Coast Guard Protects Navigation and Osprey at
Delaware Breakwater

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Breakwater West End Light 1
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Breakwater
West End Light 1

When you think of the Coast Guard’s daily work of maintaining aids to navigation along our waterways, the image of “keeping the light” immediately comes to mind. Whether that light be on a buoy, light tower or in a historic lighthouse, the U.S. Coast Guard can be counted on to maintain the highest standards for aids to navigation while keeping America’s waterways the safest in the world.

Though this mission is vitally important, the public seldom gives much thought to the planning, logistics and operational safety that goes into keeping the lights burning bright, especially for many aids to navigation (ATON) which are situated in some of the most remote marshes, islands and offshore locations along America’s coastlines. The inherent challenges of servicing and maintaining ATON in remote locations are numerous and require a combination of thorough planning and well-trained personnel. It’s a job accomplished by Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Teams (ANT) nationwide every single day and without any fanfare.

USCG ANT Cape May's Buoy Boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

USCG ANT Cape May's
49-foot buoy boat

Yet logistics isn’t the only concern for the Coast Guard when planning to service or attend to an extinguished light. Due to the remote environment of many lighted aids, the Coast Guard takes great care to respect the delicate balance of nature that thrives in environmentally sensitive areas where aids to navigation are located. One such example of exemplary dedication to respect a protected species, yet ensure that maritime traffic is kept safe, is the recent project undertaken by U.S. Coast Guard ANT Cape May at the Delaware Breakwater West End Light 1.

The Delaware Breakwater West End Light 1 is located in Lewes harbor and marks the western extremity of the historic Delaware breakwater, which was constructed over a period of forty years from 1829 to 1869. The 45-foot light tower’s flashing green light helps guide ferries, pilot boats and recreational fishermen safely past the end of the stone wall that sits off the harbor’s main channel. The light was recently reported to the Coast Guard as being extinguished – a notification that would necessitate more than the typical response by ANT servicing personnel who would be required to visit the navigational aid and relight the extinguished beacon.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

"We strive to provide quality aids to
navigationto defend against
environmental disasters. In this case we
found a solution that continues to
protect both the mariners and osprey."
- Senior Chief Dennis Dever

In the case of the Delaware Breakwater West End Light 1, the tower not only serves as an aid to navigation but also as home to a family of osprey. The osprey, which are protected under Federal environmental laws, built a massive nest high atop the platform where the optic is located, thus preventing servicing personnel from accessing the extinguished light.

Overcoming the navigational problem posed by the darkened Delaware Breakwater West End Light 1, and protecting the osprey at the same time, took extensive planning on the part of Senior Chief Dennis Dever, Officer-in-Charge of Aids to Navigation Team Cape May, and his unit prior to relighting light tower on April 30, 2003 with a temporary 155-mm beacon.

According to Senior Chief Dever, “Planning for the West End’s temporary light started a few days before the trip. We figured out what components were needed to achieve a comparable range with a smaller lantern, and since there are no specific techniques to mounting equipment in odd places on towers, we created a system using materials on hand. We then matched this particular project with other planned work in the area, loaded the boat accordingly and made the two hour transit from Cape May – that was the easy part.”

Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Osprey hover overhead at Delaware
Breakwater East End Lighthouse

After dropping a four-man crew off on the outer breakwater wall at Harbor of Refuge to build a temporary light structure at the North End Light, Senior Chief Dever piloted ANT Cape May’s 49-foot buoy boat to the inner breakwater wall by the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse.

Despite the presence of strong running currents at the lighthouse, Senior Chief Dever guided the rugged buoy boat stern-in to the dock and held it firmly in place long enough for a crew of three to disembark with all the necessary equipment to solve the dilemma at the Delaware Breakwater West End Light 1. As Senior Chief Dever pulled the buoy boat away from the lighthouse to go back to the North End Light, he was well aware that the hardest aspect of the day was about to begin, saying, “the most challenging part of the West End problem is carrying the equipment, including two 80-pound solar batteries, over a mile of jagged breakwater occupied by eight irate osprey.”

BM3 Cameron carries battery
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM3 Peter Cameron carries an
80lb battery nearly one-mile to the
West End Light

Alone on the dock at the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse, BM3 Peter Cameron, EM3 Taylor Mitchell and Auxiliarist Bob Trapani decided which equipment was necessary to be carried to the distant west end light tower first before embarking on the difficult journey afoot. The assessment deemed that the two 80-pound solar batteries and a 4 x 10-foot section of fiberglass dock grating should be hauled to the tower before any of the other equipment.

Unlike most breakwaters or jetties that are constructed of relatively flat and evenly spaced mammoth stones, the Delaware Breakwater proved to be the exception to the rule. The near mile-long stone wall was built at a time when stone cutting and construction methods were still evolving; hence the existence of a jagged and inconsistent arrangement of stones that form the historic breakwater. To make matters worse, the wall is littered with splintered driftwood and covered in slimy bird guano – all which makes gaining a solid foothold on a given rock a very uncertain prospect at best.

Delaware Breakwater
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

View of the jagged Delaware
Breakwater strewn with driftwood

The Coast Guard trio, though not excited about the arduous walk before them, knew the job needed done, and therefore, was determined to match the demanding physical work with an equal resolve to accomplish the mission at hand. BM3 Cameron and EM3 Mitchell grabbed the batteries while Auxiliarist Trapani picked-up the fiberglass grating, each then setting off on an extended and exhausting walk. With the sun high in the sky at 11:30 a.m. and wearing heavy floatation gear, it wasn’t long before sweat soaked through every ounce of clothing, which added an unpleasant measure to the fatigue that was taking hold of each crewmember with each proceeding step. Undeterred, the trio ignored the feeling of fatigue, stench of sun-baked bird guano and lingering thirst – all the while keenly watching out for eight hovering osprey guarding four separate nests along the length of the breakwater.

EM3 Mitchell carries batteries
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM3 Taylor Mitchell carries one
of the two solar batteries for the light

After covering the grueling mile-long breakwater in a little over one hour, BM3 Cameron and Aux. Trapani took a moment to rest at the West End Light before returning back to the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse to pick-up the remainder of the equipment. Once at the lighthouse, BM3 Cameron grabbed the battery box and a large bag containing equipment while Aux. Trapani picked-up the green 155mm optic and a tool box. After a moment’s rest they set out on their second cumbersome journey over the historic breakwater.

BM3 Peter Cameron described the situation with his usual enthusiasm, saying, “I am no stranger to the “hike.” Though the mile-long trip up and down the rocks is very tiresome and grueling, it’s rather satisfying knowing that my efforts are not in vain. We are assisting both man and a protected species in this scenario.” After a third tiring trek across the breakwater in what would add up to walking a total of nearly six miles during three roundtrips, the crew assembled at the light tower and began the process of establishing a temporary light for navigators.

Bob Trapani carries lantern
Photo by Peter Cameron

Auxiliarist Bob Trapani carries the lantern
and tool box on a second trip to the light

Outfitted with climbing gear, BM3 Cameron scaled the tower some 25-feet to the midway point where the temporary optic was to be established. He then raised the necessary equipment – starting with pulling the 4 x 10-foot section of fiberglass up the tower by means of a makeshift hoist consisting of a sturdy piece of line and brute strength. BM3 Cameron then proceeded to haul the heavy batteries up the tower, each grip over grip and subsequent pull getting a little harder than the previous. The remainder of the equipment was raised in similar fashion, with EM3 Mitchell and Aux. Trapani taking turns climbing the tower to bring BM3 Cameron additional tools that were required at different phases throughout the operation.

BM3 Cameron secures climbing gear
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM3 Peter Cameron secures
his climbing gear to the tower

By 4:00 p.m., BM3 Cameron proudly announced that the temporary light was hooked up to the solar array and ready for service as he began his descent down the tower. Packing up the tools, the trio headed back across the breakwater satisfied with having accomplished something positive for both navigation and the environment. BM3 Cameron captured the essence of the 6-hour mission, saying, “having to ensure our primary job of keeping the waters safe for recreational and commercial vessels was made extra special by the feeling of leaving the west end light having done more then one great thing. Therefore, having to carry two 80-pound batteries, a 4 x 10-foot section of fiberglass grating, the lantern setup and a heavy tool back and forth over a rocky mile – though a short term pain for the crew, made a long-term difference in doing our job properly and efficiently.”

With the sun setting to the west, Senior Chief Dever nosed the bow of the 49-ft buoy boat back up to the dock at Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse and removed the crew from the breakwater before heading up to Fourteen Foot Bank Lighthouse to repair the light’s fog signal. Senior Chief Dever summed up the afternoon, noting, “We strive to provide quality aids to navigation to defend against environmental disasters. In this case we found a solution that continues to protect both the mariners and osprey.”

The next time the public notices a buoy, light tower or lighthouse sending out its guiding light under the cover of darkness, you can rest assured that the United States Coast Guard is standing “watch” and ready to do whatever it takes to keep our lights “winking & blinking” for the safety of waterborne traffic and the environment that makes our coast a one-of-a-kind treasure.

BM3 Peter Cameron
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

"Having to ensure our primary job of keeping
the waters safe for recreational and
commercial vessels was made extra special by
the feeling of leaving theWest End Light
having done more than one great thing."
- BM3 Peter Cameron

Delaware Breakwater West End Lighthouse ruins
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the ruins of the Delaware
Breakwater West End Lighthouse, which
was originally built in 1849 and
razed around 1960

BM3 Peter Cameron working on tower
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM3 Peter Cameron holds the
4x10 foot section of fiberglass
grating to the elevation for the
temporary light

Skeleton tower with temporary light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the temporary light
established at the midway
point of the skeleton tower

Created: May 2003