With the Ohio River serving as an important waterway for interstate commerce in the United States, it is essential that aids to navigation be maintained to help guide vessels navigating it. Owensboro’s own US Coast Guard Obion cutter, hull number WLR-65503, accomplishes this task.
Kyle Norman, chief officer in charge of the cutter, said Owensboro is strategically located along the Ohio River.
While thousands of motorists drive past the US Coast Guard station off Highway 60 in Owensboro, many are still unaware that the station, which serves as the Obion’s dock, exists. While the Obion entered service in 1962, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Norman said the US Coast Guard has a history in Owensboro that predates it.
“There’s always been a boat here, since the 1940s that we can see, so the Coast Guard has been here for almost a century, and we don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon,” said said Norman.
Norman said the primary mission of the Obion and her crew is to maintain federal aids to navigation – buoys and lights – along the Ohio River from Smithland to Greenup, which encompasses most of the waterway that borders Kentucky, as well as 100 miles from the Green River.
About 15 people serve on the Obion at any one time, although that number is down a bit at the moment.
“We have our transfer season in June and July,” Norman said. “That’s when a few will leave and a few more will arrive.”
Most NCOs will complete a three-year tour, but as Officer in Charge, Norman began a four-year tour last June. A native of Dyersburg, Tennessee, this isn’t the first time he’s been posted to Obion.
“I started here (in 2003),” Norman said. “It was my first posting after basic training, and then I’m back.”
The Obion is made up of a 65-foot buoy and a 100-foot-long barge designed to pick up and drop navigational buoys that can weigh up to 470 pounds each.
“We are responsible for all federal aids to navigation in our (areas of responsibility),” Norman said. “We deal with the floating aids to navigation, the federal buoys, around 650 that we maintain in our area, and then we have around 350 lights that we also maintain.”
There are red and green buoys, each with a different meaning for commercial vessels navigating the Ohio River.
“For rivers, if you go into the current, the red buoy would be on your right,” Norman said.
Zane Mays, Engine Technician First Class, serves as an engineering officer aboard the Obion. He held this position for three years.
“We have a whole bunch of different systems on board, whether it’s firefighting or hydraulics, we have the crane that we have to maintain, the propulsion systems,” Mays said. “He’s just come in and made sure everything is still good from the day before, and if we have scheduled maintenance, we try to get him out of the way as quickly as possible.”
Norman said the busy season for the Obion will begin shortly, when the spring rains recede and the Ohio River water level returns to its normal summer pool level. Although the crew does not remove the buoys from the river during the winter, sometimes Mother Nature decides to do so. With the rise and fall of the river, as well as possible damage from passing vessels, buoys can become damaged or simply sink because they are not watertight.
Once aboard the Obion, the bridge offers a bird’s eye view of the deck of buoys.
Norman said the crew working on the deck of the buoy, preparing navigational aids to be thrown from the ship for them, will receive instructions from the bridge.
“They’re outside, and we’re running along, and we know we have buoys coming, so we let them know physically, and when we get to the point where we want to put the buoy, we’ll give the command to put the buoy said Norman, “It’s very dangerous work. There are a lot of moving parts.”
Boatswain’s first class Taylor Barnes is responsible for ensuring that Obion’s electronic chart information stays up to date through the Electronic Chart Information Display System (ECDIS), which shows exactly where navigational buoys must be placed.
“The ECDIS is the Coast Guard’s own licensed electronic chart information, so we own it,” Norman said. “It was a way for us to standardize our navigation, where when we go to a different class ship, you always use the same type of computer and charts.”
Barnes will transfer to Chesapeake, Virginia this summer to serve as an ECDIS instructor.
The officer in charge of the bridge has everything at his fingertips, from throttle and steering to spotlights and radio communication. It’s a one-man job.
Norman said that with the long history of the US Coast Guard in Owensboro, he would like to see more people in Owensboro aware of the services they provide.
“This job is really no joke,” he said. “It’s not a prestigious Coast Guard job.
“Most people who start their careers, the juniors who get sent to one of them, it’s not by choice, it’s just where you’re assigned to basic training like me, and you find your way back later.”