Maintaining America’s waterways, all in a day’s work

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher D. McLaughlin, D5 Public Affairs

It’s early morning and the air is hot and steamy as the sun burns brightly, high in the cloudless sky. The 24 crewmen aboard the 175-foot Coast Guard buoy tender know today’s going to be a hot one on the river. An array of sunscreen products lay together on a nook outside the buoy deck near a cooler of ice and cold beverages. Sailors wearing hardhats, tinted safety glasses, life jackets and gloves begin milling about, preparing the deck for the day’s work. One worker turns on a radio blasting rock ‘n’ roll music through the silence of the morning. It’s almost time to haul the first of the behemoth steel buoys from the clutches of the river.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate sails between New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware River, not far from their home port of Philadelphia. Crewmen gather in a circle on the buoy deck and are given a rundown of the day’s work and a safety reminder. Safety is paramount for this type of work, for hauling an 8,000 pound buoy attached to a crane hook aboard the deck of a ship is a serious matter.

“It’s probably one of the most dangerous things we do in the Coast Guard,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Milton Casey, a crewmember aboard the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate. “We do a lot of risk assessment. The qualification process to work on deck is long and tough.”

The ship slows with a grumbling hum as it nears a buoy. The deck force, tools in hand, line up along the safety chain, the only thing between them and the river, and prepare to attach a rope to the buoy. The command, “prepare to set the buoy,” is given and the crew inches closer to the edge. A rope with a hook on it is thrown onto the buoy while another crewmember attaches another rope. Both lines are drawn in, and the buoy is fastened to the side of the ship. A steel cable from the crane is then hooked to it. A hand signal is given and the crane begins to lift it from the water. The crew clears the deck giving the crane operator an open space to lay the metal monster down, and to prevent anyone from being injured if the unthinkable happens.

“Working buoys is exciting because you got to be on your toes at all times,” said Casey.

Meanwhile, the crew is in the thick of the most dangerous part of the evolution. The buoy is aboard and isn’t secured to the deck of the ship. Only the crane operator has control of the buoy.
“Unlike the buoy deck where it’s fast paced, I don’t want to rush anything,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Alther, a crane operator aboard the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate.

Once the buoy is set on the deck, the crew works to secure it with heavy chains, locked safely in place the crew gets working on it. They scrape algae and muck off of its sides while others climb onto the top to make sure the light, solar panels and batteries are functioning properly.

This is one of four buoys the crew will work on today. The deck force is primarily made up of male crewmembers, but a few women are a part of this team as well.

“It’s hard when you first get here, but now I’m one of the guys,” said Seaman Apprentice Kristen Carrington, a crewmember aboard the cutter. “We have to put in three times the amount of strength because it’s hard lifting stuff. But you get the muscle and you get it quick.”

After the buoy is cleaned and maintained the whole evolution is repeated backwards. The buoy is set free from the hold of the deck and lifted by the crane over the side where it’s lowered gingerly into the river. The buoy’s anchor chain is released from its grip and slides back into the depths of the water. Once the buoy is cut loose, the ship’s engines thrust on to the next one. The buoy drifts by the side of the ship as it’s left to do its job of guiding mariners to safe harbor.

The Coast Guard Cutter William Tate is one of many 175-foot coastal buoy tenders responsible for keeping the nation’s waterways safe and viable. Buoys are guideposts that keep sailors and recreational boaters on safe pathways, and those who tend them do one of the toughest jobs in the Coast Guard. The continuous efforts of the crew of the William Tate to maintain buoys in the Delaware Bay and River are a testament to the time-honored decision made by this nation 156 years ago to maintain aids to navigation.

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