Bright lights, big buoys

March 2, 2008
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NANTUCKET SOUND – The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Juniper has responded to some of the most notable events of the past decade.

From the crashes of TWA Flight 800 and Egypt Air 990, to operations in the waters off New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 225-foot ship has a long history in the short time since its 1996 commissioning.

Buoy basics

  • 14,000 pounds each
    • 12,000-pound sinkers, also called “rocks,” sit on the sea bed
    • Three sections of 1 ½-inch to 1 ¾-inch chain connections
    • Horn, bell or whistle sound device
    • Solar-powered lantern or new solar-powered light-emitting diodes flash in specific pattern depending on buoy
    • Of 20 buoys in Nantucket Sound, 11 of 18 red and green buoys have been converted to LED; two have white lights

Source: and U.S. Coast
Guard Lt. Commander Rick Wester

On Friday, the Juniper was about 10 miles out in Nantucket Sound on a more typical, but no less important, assignment.

The Juniper is responsible for more than 200 navigational buoys in the waters off New England’s coast.

Its mission on this latest pass through the Sound was to switch out one buoy, and replace the old solar-powered lantern on another with a more technologically advanced light-emitting diode.

The LED devices – about the size and shape of a bread box – are self-contained units that use solar power and can be programed by remote control.

They replace a more expensive system of lanterns that were prone to malfunction even with five reserve bulbs that rotated in automatically when one burned out.

Buoys have evolved since the middle of the last century from unlighted aids to acetylene-powered buoys to lanterns powered by a bank of batteries.

More recently, solar-powered buoys allowed for the elimination of all but one or two batteries. Now the LEDs have become the light of choice for Coast Guard buoys.

“It’s less energy,” said 40-year-old Chief Warrant Officer Mike Tomasi of Bettington, Vt. “Because it’s an LED, you don’t have to worry about a burnout.”

The LEDs use about 70 percent less power than the older lanterns and should last about eight to 10 years, Tomasi said.


As the ship pulled alongside Nantucket Sound Channel Lighted Bell Buoy 21 Alpha, the lyrics from the Police song “Message in a Bottle” floated above the sounds of chains and gear being readied.

“Sending out an SOS. Sending out an SOS.”

Because the Juniper is the premier buoy tender in the Coast Guard’s fleet, the tune seemed appropriate. But once the damaged and malfunctioning green buoy came alongside the black hulled ship, the music stopped and crew members on deck focused in on their target.

“They’re young, they’re definitely young,” U.S. Coast Guard Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jill Carney, said of the riggers while looking at their blue, green and white hard hats.

Young, perhaps, but experienced and organized. In the space of four highly choreographed hours, the dozen or so deckhands plucked a pair of 14,000-pound buoys from the Sound with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew. Each member of the team was responsible for tasks that ranged from cutting and welding chains the diameter of a small tree to scraping dense clumps of black mussels and red algae from the buoys’ massive hulls.

Carney, a 31-year-old Michigan native, watched and shouted information carefully from the ship’s fo’c’sle – a higher deck at the stern of the vessel – as the buoys were hauled from the water by an enormous crane and jockeyed onboard with a series of guidelines and teamwork.

Many of the deckhands were in their late teens or early 20s, Carney said. Age and rank could be determined for the most part by the color of their hard hats.

Those in white, such as Carney, were buoy deck supervisors who could run the show, blue hats were qualified buoy deck riggers, and green hats signified someone who was breaking into the business of buoy handling.

Securing the Sound

High above Carney and the buoys, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Rick Wester and a contingent of operations crew watched the deck and the Sound.

“This is the end of the busiest month of the year for us,” Wester, 40, of West Concord, N.H., said. The Juniper is typically deployed for a week at a time. Buoy tending is only one of several missions during that period.

On average, the Juniper’s crew works on between four and five buoys on a given day from 8 a.m. until dark, Carney said.

“The cold days and the really hot days are the hard days,” she said.

Friday, although chilly, was relatively pleasant with sunny skies and calm seas.

On this particular voyage, the ship also was tasked with delivering a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoy 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine.

The original tore free but was tracked by GPS and recovered to be refurbished.

The yellow buoy, which looked more like a small boat or submersible and contains weather and other recording equipment, was tied down securely and within only a few feet of the large navigational buoys that swung on and off the Juniper’s deck.

Buoy-related work is far from the end of the Juniper’s responsibilities.

At the end of last year, the Juniper went south to the Florida Straits to help with immigration enforcement. At one point the ship had onboard more than 80 Cubans who were intercepted as they tried to make it to the U.S., Wester said.

The Juniper also will be deployed to check fishing vessels for safety violations on a quarterly basis, Wester said.

LEDs used around world

The Coast Guard’s responsibilities have expanded, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. In 2003, Wester was onboard a buoy tender that was sent from Hawaii to Iraq, where buoys and the new LED signals are also in use.

The LEDs, which cost about $1,200 each, were used in Iraq before they were approved in the U.S., Wester said. The devices are built by Canadian-based Carmanah Technologies Corporation.

The new equipment extends the time between inspections from two to three years.

Still, the chain connecting the buoy to the 12,000-pound block of cement on the sea bed and the bells that warn mariners on foggy nights must be checked.

Coast Guard buoys are replaced every six years and checked every two to three years unless a problem is reported. Mariners should report problems with buoys to their local Coast Guard station.

Buoy tending

On the first stop Friday, the tampers that sound the green buoy’s bell as it rises and falls on the waves were all useless. One was frozen to the bell, and the other three had fallen off.

The old buoy was brought onboard and a new, freshly painted buoy complete with LED was connected to the cubicle-sized block.

Dressed in dirty brown overalls, the deck crew adroitly maneuvered the second red buoy onboard.

The hull of Halfmoon Shoal Lighted Buoy 18 was covered in mussels and red algae. While some crew scraped the buoy clean, Douglas Duryea, 24, of Brooklyn, N.Y., climbed on top of the story-high structure to install the LED.

“It pretty much comes with experience,” Duryea said, after dropping back down to the deck.

Duryea joined the Coast Guard in 2006 because he wanted an interesting experience, much like many of his fellow crew members.

Seaman Joseph Lopez, 21, also a Brooklyn native, joined the Coast Guard almost three years ago because he was bored.

Lopez, a rigger, admitted he didn’t know that buoy tending was an option.

“I did not know until I was in boot camp and they ordered me to buoy tend,” he said.

Amid the smell and muck of the latest buoy, Lopez said the work was “OK.”

But Lopez and those around him wore smiles for most of the day that revealed satisfaction with a job well-done.

Patrick Cassidy can be reached at