The last of the fall buoy runs

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Buoy deck
Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay has been working for weeks to ensure seasonal aids are replaced for the winter months. Photo courtesy of LT Bryan Estell.

For nine weeks, Coast Guard units across the Great Lakes have been working around the clock in the largest domestic aids to navigation recovery operation in the United States … and just in time! With the slow-moving snowstorm that brought snow and fierce winds to the upper Midwest last week, there is no doubt that winter is here and more icy weather is on the way.

Operation Fall Retrieve put Aids to Navigation teams, buoy tenders, and stations to the test as they worked together to ensure 1,264 navigational aids along 6,700 miles of Great Lakes coastline were replaced before they could become damaged by the harsh winter weather.

Units are still hard at work, braving the cold weather to finish clearing the critical aids before the ice sets in permanently. One of the units finishing up the last of the buoy retrievals is Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay.

Mobile Bay began the cutter’s “buoy run” in mid-October, and has primarily operated in the waters of Green Bay with an occasional trip to work on a few buoys on the Lake Michigan side of Door Peninsula.

During their run, Mobile Bay was responsible for as many as 61 seasonal buoys. A huge order for such a short deployment considering this is two thirds of all the buoys the cutter maintains annually.

The crew of Mobile Bay replaced the seasonal buoys with winter aids capable of withstanding the abuse of almost five months of shifting ice flows.

Bristol Bay video
Operation Fall Retrieve is a huge undertaking for Great Lakes units, and helping Mobile Bay in the effort is Detroit-based Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay. Click the above image to see a video of Bristol Bay’s buoy operations.

“In general, the seasonal buoys are replaced in succession based upon their importance to navigation for major shipping and to a lesser degree with the greater probability of ice forming in that location,” said LT Bryan Estell, executive officer of Mobile Bay.

While the crew still works through foul weather, like the snowstorm last week, they try to take advantage when the weather is just right for operations, which may mean working long hours over holidays to ensure the buoys are recovered prior to ice formation.

“It’s hard, dirty work; an ‘all-hands’ evolution where everyone on the cutter plays a role in ensuring that every buoy is maintained and positioned properly,” said Estell. “Every time we work AtoN, we drive away from the buoy with a real sense of accomplishment.”

The hard work and long days make a real difference for the professional mariners who transit the Great Lakes during the treacherous winter months. Mobile Bay will return to its moorings in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., but not to rest … It’s icebreaking season!

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