ASTORIA, Ore. – The scene was surreal: a group of sixth-graders, each at a 45-degree angle, inching forward, dragging 600 pounds of 1 1/4-inch buoy chains back and forth across the pier in front of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir, rain pouring down on them from above while guardsmen timed their progress and cheered them on.
At the end of the exercise, the students went back to their taskmaster to ask if they could do it again.
The lesson on the sometimes difficult yet fun life of a Coast Guard buoy tender was one of many during the culminating visit of two sixth-grade classes from Hilda Lahti Elementary School in Knappa to the Fir, part of the Adopt-A-Ship program that gives local students a firsthand look at what the Guardians of the Pacific do every day.
“The chain-dragging event was something that showed you how hard it is to work in the rain,” said 12-year-old Spencer Fulton, who had won a firefighting challenge below deck by donning boots, a suit, gloves, a mask and a helmet in 50 seconds. “You can actually make competitions out of the simplest or hardest of jobs.”
Lt. Cmdr. Jon Kreischer said his crew organized tours and demonstrations on navigation, buoy tending, firefighting and cooking for an entire crew. The experience, he added, is often completely new to the students.
“Half the crew is directly involved today,” said Lt. Elaine Cherry, executive officer and second in command on the Fir. “It’s a chance for us Coasties to give back to the community. We couldn’t do our job without the help of the locals.”
Betsey Ellerbroek, educational director for the Columbia River Maritime Museum, said the program started in 1998 with her predecessor, Patricia Custard. The program was tried first on the Cutter Steadfast, on which her husband, Capt. Norman L. Custard, was commanding officer from 1998 to 2000.
“I think it’s a good fit, because we certainly interpret the Coast Guard as one of our major focuses,” Ellerbroek said. “Two cutters are tied up right next to our museum. They’re such a large presence in the community that it’s important for the children to have an understanding of what they do.”
Since its inception, the program has exposed thousands of local students to the Coast Guard. It was part of an award the museum won from the American Association of State and Local History. This was the first time in more than three years that the Fir adopted classes. Cutters Alert and Steadfast adopted five classes of fifth-graders from Astoria earlier in the month.
Ellerbroek said the Fir is better designed for sixth-graders, focusing more on mathematical concepts through navigation activities it uses to tend hundreds of aids to navigation. On the other two cutters, students came aboard for activities in knot-tying, heaving lines, donning survival suits and personal flotation devices, law enforcement and shipboard firefighting.
Humanities teachers Madeline Lockwood and Erica Osorio said a fellow science instructor told them about the Adopt-A-Ship program and helped set them up with the Fir. Osorio said the Coast Guard visited her classroom in the fall and early spring, leading hands-on activities and teaching the students how to navigate.
In the pilothouse of the Fir, students played with the navigational equipment. Below deck, they competed against one another to see who could don their firefighting equipment the fastest. Throughout the Fir, crew members stood as guides on an impromptu tour.
Back on deck, students watched as Seaman Derek “Quicksand” Quick, Boatswain’s Mate William “Polar Bear” Peters and Machinery Technician Andrew “Spider Monkey” Guthrie, all part of the cutter’s team in the buoy tender Olympics, pounded flat the top of the molten shackle, interlocked with another link of steel.
The demonstration showed students how the Coast Guard connects buoy chains when serving the hundreds of aids to navigation in Sector Columbia River. In June, the guardsmen will travel to Juneau, Alaska, for the buoy tender Olympics, competing against other Coast Guard units from the U.S. and Canada.
The Fir leaves the Tongue Point pier on Tuesday on its buoy-tending and law-enforcement missions.
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