Underway with Bristol Bay: An ATON odyssey

>When people hear the words “U.S. Coast Guard,” usually the first image that pops into their heads is a helicopter flying low over stormy seas, searching for a distressed boater, or a small-boat station crew heading out to conduct law enforcement or search and rescue operations. An image that most have never thought of is a windswept buoy deck on a cold Lake Erie morning.

(Right: Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay and ATON Barge)

One of the most versatile assets in the Coast Guard Fleet is the 140-foot Icebreaking Tug Bristol Bay, combined with the 120-foot Aids to Navigation Barge. Under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Matt Ten Berge, this combination allows the Bristol Bay to service over 160 aids to navigation per year, in conjunction with its duties as an icebreaker during the winter months.

From November 9th through the 11th, Bristol Bay was underway in Western Lake Erie as part of Operation Fall Retrieve, the largest domestic buoy recovery operation in the United States.
Operation Fall Retrieve, which includes lighted and unlighted buoys and beacons, commenced Oct. 14, 2009, with a goal of retrieving 1,284 navigational aids, and should be completed by Dec. 21, 2009.

Bristol Bay’s crew of approximately 25 sailed from Detroit, Mich. and headed out into the lake. Along with their aids to navigation duties, the crewmembers of Bristol Bay also stay proficient in damage-control procedures.


On their first day underway, the crew conducted a toxic-gas drill. For the simulated casualty, a crewmember entering an auxiliary machinery space smelled something similar to rotten eggs, a sign of a possible sewage leak and presence of Hydrogen Sulfide, a gas that displaces oxygen and can cause possible death. After securing the space, the bridge was notified and the general emergency alarm was sounded, notifying the rest of the ship of the situation.

(Left: Crewmembers of Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay respond to the report of a toxic gas leak during a damage-control drill while underway in Lake Erie.)

Bristol Bay’s crew quickly took proper action. Personnel wearing Self Contained Breathing Apparatuses (SCBA’s) used a Ram Fan to ventilate the space and remove any harmful substances. By maintaining proficiency and readiness, Bristol Bay’s crew ensures their safety while out on the water.

After the conclusion of their damage control drill, Bristol Bay launched its small boat with three crewmembers aboard to conduct maintenance on a reportedly malfunctioning aid to navigation. Over the course of three days the Bristol Bay serviced more than 7 aids to navigation in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

(Right: Seaman Christopher Waters swings a sea-painter line out to Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Reggio, a Boatswain’s Mate, during small-boat recovery operations.)

The Ninth Coast Guard District’s aids to navigation system facilitates safe and efficient maritime activity in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway region by marking safe passage for domestic, international, commercial and recreational vessel traffic. The Coast Guard manages 2,628 federal aids in the region.

The waters of the United States and its territories are marked to assist navigation by the U.S. Aids-to-Navigation System. This system employs a simple arrangement of colors, shapes, numbers and light characteristics to mark navigable channels, waterways and obstructions adjacent to them.

After their aids to navigation work is finished for the season, the Bristol Bay’s crew must be ready to switch gears and shift into icebreaking mode, helping to facilitate navigation to meet the reasonable demands of commerce on the Great Lakes.

(Left: Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Reggio, a Boatswain’s Mate, and Seaman Jeremy Bossinger of Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay, install a Carmanah [a solar-powered light emitting diode] on an aid to navigation in Lake Erie.)
To see video of Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay working ATON on YouTube, Click Here

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