By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 31, 2013 at 10:00 AM Photography: Andy Tarnoff

Though I’ve driven past the U.S. Coast Guard Station at the foot of the Hoan Bridge in Bay View for years, I never really gave it much thought. When I arrived there last week for a trip out to the Breakwater Lighthouse, I was surprised by how much hustle and bustle there was and by how little I knew about it.

The station is headquarters of the Coast Guard's Sector Lake Michigan.

The halls were full of Coast Guard personnel and there was a buzz of activity. Out back, a group of guardsmen and guardswomen were standing in formation, looking like they were taking part in a roll call.

(Incidentally, the personnel at the station do not live on-site, but have homes and apartments in the Milwaukee area during their tours of duty here.)

And I was surprised that there’s a shop in the building that sells food and beverage and all manner of items at deep discounts to active and retired military.

Even my contact, Jon Grob, BOSN3, said he was a little surprised by some things he’s learned as a guard member.

"When I first came in, I didn’t know about the lighthouse duty," he said while we waited for the arrival of the boat that would take us to the breakwater. "The lighthouse service was brought into the Coast Guard. It merged, it was a separate group."

While the Aids to Navigation aspect of the Coast Guard is important, it’s just one of many activities performed by the local guardsmen. The day after my visit, for example, personnel from the Milwaukee station responded to a fatal plane crash on Lake Michigan.

"Stations (like Milwaukee’s) have multiple missions," said Grob.

"They'll do ports and waterways safety, just patrolling; they’ll do law enforcement, like safety boardings checking for safety equipment; they'll engage with boating and drinking, of course, is a huge part. We try to have a big presence especially on big boating holidays, we’re all over. We have safety zone enforcement, too (keeping boaters clear of fireworks launch sites, special events, etc.). That keeps us very busy in the summer.

"(And) Sept. 11 changed the face of the Coast Guard, it really did. There are a lot of zones, you know, around power plants – any critical infrastructure – and we pay special attention to that."

The Coast Guard on the Great Lakes works in tandem with many other groups and authorities, like the DNR, local police and sheriffs departments and state patrols, too.

"Partnerships are a big thing in what we do," said Grob. "Like in Milwaukee, we have really good partnerships with the police, the DNR. It’s eyes and ears. They have a lot of really good folks and a lot of water assets.

"This is really unique up here with the joint border with Canada, there are agreements. We have joint operations as far as ice-breaking, for example. We work very closely with our Canadian counterparts on ice-breaking. They coordinate ice-breaking and moving the ships."

Though Grob only gets out to the Breakwater Lighthouse an average or once a year or so, he likes the lighthouse beat. It offers some interesting surprises of its own. For example, when a lighthouse’s old glass Fresnel lens is replaced, a specialist is called in, Grob said, while sharing the story of a recent lens removal.

"The only people that can really move the lens are lampists," said Grob. "They’re certified specialists. It took about three hours to dismantle it. He has these very special screwdrivers. And each plate, I believe there were five plates screwed together, goes in its own special crate and then we took them down our handicapped elevator because it moves very slowly. It was a five-hour process.

"We just dismantled and modernized Green Bay entrance light Tuesday (July 23). So that lens is in a special crate and is waiting to be transported to the Door County Maritime Museum."

While Grob said he likes the variety offered by the job, he does have a favorite aspect.

"I like working with Aids to Navigation. I’ve been on three Aids to Navigation ships and I like it. This is my favorite part."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.