Cutter that litghted bay receives fond send-off


CRISFIELD - No one - not its nine-man crew, assorted former crewmembers or a slew of brass from district headquarters - could remember a single moment of glory in the 54-year history of the Coast Guard cutter Chokeberry.

Nevertheless, the stumpy old buoy tender, headed for a mothball fleet at Curtis Bay in Baltimore, got quite a send-off yesterday from a crowd of Coast Guardsmen, local dignitaries and others who came to praise her tortoise-paced work record.

Slow and steady never won it a race, but the 65-foot vessel was always up to the vital dirty work of maintaining the channel lights and markers that show the way on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for everyone from weekend anglers to bay pilots, merchant seamen and commercial fishermen.

Despite an elaborate, funeral-like decommissioning ceremony that ended with the chiming of eight bells and the playing of taps, the Chokeberry's last skipper, Boatswain's Mate Chief Jerry S. Tarr, wasn't bowing to sentimentality.

"The job is simple - keep the lights winking and blinking. At eight knots [top speed], she wasn't likely to get into trouble," said Tarr, a Chincoteague, Va., native who is the latest in a line of family members who've served in the Coast Guard since 1918. With its engine room gleaming and deck spotless, many had trouble believing the cutter was on its way out of the service, perhaps to be handed over to a state or local government agency or maybe to be put up for auction.

"I'm sad to see her go," said Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class William Y. Hillyer, a native of Snow Hill who has spent half his six-year career aboard the Chokeberry. "It's a good work boat. We go behind the scenes and do what needs doing."

It's not so much time as it is technology that has passed the Chokeberry by.

Equipped with a four-ton crane, the flat-bottomed vessel can operate in just 3 1/2 feet of water, handling heavy buoys and channel markers. During much of its nearly 20 years working the shallow waters on both sides of the bay to maintain 270 lights and 278 day beacons, the ship hauled 300-pound stacks of low-voltage batteries that kept the lights on for dozens of buoys and markers.

In recent years, the beacons have been equipped with solar panels and batteries the size of a car battery.

"It's pretty much a decision based on changing technology and budget considerations," said Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Otis S. Metje.

In Crisfield, the ship will be replaced by a 49-foot state-of-the-art stern-loading buoy tender that, as a step below a cutter class, won't rate a name but will be known as Coast Guard vessel 49425 - a change that means the crew will no longer qualify for sea pay.

Capt. Wallace Thomas, whose family runs Tangier Island Cruises, worries that the Chokeberry will be missed come winter when ice freezes in the harbor at the remote Virginia island that is home to 800.

Last winter, one of the coldest in years, it was the Chokeberry that spent every day for three weeks in January and February cutting a path for ferry and mail boats that bring passengers and supplies from Crisfield to Tangier.

While the Chokeberry's replacement, which won't arrive until the end of August, is capable of clearing ice, a hard freeze might prove difficult for the faster but smaller vessel, Thomas said.

"They've been breaking ice for us for years," Thomas said. "Realistically, in real thick ice, we might be left with nothing. If we get out there with no help, we could have problems."

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