Marking the Waterways
Unpredictable conditions keep aids-to-navigation teams on their toes
By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Associate Editor
The Ninth District stretches from
Minnesota to New York, and the
jurisdiction sees some of the harsh-est winter conditions each year in
the United States, according to
“We have, by far, the most seasonal impact of any district within
the Coast Guard,” Ropella said.
In 2012, the annual Operation
Fall Retrieve, which involved 16
Coast Guard units along with two
contracted companies, was scheduled to retrieve 1,282 navigational
aids by Dec. 28, according to the
“For us to manage the seasons, it’s a lot of work,”
There are more than 10 different types of buoys
used on the Great Lakes and they range in size and
construction. The largest weighs 12,130 pounds, not
including the sinker — used for anchoring — which
can weigh between 6,500 and 12,000 pounds. The
smallest is made of foam and weighs 40 pounds, with
the sinker usually weighing less than 400 pounds.
The buoys are located all over the lakes — marking
everything from major shipping channels near Cleveland,
Chicago and Duluth, Minn., to rivers and smaller bays.
Six vessels — one 240-foot icebreaker, two 225-foot
seagoing buoy tenders, two 140-foot icebreaking tugs
with barges and one 100-foot inland buoy tender — are
used throughout the year by the district’s 10 aids-to-navigation teams. It takes four to five people and onboard equipment to remove a smaller buoy from the
water, with the larger buoys needing six to 10 people.
Aids-to-navigation work in the Ninth Coast Guard District has several challenges that include dealing with massive bodies of water
that freeze for several months during the winter season.
■ The Coast Guard is the lead federal agency tasked with maintaining navigation buoys for mariners in U.S. waterways.
■ There are two vessels in the Ninth District capable of doing
both icebreaking and aids-to-navigation missions.
■ The district moves around 2,500 navigational aids per year.
The Great Lakes are home to 4. 6 million regis- tered boaters and commercial ships large and small transporting goods to and from ports in
eight states, Canada and beyond.
Keeping those waters safe is paramount for the
Cleveland-based Ninth Coast Guard District, which
oversees the more than 3,000 fixed and floating federal
aids to navigation that help recreational and merchant
vessels traverse the lakes and contributing waterways.
That mission is made particularly challenging by the
dramatic changes from season to season, as routes shift
due to ice accumulation in the late fall and winter
“The biggest challenge is the seasonality, because
most [aids-to-navigation equipment] doesn’t handle
the ice very well,” said Cmdr. Keith Ropella, chief of
the district’s waterways management branch.
The district pulls buoys out of the lakes in the winter and brings them back in the spring. Ropella said
most of the buoys would either break in the icy water
or not be visible enough to be effective.
The weather is “unforgiving,” Karl Willis, a search-and-rescue specialist in the district, told Seapower at
the district’s Cleveland headquarters, which overlooks