Although not as exciting as search and rescue or maritime law enforcement, the US Coast Guard’s aids to navigation mission is an essential link that helps sustain the maritime transportation system – a system that carries 95 percent of all U.S. foreign trade and accounts for nearly $700 billion of the U.S. gross domestic product.
Last week, Coast Guardsmen completed one of the service’s largest annual aids to navigation operations, dubbed Spring Restore.
On the Great Lakes alone, the Coast Guard is responsible for the management of 2,652 navigational aids. Although sturdy enough to withstand the whipping winds and treacherous waves occasionally passing over the region in late spring, summer and early autumn, each fall about half of the aids are taken out of service or replaced with specially designed aids that better endure the freezing winter environment.
So as the temperatures began to increase around the Great Lakes and the shipping season resumed in the spring, teams began the lengthy task of preparing the waterways for the inevitable influx of boating traffic.
The range of aids serviced or restored during Spring Restore included both lighted and unlighted buoys, beacons, day markers, range lights, fog signals, landmarks and lighted structures essential to safe maritime navigation.
To accomplish the mission, the 9th Coast Guard District employs: six Coast Guard cutters; five aids to navigation teams; five small boat stations with aids to navigation duties; the Lamplighters – civilian employees who manage the inland waters of northern Minnesota; and partners with the Canadian Coast Guard and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. Members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary also help inspect nearly 3,300 privately-owned aids in the region.
One of the oldest and more versatile ships in the district’s inventory is a 100-foot inland buoy tender, Coast Guard Cutter Buckthorn. The crew’s primary duty aboard Buckthorn is to service aids in inland waterways, but they are also capable of performing other missions such as search and rescue, environmental protection and law enforcement.
The 48-year-old Buckthorn is homeported at the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., a prime shipping channel tying the St. Marys River with lakes Superior and Huron.
Buckthorn’s commanding officer, Chief Warrant Officer Ted Connelly, oversaw the17-person crew as they exchanged nearly 300 buoys along the area of the St. Marys River near Sault Ste. Marie from Whitefish Bay to the Les Cheneaux Islands.
“The Buckthorn is an excellent platform for aids to navigation, and you couldn’t ask for a better assignment, especially this year,” said Connelly, who came full circle on the cutter after his initial assignment as a junior crewmember. “It’s April and typically we’d be only three days into buoy season still dodging ice, but instead we have sunny skies and nearly 40-degree air and water temperatures.”
“The fall buoy run is an incredible race against the weather, trying to accomplish everything before the waterways freeze,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Venema, the cutter’s first lieutenant and buoy-deck supervisor. “And in the spring run, we rush to get the lights and navigational aids set for the lakers who are pushing us to get them in the water as early as we can.”
“Overall it’s an enjoyable and very rewarding job,” added Venema.