Buoy Hunters

April 29, 2007
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The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Juniper, cruising in the Atlantic Ocean just south of Long Island, spotted the rogue buoy last week. The crew secured the massive metal structure and got a closer look.

They were amazed.

“It’s supposed to mark the approach to the entrance to the channel for Boston Harbor. It got ripped from its anchor by the nor’easter, ” said the Juniper’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Rick Wester.

Since the April 15 storm, the buoy had drifted more than 100 miles.

“And at 18,000 pounds that’s a pretty dangerous thing to have floating around in the shipping lanes untethered,” Wester said.

All in a day’s work for the Juniper, which inspects, repairs – and occasionally hunts down – navigational buoys in and around Long Island Sound.

On a recent weekday, the weather on the Sound was perfect for boating, with gentle seas, cool breezes and temperatures in the 70s.

But for the men and women of the Juniper, the 13-hour workday won’t resemble anything like a pleasure cruise.

The Juniper is on the fifth day of a six-day deployment to repair and replace navigation buoys that have been worn down by the elements, such as the nor’easter. The assignment: Hoist the buoys, which are up to 36 feet high and weigh up to nine tons, from the water; place them on deck; secure them and replace everything from the lighting system to the chains that anchor them to the bottom 30 feet below.

“Thirty years ago, working the buoy deck was considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the country,” said Chief Warrant Officer Mike Tomasi, a 17-year veteran who serves as the deck safety officer.

Technology and training have made things far safer over time. But he said the buoy deck still remains a bad place to lose focus.

“You have about eight people working in a really confined space,” Tomasi said. “The crane and other equipment are very loud, and you have to be able to hear each other. You can have a hydraulic problem with the crane with one of those dangling above the deck. The Sound is usually protected, but out on the ocean you can be doing this in 4- to 6-foot seas with 30-knot winds.

Lt. Commander Wester, a 1993 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, has been the Juniper’s skipper since July 2006. The 225-foot ship, stationed in Newport, R.I., is his first command and is responsible for “aids to navigation” from Newport to New York Harbor.

Their mission for the week is to replace buoys that have reached the end of their six-year lifespan, and to replace conventional lights atop others with new, compact light emitting diode or LED systems.

Grant Westerson, executive director of the Connecticut Marine Trades association, represents the builders, brokers, marina owners and others who serve the owners of state’s roughly 115,000 pleasure boats. But he said the state’s economy and environment rely heavily on safe sea lanes.

“There are more than 6,000 (commercial) passings in the sound each year,” he said. “That’s a lot of gasoline, and bananas and other cargo. And what about a day (with poor visibility) when a tanker loaded with gasoline could run aground on the Thimble Islands in Branford and rip a hole in her hull? How important are those buoys then?”

Red or green buoys mark boat and shipping channels. They are 26 feet long and weigh 12,000 pounds. Candy-striped ones signal open water all around. Yellow ones, like the one foudn adrift, are for caution.

The day starts at 7 a.m. The 45 officers and crew will work a mile off shore, just outside the break wall to New Haven Harbor. If everything goes well, they will be done outside New Haven by 6:30 p.m., sail one hour to Bridgeport, and drop anchor for the night and wait in relative relaxation until tomorrow, when the entire routine starts all over again.

The LED lighting systems are being phased in throughout U.S. waters. And if not the most glamorous job in the service, Wester said it is a very important one.

“The older (lighting) systems have conventional bulbs under a red plastic cover,” Wester said. “They run on batteries in the base much like car batteries. There are structures above the lights that have solar panels which recharge the batteries during the day.”

“The nor’easter we had last week knocked a lot of those off,” Wester said. “A fishing boat can come by and knock them off with their (outboard) rigging. The base is supposed to be watertight. But water can get in there and (damage) the batteries. A solar panel can get knocked off so the battery can’t recharge. The bulb changer can get stuck and burn out.

“And yes, people do hit buoys.”

The LEDs are self-contained, present a smaller target, emit a more reliable light, are considered more durable and can be replaced easily. Wester said in the Coast Guard, time is money – and safety.

“Right now we spend 60 to 70 percent of our time on buoy maintenance and replacement, and the remainder on law enforcement,” Wester said. “We’d like to reverse those numbers, and we think the LED systems will let us do that. And we believe it will save money in the long run after the initial cost outlay.”

Officers on the bridge nudge the ship up right alongside the buoy to be picked up. On the focsle deck next to Tomasi, Boatswain’s Mate Chief Kat McSweeny threads a chain with a hook on one end and a long rope at the other through the buoy’s upper structure in one toss. A seaman on down on the buoy deck grabs the chain with a hook to tie off the top. Another hook is used to secure a rope to a ring in the base. Another hook, attached to the crane operated by Yeoman Second Class Jen Fattarusso, is affixed, and things get moving, all very painstakingly.

The buoy is raised to the edge of the deck, where three more lines are attached. The anchoring chain is secured for later inspection. It is ever so deliberately raised up and over the deck, with four lines pulled from four different directions to steady and guide it. Then Fattarusso – with almost surgical precision – lowers it onto a set of saddle blocks which prop it up at an angle. Three more lines are attached and pulled taught to the deck with pneumatic drills.

Seamen armed with scrapers remove layers of mussels and other sea life. Seaman Juan Reyes climbs atop the structure to remove the old lights, and to add new ones to the buoys that are going back into the water.

“Juan is qualified in ATON (aid to navigation) maintenance,” Tomasi said.

Fattarusso and a group of green helmets next turn their attention to the anchoring block, hauling it up to the deck to inspect the chain. As a rule the anchor chain is roughly three times the depth of the water. Those off New Haven are 90 feet long to accommodate the 28-foot depth.

On Buoy 6, only one section of the chain needs replacing.

The worn section is cut off with a torch and moved aside. A seaman connects the section of new chain to the portion remaining in place with a horseshoe-shaped link that is closed with a long, thick stainless steel pin.

“We call it a ‘Heat and Beat’,” Tomasi said

Boatswain’s mate Jason Knapp applies the blow torch to the extended end of the pin until it is glowing red. He jumps out of the way and Reyes and Seaman Doug Duryea quickly pound the end flat with alternating blows from sledge hammers.