Heavy Lifting at Sea

With modern electronics and old-style sledge hammers, Coast Guard works to undo the mess birds make on buoys

Monday, April 30, 2007

Once a crew member had removed the solar panel from the top of the 32-foot-tall buoy, the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Juniper knew immediately why its light was extinguished.

The radio call from the deck of the buoy tender confirmed Lt. Cmdr. Rick Wester's suspicions - "Heavy guano, sir; it's heavy guano."

During the day, the solar panel charges the batteries that power the light in the buoy at night. No more than 10 percent of the panel can be obstructed without causing a problem. This panel was about 60 percent covered.

"A bird, or several birds, crapped all over the panel and killed the batteries," Wester said. "That's why we're here."

The Juniper (WLB-201) was in Block Island Sound and Long Island Sound Thursday to replace old-fashioned lights with modern light-emitting-diode lanterns. This was Cerberus Shoal Lighted Gong Buoy 9, located 6 miles southeast of The Race.

Coast Guard technicians on the Juniper removed the old lighting setup and installed an LED lantern from Carmanah Technologies Corp., a Canadian company. Common buoy problems include burned-out or malfunctioning light bulbs, dead batteries and torn-off or obstructed solar panels.

The LEDs are self-contained and durable. Because there are four vertical solar panels on the sides, there is less of a chance they will become obstructed.

Buoys are navigational aids that tell mariners where to go and where not to go, serving as a visual reference to confirm the data from a boat's satellite or radio system. The buoy's color depends on what function it serves.

The Juniper, homeported at Naval Station Newport in

Rhode Island, also inspected the Bartlett Reef Lighted Bell Buoy 4, located about 3 miles southwest of New London Ledge Lighthouse in Long Island Sound.

Wester used the opportunity to install an LED.

The crew pulled alongside the red buoy, weighing 12,000 lbs., and used the crane to drag it onto the deck. After the chain was disconnected between the buoy and its anchor, called a sinker, Seaman Juan Reyes climbed to the top of the 26-foot-tall buoy.

Reyes, an aids to navigation technician, carefully cut the cable that connected the light to the batteries and unscrewed the lighting equipment, while Boatswain's Mate 2nd-Class Gregory Shriver removed the batteries. They had already programmed the new lantern by remote control.

"I love them," Reyes said of the LEDs. "With the old lights, you have batteries to change or lamps to replace. With this, you just slap it on, put a few bolts in and it's ready to go."

Reyes said the Coast Guard should have made the switch to LEDs "a long time ago" because they save so much time and effort.

The Coast Guard has called for the replacement of 50 percent of the incandescent lights on red and green buoys by the end of fiscal 2008, 75 percent by the end of fiscal 2010. When a ship is traveling into a channel, red buoys are on the right and green buoys are on the left.

While the technicians were at work, other crewmembers inspected the buoy's 270-foot chain. Several feet of chain attached to the concrete sinker were twisted and knotted.

The entire chain had to be replaced with three 90-foot sections of spare chain. Seaman Dillon Smith and Reyes pounded superheated shackle pins between the sections to attach them.

Seaweed, algae and mussels clinging to the hull were scraped off, and the buoy was lowered back into the water. The cutter's thrusters kicked in, and the Juniper pulled away.

LEDs require far less maintenance, Wester said. About 70 percent of the cutter's annual 2,000 hours under way are currently devoted to buoy tending. The goal is 60 percent.

With the conversion to LEDs, the 45-member crew could eventually spend more time on other activities. The multi-mission ship is also responsible for law enforcement, which consists mainly of patrolling fisheries, homeland security, ice breaking, search and rescue and marine environmental response when there is pollution.

The Juniper is responsible for 214 buoys, 175 of which are lit, from the southern shore of Cape Cod to the New York City area. Since last December, the crew has converted more than a third of the lit buoys to LEDs.

After a severe storm two weeks ago, six buoys in the Juniper's area were extinguished and two were adrift. Wester said the damage to the six buoys could have been prevented with LEDs.

"I've seen a buoy sink with an LED that was recovered 30 hours later and it was still blinking," he said.

While the LEDs have been reliable, Wester said he realizes there still could be problems. The Cerberus Shoal buoy now has solar panels on its four sides and one small panel on top. Wester said he did not think guano would extinguish the buoy's light again, but admitted, "It could happen if you had a bird with really good aim."