Where Glory Fears to Tread

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

ANT Cape May Buoy Boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

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

Each and every day, the United States Coast Guard works hard to keep the lights of America’s waterways burning bright. Even in the age of electronic technology where navigational systems such as Global Position Satellite have practically rendered lighthouses obsolete, there remains something reassuring about being able to visually identify the flash of a guiding light in darkened, storm-tossed waters.

Though most of the work performed by Coast Guard aids to navigation teams to “keep the lights shining” is done out of the public eye, beach goers or recreational boaters will occasionally catch an inspiring glimpse of a Coast Guard black-hulled vessel servicing a buoy or lighted aid nearby. The reassuring sight of one of these hardy vessels plying the waterways provides the public with pride and a confidence that the Coast Guard is maintaining the lights that help bring their loved one’s home each night after a day of recreation or fishing on the bay or ocean. Yet, the public seldom gives thought to the vast measures of maintenance and readiness that enable Coast Guard vessels such as the 49-foot buoy boat to work lighted aids.

USCG 49-ft Buoy Boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the 49-ft buoy boat
after being hauled out of the water

Coast Guard vessels are unable to ply our waterways without being the benefactor of arduous, dirty and backbreaking maintenance work performed by anonymous crews who labor completely out of the spotlight. Without this vital preventative maintenance, these boats could not sustain seaworthiness. One look at a buoy boat will reveal a wealth of steel, hydraulics and chain. These critical components needed for servicing buoys and lights require constant care and maintenance in order to function safely and properly.

There is zero tolerance for short cuts when it comes to the maintenance of these boats since the safety of the crews that work on deck is paramount. According to Senior Chief Dennis Dever, Officer in Charge of Aids to Navigation Team Cape May, “these boats are extreme work horses. They demand relentless care to stay in safe, operable condition. Also, the time and money spent doing periodic maintenance saves a great deal more money in the long run. Each boat is planned for a haul-out annually, though every two years the period of time and work is more extensive.”

Senior Chief Dennis Dever
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

"These boats are extreme work horses.
They demand relentless care to stay in safe,
operable condition."
- Senior Chief Dennis Dever

When a buoy boat is hauled out for preventative maintenance or repairs, Coast Guard work crews pay special attention to every inch of steel and cable, for they know their fellow crewmen depend on them to safeguard all aspects of the vessel. During those times when the boats have their hydraulics tested to the max by stubborn buoys anchored deep in the muck and mire of the seabed or the boat is underway in rough seas, the crew trusts their safety to the preventative maintenance work that prepared the vessel to perform under such adverse conditions.

“Our crews conduct a thorough inspection of shafts, props, bearings, hull thickness and condition,” notes Senior Chief Dever. “They also will pull test all weight bearing fittings along with more extensive work not normally completed while the boat is in the water. We will also usually replace the rub rails and the hull is prepared and painted as well.” In addition to such a demanding focus on the condition of the boat, its appearance counts too. “Despite the hardworking nature of these boats,” says Senior Chief Dever, “the Coast Guard has a high cosmetic standard. We want our boats to look the best they possibly can.”

SNBM Petralia & SN Rumph prepare for painting
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) SNBM Anthony Petralia &
SN James Rumph prepare the
boat for repainting

To look their best, the boats must sport a quality paint job; however, a shiny buoy boat doesn’t just happen unless extensive and laborious prep work is first applied to the vessel. BM3 Joshua Campbell of ANT Cape May explains, “When prepping the 49-foot buoy boat, the first step after it has been pulled from the water is to pressure wash the entire surface that is going to be painted.”

BM3 Campbell goes on note, “After the boat is set on blocks and is secured, we begin to remove all of the legends (the U.S. Coast Guard name, boat numbers and the Coast Guard shield). From there, the crew will begin sanding every part of the boat that will be repainted. The sanding and needle gunning process usually takes the majority of our time, but since the paint job is only as good as your prep work, we place extra care and time into doing it right. Following the sanding process, a primer will be applied to the bare metal surfaces. Lastly, the boat is wiped down with thinner and color coated – starting from the bottom and working up.”

Lifting a lighted buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the 49-ft buoy boat's
A-frame lifting a lighted buoy out of
Delaware Bay

If the average person could see first-hand the extensive and grueling work that is required to maintain the Coast Guard buoy boats, it is safe to say very few individuals would clamor to help. Make no mistake about it; the maintenance crews who keep these boats ship-shape are a special breed that deserves our highest admiration. Despite all the hard labor associated with maintaining a sound and well operating boat, some people like BM3 Campbell love what they do. “This type of work is one of the main reasons why I became a Boatswain’s Mate,” says BM3 Campbell. “The biggest enjoyment for me is looking up at the boat when we are finished and seeing the vessel looking better than the day when it was delivered to the unit.”

The next time you observe a Coast Guard buoy boat servicing an offshore lighthouse or setting a buoy to mark a dangerous channel, remember that these guiding lights would not be kept burning bright if not for anonymous Coast Guard crews who willingly work in the “trenches” of vessel maintenance. For water-locked lights to shine without fail each night, it takes a team willing to go where glory fears to tread.


SNBM Petralia removes rub rail
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

SNBM Anthony Petralia
removes bolt holding
a rub rail

USCG 49-ft buoy boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

49-ft buoy boat

SN Rumph sands buoy boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

SN James Rumph
sands the stern of
the buoy boat

Paul Eric Johnson & Senior Chief Dennis Dever
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Photographer Paul Eric Johnson (left)
listens to Senior Chief Dennis Dever explain
facets of the 49-ft buoy boat

Bob Trapani sands the buoy boat
Photo by James Rumph

Coast Guard Auxiliarist Bob Trapani
works on sanding the stern of
the buoy boat

49-Foot Buoy Boat Facts...

  • The A-frame's safe working load is 4,500 lbs.
  • The boat routinely hoists 12-foot tall lighted buoys weighing 3,000 lbs., along with
    their heavy chain and a 4,000 lbs sinker
  • The boat makes 10 knots and carries a maximum deck load of 16,000 lbs.
  • Two 305-horsepower Cummins diesels propel the 71,690 lb. for a range of 400 miles