MSC sheds new light on Diego Garcia harbor
By Dan Kuester
Imagine driving your car into your garage. Sounds like a fairly routine chore.
Now imagine driving your car into your garage at night. Still, no problem.
How about if you don't have any headlights, and your car tires can't get any traction?
Imagine overcoming all these obstacles every time you wanted to get into your garage.
If you can imagine all this, you have some idea of how Military Sealift Command ship's masters felt as they entered the lagoon at the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Until recently, there were few navigation aids, little light and no room for error when entering the port. Navigating the narrow channel - 250 yards across at its widest point - is made more difficult by cross currents and difficult winds. These distractions all had the potential to make it difficult for ships' masters to enter the protected waters of the lagoon.
Clearly it was not a safe situation.
"It was only a matter of time before a grounding occurred," said Wayne Hudson, a marine transportation specialist in Military Sealift Command's Prepositioning Program.
"If a ship ever ran aground in the entrance to Diego Garcia, it could have stopped all sea traffic in and out of the lagoon of this vital port."
Due to the efforts of several MSC personnel, that has changed.
Now, every ship enters the port with the help of a sector range light mounted on a 45-foot tower that helps navigation as much as 10 miles away.
Although the light is very useful, it was a long time coming.
The entrance to Diego Garcia had been a problem for years. At a meeting of the ships' masters of Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron Two in 1999, attendees wondered why proper navigational aids had never been installed. Some even suggested that a sector range light would be a good solution since many masters had used them to navigate waters in other parts of the world. A sector range light uses one, three-colored light to help ships navigate. Other types of navigational aids use two lights as reference points. A sector range light was ideal for Diego Garcia since there is little room for navigational aids at the approach to the lagoon.
It was clear that improvements needed to be made.
"An antiquated day marker and the buoys were the only navigation aids before the new light," said Hudson.
Hudson, who was part of the team that got the new light installed, said the old marker was not very useful.
"The mariners never used it," he said.
The buoys weren't much better. They were used to buoy hop into the lagoon. That's an old mariner term for the practice of moving from buoy to buoy to navigate," Hudson said. "That isn't safe because buoys can move, and no one would know until it's too late."
Before the MPSRON Two masters addressed the problem, there had been other attempts to get improvements made. All had failed. But the determined captains from MPSRON Two were not about to give up easily.
Once the masters brought the problem to the attention of MSC, the problem solving began."Safety. There is no substitute for it."
At MSC headquarters in Washington, Susan Paolini, a contract specialist supervisor in the Contracts and Business Management Directorate, and Hudson took up the challenge. Later, one of the most important additions joined the team when Bob Burback, port engineer for MPSRON Two in Diego Garcia, came on board.
The first thing the team needed to address was the light itself. No one knew if a light this size had ever been built before. The team needed to determine if building one was possible.
MSC contacted the Coast Guard navigational aid engineering office to see if they knew of anyone capable of the task. At the Coast Guard's suggestion, the MSC team contacted a New Zealand company that might be able to handle the job. After visiting the island, the contractor decided that, with the help of sub-contractors, this one-of-a-kind light could be built.
Next, since Diego Garcia is British soil, MSC had to get permission to build the light. Capt. Tom McKeon, USN, Commodore of MPSRON Two at the time, jumped through the diplomatic hoops to get the go-ahead from the British government.
The MSC team now had to conceive, design and install a one-of-a-kind light.
By May 2001, work began on the sector range light that the MPSRON Two masters had requested two years earlier.
On the island, the road to the installation site was improved to support the construction equipment needed to build the tower. It was decided the new light tower would be put in the same location as the old, little-used day marker. So the old marker had to be razed.
In New Zealand, the contractor designed and built the tower out of stainless steel to withstand the harsh island conditions.
In New York, the most important feature of the light, the lens, was taking shape.
In Washington, worldwide coordination meant adjusting work schedules for those working on the project. In order to talk with contractors in New Zealand, for instance, headquarters staff often had to work odd hours - often coming in early in the morning.
Finally, on Dec. 21, 2002, the light was installed.
Godzilla, as the light was nicknamed during the process, now safely guides ships in and out of the Diego Garcia lagoon.
The installation of Godzilla spanned a pair of MPSRON Two commodores - starting under Capt. Dan Waterman, USN, and ending under Capt. Tom McKeon, USN - and involved people from the United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand.
The light is controlled by the harbor operations control center. Whenever a ship wants to enter or leave the Diego Garcia lagoon, the ship's master calls harbor operations, and the light is activated.
When the plan took shape, the team thought the light would be used about 23 hours a month. Instead, the light is so useful that it is on for more than 45 hours each month.
There is a good reason why the light is getting so much use.
"The light provides a clear, accurate navigation picture to mariners in all weather, day and night," said Keith Bauer, a project officer in the Prepositioning Program.
"Safety. There is no substitute for it," Bauer said.
Godzilla has come a long way, from a casual suggestion at a meeting of masters, to an action item, to a fully functioning, possibly life-saving completed navigational aid.
"Seeing the project come together is the best part," said Bauer. "We finally got the right type of navigation equipment on Diego Garcia, and the ships and masters are very happy with the project."
"Everyone associated with the project really succeeded greatly," Bauer said.
Thanks to the MPSRON Two masters, a can-do MSC team and an international team of professionals, the light now eases the way into Diego Garcia. Now entering the lagoon is as easy as, well, as easy as parking your car.