Change Seasons

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

A lighted buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A lighted buoy on station
in the Indian River

For many of us, the change of seasons is a refreshing transitional time of renewal. Following a frigid winter, we look forward to the blooms of spring when nature comes alive again with robust greens, reds and yellows. In the same manner, autumn’s crisp air and breathtaking foliage provides a sense of soothing relief after summer’s oppressive heat and humidity. Yet few people who love the water realize that the change of seasons has great meaning to the United States Coast Guard as well.

The realm of sun-splashed, sparkling waters and pleasant sea breezes is an alluring form of relaxation for beach goers and recreational boaters alike, but for Coast Guard buoy boats that ply the bays, back creeks and Intracoastal waterways, the changing seasons equates to a time of important aids to navigation work that is anything but relaxing. Instead, the duty is arduous, dangerous and devoid of any semblance of glamour. For when autumn comes around, Coast Guard personnel move into action to “winterize” the coastal waters in anticipation of “Old Man Winter’s” icy arrival.

“During the fall seasonals we concentrate on removing from the waterways anything that stands a good chance of being severely damaged or lost due to ice or fierce storms,” says Senior Chief Dennis Dever, Officer-in-Charge of USCG Aids to Navigation Team Cape May.

Buoy boat crew removes buoys
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM1 Chris Cartwright and his crew remove
foam buoys from Indian River for the winter

Senior Chief Dever goes on to say, “lights on single pile structures in New Jersey’s Intracoastal Waterway are retrieved since vibration from ice would cause the lighting package – including batteries, to be lost overboard. Also, summer season foam buoys are pulled out, and many lighted buoys are replaced with steel, unlit ice buoys that are made to ride under ice floes and pop up without damage. When lighted buoys are pushed over in heavy-moving ice, the lighting gear usually is destroyed. The lighting package can cost as much as $1,000, so replacing these buoys tentatively saves over $100,000 annually in the event of a harsh winter. In addition, the ice can shred foam buoys, and heavy ice accretion from freezing spray can cause lighted buoys to lie on their side – making them a hazard rather than an aid.”

EM2 Hayes inspects lantern on buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM2 Dave Hayes (top)
inspects the buoy's lantern
while SN Nicole Taurgrasso
scrapes much and mire
from its base

The workload of seasonals is daunting to say the least. Well-trained crews rely on their experience and in many cases, sheer will, to accomplish the task of removing the vast army of buoys in the waterways throughout their area of responsibility. Coping with the elements is another inescapable hardship that allows for no place to hide when chilling winds roll across an unprotected bay and icy temperatures disarm the warming powers of the sun. But despite having to endure such adverse weather conditions, ANT personnel know all too well that no one goes home each day until the mission at hand is fully accomplished.

Coast Guard ANT Cape May’s area of responsibility (AOR) is far reaching, stretching from Shark River, New Jersey, to Indian River Inlet, Delaware, including Rehoboth Bay, Indian River and Delaware Bay all the way to Ship John Shoal Light. “Our seasonal work list includes between 300 and 400 aids to navigation,” says Senior Chief Dever. “In the fall we truck and stage well over 100,000 pounds of buoys, sinkers, chain and other hardware to three Coast Guard stations in our area. That stuff goes in while we transport the summer lights and buoys back to Cape May where each is repaired, inspected and tested for next season. In the spring it goes back out and we retrieve the ice buoys.”

Raising a buoy aboad the boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The "A-frame" of the 49-foot
buoy boat raises the buoy
on deck at Old Bear Shoal
in Delaware Bay

The deck of a 49-foot buoy boat is all business when underway retrieving the steel buoys that serve as the recreational boater’s traffic signs along the waterway. Each member of the crew recognizes that the element of danger is part of the job; therefore, ANT personnel are trained to always remain alert and safety-conscious when engaging a buoy. The steel “A-Frame” on the stern of the 49-foot buoy boat proves to be a friend to the crew and a powerful tool that helps dislodge a buoy’s massive 4,000-pound concrete sinker which has a tendency to be entrapped by the suction of the seabed’s muddy grip. With engines working full-tilt, the coxswain carefully maneuvers the vessel side to side or in a forward motion to free the captive sinker before it can be removed from its Neptunian realm.

Once this is accomplished, the buoy, lengths of heavy steel chain and the two-ton concrete sinker itself are raised above the water. From there, ANT personnel swing into action to scrape away aquatic evidence of the buoys season-long stay on station by removing many pounds of slimy, smelly muck and mire, barnacles and assorted fishing line and hooks found ensnared around the buoy’s swivel and chain. One by one, this cumbersome process of removing buoys is enacted over and over for a period of about six weeks until the last aid is inspected and safeguarded from the ravages of winter waters.

FN Denning & BM1 Clarke aboard buoy boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) FN Ryan Denning and
BM1 James Clarke are dressed for winter
work aboard the 21-foot buoy boat

Bodies of water such as Rehoboth Bay and the back creek tributaries of Indian River like Pepper Creek and White Creek prevent the 49-foot buoy boat from entering due to shallow and shoal-ridden waters. In these cases, the smaller, yet rugged 21-foot buoy boat springs into action. If the thought of a smaller boat conjures up images of an easier workload, think again. Working buoys from an open boat like the 21-footer is both extremely uncomfortable and exhausting. With no way to avoid the effects of winter’s bitter winds and icy sea spray, ANT personnel fight the elements as much as they manhandle the foam buoys themselves during seasonal operations.

FN Panas pulls buoy chain
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) Senior Chief Dennis
Dever holds the boat steady as
FN Greg Panas pulls the chain
of a buoy aboard the TANB

Though the 21-foot buoy boat generally has an electrical hoist to lift foam buoys and their steel sinkers to water’s edge, there is no way to avoid the physical challenge of having to wrestle with such a clumsy and disproportional sphere of hard foam once raised to the side of the boat. Even when the buoy itself is safely aboard the craft, the work on the buoy station is hardly done. Gripping the slippery metal links with heavy-duty rubber gloves, ANT personnel begin the arduous task of retrieving the long lengths of chain that descends to the bottom of an indistinguishable and darkened underwater world. With each tug, pull and lift in a one arm over another fashion, crewmembers fight the weight of the buoy’s components, gravity and ultimately muscular fatigue to “get the job done.”

Though seasonal buoy work is a cumbersome task with immense challenges, Coast Guard personnel prove to be a special breed capable of not only handling such an unattractive process but also able to find the silver lining in their work. Coastguardsmen in the field of ATON take great pride and satisfaction in knowing their sacrifices make a real difference to the safety and welfare of recreational boaters, as Senior Chief Dever attests to, saying, “Aids to navigation is the first line of defense against maritime accidents. The hard work provides several layers of safety for professional and pleasure mariners alike by ensuring reliable aids are on station to guide them.”

FN Panas & buoys aboard the TANB
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

FN Greg Panas finds a spot on
the TANB to rest after pulling buoys
in the Indian River

“Seasonals are like a large scale rescue during a war,” says Senior Chief Dever. “We prepare, we use tactics, we fight, we bring them in, and we limp back home.” Though the sight of an unassuming buoy bobbing up and down in the leisurely waters of our region cannot adequately convey the “war” of seasonals to recreational boaters, there is a silent tribute paid each day to the Coast Guard nonetheless. Without words or fanfare, the most effective tribute is paid by what is so often taken for granted – that being the knowledge and reliance of guiding lights and aids to navigation being on station to safely show the recreational boater his way home each and every night. Armed with this satisfaction, Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Teams like Cape May thus reap the rewards of their semi-annual labors.


Snapshots of "Changing Seasons...

BM3 Cameron tests batteries
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM3 Peter Cameron
tests the strength of the
batteries in a buoy

MK2 Griffin "fakes" buoy chain
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

MK2 Sean Griffin "fakes"
the chain for a buoy
on the side of the TANB

Programming a Carmanah LED beacon
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) MK2 Rich Wasilius, BM1 Jeremy
McConnell and SN Chad Stevenson program a
Carmanah LED beacon on a wreck buoy

Inspecting buoy chain
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever inspects lengths
of buoy chain in ANT Cape May's buoy yard

MK2 applies reflective identification to buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

MK2 Brad Green applies reflective
identification numbers to a foam buoy

Scraping Nun buoy
Photo by Dennis Forney

(L to R) SN Tim Whalrab steadies a Nun
buoy as Auxiliarist Bob Trapani scrapes
sea-growth from its hull

Inspecting optic of buoy before deployment
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM3 Peter Cameron inspects the optic
of a buoy before its deployment

Confirming buoy placement
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM1 Chris Cartwright (right) checks the
computer to insure a buoy is being placed
on its proper GPS position

BM1 Hanson scrubs buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM1 Steve Hanson scrubs the solar
panel clean atop a buoy in Indian River 

USCG ANT Cape May buoy boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

U.S. Coast Guard ANT Cape May's
49-foot buoy boat in Delaware Bay

Photo by Dennis Forney

SN Tim Whalrab signals the coxswain
as Auxiliarist Bob Trapani holds
a Nun buoy steady

Created: June 2004