it with a swivel, using tools carried the distance from the top of the sinker.”

Despite the strenuous and laborious nature of the medley, speed was the key as the fastest team was deemed the winner. The experienced duo of BMCS Dennis Dever and BM1 Kevin Whitbeck set the early standard by recording a blistering time of 1 minute,:27 seconds. With the bar for victory set high, the pressure was on for the younger competitors who were chomping at the bit to give it their best shot. “Believe this,” said Senior Chief Dever, “the youngsters were compelled to conquer their bosses. Improving on the leaders’ strategy, MK2 Rich Wasilius and FN Brian Wright edged out EM1 Gary Mercurio and FN Greg Panas by half a second to win the event with a time of 1:14 flat! Following the event, Senior Chief Dever noted, “The major lesson learned was that the juniors will improve on a good example set by the Officer in Charge and First Lieutenant, even if one of them wears a kilt and hard hat.”

Fork lift course
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

The fork lift exists the course and heads for
the target where the buoy is to be placed

Next up - bowling. Leave your sneakers and shiny bowling ball at home on this one though. Instead, the competitors used foam buoy bottoms in the Buoy Bowling and Throwing event. “We lined up four foam buoys and each competitor had three rolls and two throws for a 40-foot distance, with 40-lb tuna can shaped buoy bottom, to knock them over,” said Senior Chief Dever.. “Each buoy felled earned one point.” When the “pins” were all knocked down so to speak, FN Greg Panas edged out MK2 Rich Wasilius in a tiebreaker match for the much sought after prize of obtaining a day off from work.

To this point, the participants used everything in their physical arsenal from mighty acts of strength to athletic examples of whirling balance as they competed in ATON Games. Despite being exhausted though, everyone mustered up one last round of energy for the final event on tap for the day – the Shackle Toss. This event that would require utmost focus, something hard to do after such a physically demanding competition. “MK2 Brad Green cooked this one up, thinking he was a shoe-in, being from Oklahoma where they play a lot of horseshoes,” says Senior Chief Dever. “Wrong!”

Senior Chief Dever describes the intricacies of the event, saying, “like horseshoes, the challenge consisted of tossing mooring shackles for accuracy, not at a post, but into a barrel 40-feet away.” He goes on to say, “The fourth-class shackle weighing about ten pounds was reasonably easy, the third-class chunk, about 20-lbs was questionable, and the second-class behemoth at 34-lbs – recommended by the Officer in Charge, was unanimously banned by the Games Committee early in the planning phase. For this wager, we allowed three tosses each with a third-class and fourth-class shackle.” In the end, the competition came down to a tension-filled engagement between BM3 Peter Cameron and BMCS Dennis Dever. Toss after toss, BM3 Cameron and BMCS Dever matched the other’s adeptness through six tiebreaker innings before BM3 Cameron sunk the winning toss in a fun-filled battle of attrition.

Accuracy is a must...
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

Accuracy is a must as the buoy
is placed on the target

Okay, maybe ATON Games won’t find its way on the EPSN network anytime soon as a must-see sporting event, but the competition made a major impact with the crew nonetheless. “Not only were the ATON Games a superb morale building event,” said Senior Chief Dever, “but they exemplified the essence of what we do, and more importantly, put the crew on a level playing field to compete in a friendly display of skills that matter the most in our critical work.” He went on to say, “In the future, we plan to hold ATON Games semi-annually with progressively skill bending events and invite other ANT’s and fitting individuals to join in. We usually have a blast doing this stuff out there alone on the buoy deck – let’s get together and make ATON Games known to the maritime community. I think we’d recruit a lot of quality people, while illustrating the challenges before us.”


BM3 Cameron cuts chain
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

BM3 Peter Cameron uses the oxy-acetylene
torch to cut through one inch chain

BMCS Dever & BM1 Witbeck
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

(L to R) BMCS Dennis Dever and BM1 Kevin
Witbeck team up during the medley

USCG ANT Cape May Photo

MK2 Rich Wasilius winds up to toss
the 40lb tuna can shaped buoy bottom

FN Greg Panas tosses shackle
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

FN Greg Panas gets ready
to toss a shackle

BM1 Kevin Witbeck and BMCS Dennis Dever
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

(L to R) BM1 Kevin Witbeck and BMCS Dennis
Dever hook up a buoy during ATON Games

Senior Chief Dennis Dever
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

"...they (the games) exemplified the
essence of what we do."
- Senior Chief Dennis Dever

BM1 Jeremy McConnell attaches a chain
USCG ANT Cape May Photo

BM1 Jeremy McConnell attaches a
chain to the concrete sinker

Created: November 2003