Keepers of the Tradition

by Mandi Ruch

Narrow channels, dark nights and blankets of heavy fog are among mariners’ least desirable conditions. Mariners of the early 19th century lacked modern navigational aids such as radios, Global Positioning Systems and radar, and in thick soup they were even deprived of the stars. Ships sailing the straits of Puget Sound, Wash., were constantly wrecking on the craggy shores of islands and wayward peninsulas or running aground in unmarked shoals.

The first lighthouse in the Strait of Juan DeFuca, the channel connecting Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean, was lit on the New Dungeness Spit December 14, 1857. A short three months later, 20-year-old Henry Blake became the first keeper. He dutifully kept the lighthouse lit during storms, high winds, treacherous seas and flat calms, providing a beacon to help countless vessels navigate the dangerous straits.

Today Henry Blake is still providing navigational aid to mariners on Puget Sound. The Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake is one of the newest and most technically advanced of the Coast Guard’s Keeper Class of Coastal Buoy Tenders. Homeported in Everett, Wash., the Henry Blake carries on the tradition of keeping vessels on Puget Sound’s channels safe.

“There are approximately two hundred fifty aids that we are responsible for,” said Chief Warrant Officer Steven Zudell, Executive Officer for the Henry Blake.

Most buoys include a light or a bell to signal vessels of their whereabouts and are usually painted according to their function.

“Basically the buoys are aids to navigation for mariners to transit through certain passages without running into shoal water; [they] mark the channels,” explained Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Heryford, a Boatswains Mate aboard Henry Blake. “Red is starboard [or right] and port [or left] is green when you’re returning from sea.  There’s [a pair of] channel marker buoys that are typically half-red half-green, [then there are] channel separation buoys, which are the yellow ones that are kind of like the road marker on a typical highway”.

While these navigational aids make up the majority of the buoys the Coast Guard tends, an agreement also exists with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has a number of buoys in the water to collect weather and tidal data.

“[NOAA’s] buoys have a large amount of sensors on them that calculate the current and wind and then transmit that out to the database in Stennis, Louisiana,” said Lieutenant Katie Blanchard, Commanding Officer for the Henry Blake. “[Their] buoys vary in size; the ones we work are three meters, or nine feet, in diameter. The regular Coast Guard buoys, the biggest we work is eight foot by twenty-six foot, so they are comparable in size. NOAA buoys weigh much less then our buoys do. NOAA maintains all the equipment; they maintain the website for all the weather forecasts, we just provide the heavy lifting.”

“That’s where the buoy deck supervisor comes in. He has to orchestrate all of it, and those buoys weigh twelve thousand pounds, so he’s got to get that on-deck safely. Everything’s under a lot of tension and he’s got to keep everybody safe and out of harms way” added Zudell.

The crew aboard Henry Blake relies upon BM3 Heryford to shoulder this important responsibility.

“My job typically is the buoy deck supervisor, where I pretty much give the commands on the buoy deck; from bringing the buoy up on board to taking the buoy off. Everything is run through me. I’m also the safety supervisor,” Heryford said.

Checking a buoy is a systematic and, at times, very lengthy process. Only about fifty percent of a buoy is visible from the surface; there is the actual buoy, then there is usually a hundred or more feet of chain depending on the location depth, all of which is anchored by a giant cement sinker. What might look like a buoy that has a little bit of rust and sea wear on it might actually have a chain that’s worn too thin or kinked up; or the sinker could be falling apart and need replacing.

“There’s different buoys for different characteristics of the channel itself.  [They range] from six feet to nine feet on the steel hulls,” explained Heryford. “You start with the bridle, which is the connection from the buoy to the chain itself.  Check that, make sure everything is ok, if there’s wear on the parts, you switch that out too. Once that’s busted from the buoy itself, you start pulling up that chain. Then you’ve got to check the chafing part of it; that’s the part of it that drags along the bottom, and then that’s all connected to the rock. So you have to actually check that rock to make sure that it’s actually still attached.”

“You’re checking the whole buoy carefully, all the sealant surfaces,” Zudell added.

The Henry Blake is a prime example of the Coast Guard’s motto ‘Semper Paratus’ (always ready) in action.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you hook into a buoy. Yesterday we picked up a buoy and we were on that buoy for eight hours. We used our spare sinker, and used most of our chain. You could have an old mooring that was lost in [the chain], you could have logs, you could have knots in it; you just never know what you’re going to get,” said Zudell.

Buoy’s can throw a variety of different problems at a crew, which makes Zudell think that buoy tending is an ideal job for new Coast Guard members to get introduced to seamanship.

“There’s a lot of room, and it’s a good training ground for some of these younger guys. It’s a good place for them to develop their skills as far as basic seamanship is concerned. We get a lot of young guys nowadays who really haven’t done a lot in their life yet. They can start out and grow into whatever it is they end up being,” Zudell said.

The small, roughly twenty person crews aboard buoy tenders foster tight-knit friendships that help to build trust among crewmembers across the ranks. On deck, crew members operate in pairs, one always a step behind the other, ready to assist at any time.

Like Henry Blake and his family, the crewmembers of his namesake are eager and willing to offer help to mariners and fellow crewmembers as well as partner organizations such as NOAA. Safety on the waterway is a buoy tender’s purpose, as was the role of lighthouse keepers like Henry Blake. The Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake and its crew are dutifully and honorably keeping the tradition by maintaining the crucial aids to navigation that the vessels sailing Puget Sound depend upon to return to safely home.

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