Ice season is here! To ensure the safety of vessels transiting the Great Lakes, crews from around the 9th Coast Guard District began their annual buoy retrieval, Operation Fall Retrieve.
Operation Fall Retrieve, which affects lighted and unlighted buoys and beacons, commenced with a goal of retrieving 1,278 navigational aids. The operation, the largest domestic ATON recovery operation in the U.S., is scheduled to be complete in late December.
The 1,278 aids, approximately half in the region, are taken out of service during the winter months due to decreased vessel traffic and are replaced with smaller, lighter and more buoyant buoys, known as wintermarks or ice hulls, that are designed to actually ride underneath the ice when it comes, but still stay on location.
The district’s ATON system facilitates safe and efficient maritime activity in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway region by marking safe passage for domestic, international, commercial and recreational vessel traffic.
“Properly marked waterways are essential to keeping commerce moving on the Great Lakes during the winter,” said William Sharp, a marine information specialist at the district. “Safe navigation is crucial no matter the season.”
The Coast Guard manages 3,127 fixed and floating federal aids in the region. The waters of the U.S. and its territories are marked to assist navigation by the U.S. Aids-to-Navigation System.
This system employs a simple arrangement of colors, shapes, numbers and light characteristics to mark navigable channels, waterways and obstructions adjacent to them. ATON can provide a boater with the same type of information drivers get from street signs, stop signals, road barriers, detours and traffic lights. These aids may be anything from lighted structures, beacons, day markers, range lights, fog signals and landmarks to floating buoys.
“There is still a lot of vessel traffic throughout the Great Lakes during the winter months,” Chief Warrant Officer Ralph Kugel, the aids to navigation manager at the district. “It is important to maintain the navigational channels.”
Each aid has a purpose and helps mariners determine their location, stay out of danger, and provide safer navigation from one place to another.
To accomplish Operation Fall Retrieve, the district will employ six Coast Guard cutters, five ATON teams; five small boat stations with aids to navigation duties; the Lamplighters, civilian employees who manage the inland waters of Northern Minnesota; Canadian Coast Guard crews; and the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. In addition, members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary help inspect about 3,000 privately-owned aids to navigation in the region.
With work on the buoy decks lasting for up to 10 hours, the crews are in for some long, cold days. But keeping the maritime community safe will be hot on their minds.