Coast Guard hauls in buoys for winter

Posted: Monday, October 19, 2009

People in Florida thought Dan Burke was crazy when he left his job on a 175-foot Coast Guard buoy tender out of St. Petersburg, Fla., to come be the Officer in Charge of the 65-foot Elderberry out of Petersburg, Alaska.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

But as Burke stood on board the boat Friday, his first day on the job, he was sure it was where he wanted to be.

"This is just a dream job," he said.

The crew of the Elderberry removed 18 buoys from the Mendenhall Bar section of Gastineau Channel on Friday. There was only a three-hour window to get it done, because the shallow area requires a 17-foot minimum tide, said Chief Boatswain's Mate John Moreland.

"Fall, spring. It kind of marks the season," he said of removing and replacing buoys.

Moreland added, however, that putting the buoys out in the spring is "three times as big a job," because they have to judge where best to put the buoys, hiking three miles in the mud when the tide is low to make sure they're in the best place possible. The waterway changes every year due to silt, he said.

While the 18 buoys in the Mendenhall Bar are removed for winter - otherwise, they'd freeze - larger buoys remain in place. The crew checks the permanent buoys annually, making sure they're in good condition.

All together, the eight-person crew of the Elderberry cares for 32 buoys and 267 lights and day beacons, all used to help guide ships through the water.

Burke said many people don't realize it, but buoy tending is actually one of the most dangerous of the Coast Guard jobs, especially in bigger boats with bigger weights. If something goes wrong when a buoy and chain are hoisted overhead, it can be deadly, he said.

The Elderberry is smaller than many buoy tenders, and that means harder work, said crew member Kevin Wilson.

The crane pulls up larger buoys, but the smaller ones - including one Friday weighing 500 pounds with a chain and sinker - get pulled up by hand. And while buoys in shallower water may be lighter, the sinkers get "mudded in" and covered with sand.

"It just takes a little force to get them out of the mud," Moreland said.

Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers Mike and Noreen Folkerts aided the crew Friday from personal watercraft, pulling some of the shallow water buoys toward the boat. The buoys will be stored in the Coast Guard station for the winter and replaced in the spring.

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