Through icy winter, Coast Guard crews keep goods on the move

Members of the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate perform buoy tending operations on the Delaware River during a period of extreme cold.
The cold period caused many buoys in the upper and lower Delaware River to go off-station and require care and maintenance.

Imagine the roads you drive on froze, were rearranged and the guidelines you use to steer on were no longer where they should be. After this year’s cold snap in the Philadelphia area, that’s precisely the predicament mariners found themselves in.

After bouts of arctic air caused waterways in places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River to freeze solid, the buoys that ship pilots use to navigate were left in a state of disarray. That’s when Coast Guard crews from the Philadelphia area snapped into action to make sure the flow of commerce kept moving.

Normally buoys are anchored throughout the water to mark areas for ship pilots to safely navigate into a port, but this year many of them were moved off-station and some had navigation lights that needed to be repaired after ice blanketed the rivers and canals surrounding Philadelphia.

Chief Petty Officer Joseph Megahey oversees buoy deck operations aboard the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate as crewmembers prepare to place a buoy in the Delaware River, Feb. 6, 2017.

“We had approximately 120 discrepancies with our buoys this year,” said Lt. Andy Daum, captain of the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate that services buoys all the way down to Maryland. “This year we had buoys in the center of the channel – we had green buoys on the red side and red buoys on the green side, buoys up in the marsh, we had buoys with so much ice built up in the cages they were leaning over onto their sides.

Working the buoys in cold and ice situations can be challenging crewmembers said.

“The biggest challenge this year was we were pulling buoys out of the ice. The cage on the top of the buoys were covered in ice and it added thousands of pounds of weight that we needed to clear before we raised it,” said Chief Petty Officer Joseph Megahey, who oversees deck operations on the William Tate. “There was a lot of ice chipping. We used fire mains to lighten the load up but you’re still bringing buoys up with ice on them, so safety is important.”

Seaman Tensley Clowser waits to begin a buoy tending evolution aboard the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate on the Delaware River.

Resetting a buoy and its rock, or anchor, requires a boat with a crane big enough to lift it out of the water, like the one on the William Tate, which can lift about 20,000 pounds. Once on-scene, the members driving the ship use sophisticated technology to keep the boat in the proper location, while crews on the deck place an anchor stone that weighs about 18,000 lbs into the water, and then a buoy attached by a chain that weighs between eight and twelve thousand pounds.

When you consider the weight of a buoy, it’s impressive how much force is required to move it -when a buoy gets pushed “off-station” it’s dragging 18,000 lbs of concrete through the mud, says Daum.

In order to keep commerce moving through the tri-state area, members of Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia used icebreakers in conjunction with buoy tenders to make sure ships could transit through the lower and upper Delaware River safely and deliver goods ranging from petroleum products to cars and fruit.

A crewmember aboard the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate prepares equipment for deployment during buoy tending operations aboard the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate

Daum said that this year the ice presented numerous challenges, but it was overcome with teamwork with multiple Coast Guard units and a lot of dedication to fix what the ice did to the mid-Atlantic waterways this year. Often time crewmembers were up before the sun and worked under lights on the buoy deck into the night, said Megahey. The crewmembers even anchored next to buoys so they could resume their work again first thing in the morning.

Buoy tending isn’t just a job that only takes place in the winter months though; crewmembers routinely inspect and fix parts throughout the year. Even through the long hours and cold weather this winter, Daum and Megahey both enjoy the work they do year round to maintain the safe navigation of waterways.

“This job allows you to directly serve the community,” said Daum. “A lot of jobs are reliant on the goods that get brought through the waterways and it feels good to be a part of a crew that helps keep that moving.”

A Coast Guard member operates a crane aboard the Coast Guard Cutter William Tate in order to bring a concrete block, or sinker, aboard the ship at Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay, in Philadelphia.



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