Cutter Buckthorn Saves Lives Through Buoy Tending

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The buoy-deck crew is seven strong and covered in rust that will never wash from their coveralls. It’s a stinging November day and a gray sheet of clouds keeps any sun from warming the hard-at-work crew of Coast Guard Cutter Buckthorn. Speaking is at a minimum, but the sounds of crashing steel and rustling chain are periodically overpowered by sharp commands and the loud confirmation of a colossal aid to navigation being loaded on deck.

(Right: Seaman Daniel Sharkey, a deck-crewmember aboard USCGC Buckthorn, moves a buoy into place during Operation Fall Retrieve on Nov. 23, 2009.)

With the help of Buckthorn’s deck-mounted crane, the crew hoists a starboard-green giant out of the water and strategically places it on the pine-wood deck with a half-dozen others. It’s a single piece in a 10-ton puzzle.

Operation Fall Retrieve, the Coast Guard’s largest domestic aids to navigation operation, and as one aid comes onboard, another goes off. As parts of the Great Lakes freeze over during the winter, Coast Guard buoy tenders are charged with replacing many of the aids not fit to weather a frozen waterway. This season, Buckthorn will have replaced over 100 aids in their area of responsibility.

Removing and then replacing an aid requires complex choreography; there is the push and pull of heavy metal, a bob and weave of an agile deck crew. Only a third or so of Buckthorn’s 100-foot length makes up its buoy deck, so when there are multiple aids to navigation to tend, the crew is challenged to utilize every bit of space. The greater number of aids the Buckthorn’s crew can fit on deck, the fewer trips they have to make, resulting in greater time and cost-efficiency. Making the best use of each trip and maintaining such a well-organized buoy deck comes with, as it often seems, a bit of controlled chaos.

(Above: Crewmembers aboard USCGC Buckthorn move buoys into place during Operation Fall Retrieve on Nov. 23, 2009.)

Each undertaking aboard the Buckthorn has a multitude of variables, making buoy tending less of an exact science and more of an on-the-fly art form. Buoy size and weight, deck space, weather conditions and creeping shoal waters make each removal or replacement unique. The crew carefully accounts for all such variables, making each evolution an inspired effort honed with rigorous training and years of combined crew experience.

Both the crew and the aids are in constant motion and, with a handful of Guardians on deck loaded with enormous steel buoys, there is little room to work and even less room for inaccuracy. With some buoys weighing in at over 3,000 pounds, these aids, which are essential to commercial and recreational safety and navigation, are potentially deadly for Buckthorn’s crew.

The crew must work with a painstaking efficiency to keep themselves and their shipmates out of harm’s way. During each evolution, every crewmember has his specific role, be it safety, crane operation or crewman. This structure helps to keep the crew out of harm’s way. Saving lives is ultimately the mission, but while working the aids, deck safety aboard the Buckthorn supersedes.

This 45-year-old cutter doesn’t get the face time other Coast Guard assets do, but in a service focused on saving lives, Buckthorn’s aids to navigation mission is just as vital.

(Left: Petty Officer 2nd Class Benjamin Gaines, a deck-crewmember aboard USCGC Buckthorn, orders a buoy into place during Operation Fall Retrieve on Nov. 23, 2009.)

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