Buoy tending, dirtiest job in the Coast Guard

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Crystalynn A. Kneen)

The day began around 6 a.m. The sun hadn’t yet begun to rise and the sky had a purple tint forming just above the horizon. Bags in hand, the sleepy-eyed crew make their way on to what will be their home for the next five days.

It is not a secret what they do on their 175-foot home made of steel. Two buoys larger than the size of two small cars rest on the deck. The crew does not ask for glory or recognition. When they are asked about their unknown or unseen tasks, they smile, look away and reply, “It’s my job. It is what it is.”

The crew of the Philadelphia based Coast Guard Cutter William Tate‘s task is to insure the safety of the Delaware River and surrounding areas by maintaining the buoys for the flow of commerce, safety and navigation for the public and cargo ships.

“We are responsible for maintaining approximately 263 buoys,” said Lt. Megan Cull, commanding officer of the Tate. “We go out, do our job and go home.”

The process to maintain 263 buoys is both difficult and challenging. The weight brought on deck can range anywhere from 3,000 to 18,000 pounds. The crewmembers work as a team to inspect the chain, the cement anchor and the buoy to make sure it will last until the next evaluation in two years. With this much weight the crew has to be very careful. They lookout for each other and maintain all safety procedures necessary to get the job done in a safe and consistent manor.

“Safety is paramount,” said Chief Petty Officer Jonathan M. Wall, a supervisor aboard the Tate. “When you are moving around that much weight, everyone has to be aware of their surroundings. The chain could break or a wire cable could fail. You have to have your wits.”

The dangers of the job are known but are well maintained. When the buoy is raised on the deck, the crew has approximately one safety officer not counting everyone on the bridge looking out for the team. The buoy deck supervisor, who is in charge of the entire buoy deck evolution, a damage control man and three to four personnel qualified to run all equipment on the buoy deck ensure personal safety.

“Another danger to be concerned about when raising a buoy is the new people who are learning their job. Besides the evolution you have a couple of people who have never seen anything like this before and they are going to be doing this,” said Wall. “It’s a little discouraging. The best feeling is when we have that buoy back in the water and everything is secured.”

After the buoy is secured back in the water, the job is not over. In the dark with flood lights approximately 12 hours since they left the pier the crew still has to stow all the gear they used and lower the anchor so they can stop for the night.

The limitation of the crew is judged during safety briefs discussed by the entire crew. They use a green safe, amber caution, and red danger evaluation system for risk assessment to weigh risk versus gain for each evolution, and discuss concerns out of the normal activity. Depending on how long the crew has worked is when they all decide if it’s time to stop.

“We all pay attention to the crew,” said Wall. “If mistakes are starting to be made, and the crew is getting grouchy, they’ve had enough. There is no reason to work beyond fatigue limits. It’s time to stop for the day.”

After a long day, the crew sits down for a meal.

“The crew relaxes in the dining area at night. They sit down together like a small family and strike up a game of cards or watch television,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Christina J. Parsley, a crewmember aboard the Tate.

Parsley says with a crew of approximately 24 people and the size of the cutter, it can get a little restless after a while, especially for the younger people who have never experienced this type of environment.

“The experience on this cutter is physical and dirty”, said Cull. “But if your smart about it, anyone can do this job and be apart of the mission.”

The crew of the Tate’s main mission is aids to navigation. They also have secondary missions such as ice breaking, oil recovery, law enforcement and search and rescue.

“Aids to navigation is a totally different mission,” said Wall. “It’s the most physical, back breaking and labor intensive job in the Coast Guard, but the reward is seeing on a day-to-day basis the results of your work. We see what we completed. We know we did that and we feel good about it. It’s a job I believe everyone should try at least once. It gives you a point of view and that much more respect for the job.”

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