OCEAN CITY — The familiar beacon at the end of the north jetty at the Ocean City Inlet is back in place this week after a new tower was flown by helicopter from the Ocean City Municipal Airport last Friday and carefully lowered to a crew on the rocks below.
The 20-foot tall tower, which for years alerted boat traffic to the presence of the rock jetty and the entrance to the Inlet, along with its somber alarm signal that could be heard from miles around on the clearest of nights, was swept away during Hurricane Irene in August and was never seen again. When the height of the storm subsided, all that was left of the beacon was a rusty stub bolted to the giant rocks at the end of the jetty.
The Coast Guard beacon was one of over 500 aids to navigation destroyed during Hurricane Irene in the mid-Atlantic region alone, and certainly the most conspicuous. Last Friday, after months of planning and preparation, a new 20-foot, 3,500-pound tower was delivered by Coast Guard helicopter to the Inlet jetty and secured by a crew below in a highly efficient operation once it got started.
Crews from the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation teams (ANT) in Chincoteague and Elizabeth City, N.C. built the new tower and shipped it to the Ocean City Municipal Airport about two weeks ago. Last Friday, the new tower was hoisted by a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and carried across Assateague and the open ocean before arriving over the Inlet jetty.
Just before the helicopter arrived over its destination, a Coast Guard ANT crew from Chincoteague scrambled out to the end of the rocky jetty to receive the cargo. After a couple of minutes of careful maneuvering, the new tower was successfully lowered on to the rocks and bolted into place while the ocean spray generated by the helicopter swirled.
“We placed this tower here today to replace the one washed over by Hurricane Irene,” said Chief Petty Officer Aric Deuel, officer in charge of ANT Chincoteague. “The light is here to properly mark the entrance of the Ocean City Inlet jetty.”
For the helicopter crew, while the delivery of the new Coast Guard beacon at the Inlet was a very real and important mission, it was also practical from a training standpoint. The Jayhawk helicopter has a hoisting capability of 6,000 pounds and the aircraft are used in a variety of ways by the Coast Guard from sea rescues to delivering a pump to a vessel taking on water and all manner of “external load operations.”
Coast Guard air crews must learn how to handle different loads at the end of the helicopter’s hoisting hook, a skill set they routinely train for. However, lowering a 3,500-pound tower onto a rocky jetty presented some unique challenges.
“We practice this mission a couple of times a month and rarely do we get to do an actual mission,” said Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City pilot Lt. Jeremy Denning this week. “We usually use a block or a telephone pole to challenge our crews and try to simulate an actual mission.”
Meanwhile, it is uncertain what became of the original beacon swept away by the storm, but Coast Guard officials said they might have found its location. The lost beacon might have been picked up on sonar and crews are expected to dive on the location when conditions improve.