By Walter T. Ham IV
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spar (WLB-206) maintains buoys and beacons that guide mariners through some of the most remote and inhospitable waters in world.
Known as the Aleutian Keeper, the multi-mission buoy tender has to travel for almost a week to reach some of the Aids to Navigation (ATON) that mark the waterways around the far-flung Aleutian Islands.
“We regularly patrol throughout District 17’s area of operations, which is made up of two million square miles of operational area, including the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Chain, the Bering Sea and the Arctic,” said Cmdr. Russell R. Zuckerman, commanding officer of the 225-foot seagoing buoy tender.
From Kodiak, Alaska, to the Aleutian Islands, the Spar’s Aids to Navigation save lives, protect property and enable commerce by helping mariners to steer clear of hazards and find the safest route.
“We maintain 148 Aids to Navigation and 40 percent of those aids are fixed shore aids,” said Zuckerman, a Los Angeles native. “Our Aids to Navigation guide mariners around all types of hazards, including shoal water and rocks as well as marking the best channel with buoys and range boards for mariners.”
Spar is part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Black Hull” fleet that maintains more than 48,000 ATON from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and everywhere in between. These beacons and buoys facilitate more than $5.4 trillion in economic activity annually.
As the nation’s primary maritime presence in the Arctic, the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor services have played an instrumental role in Alaska for more than 150 years. Through their service, the Spar crewmembers continue this legacy and support the Coast Guard’s Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook and Arctic Strategic Outlook.
Zuckerman said maintaining ATON helps to facilitate Alaska’s robust commercial fishing industry.
“Our primary mission is to ensure economic security for the $6 billion annual Alaskan seafood harvest,” said Zuckerman, who previously commanded the Baltimore-based USCGC James Rankin (WLM-555) and served on two other buoy tenders.
The Kodiak-based buoy tender also helps to maintain National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather buoys that provide weather and navigation information to mariners.
Built in Marinette Marine Shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin, and commissioned in Kodiak in August 2001, the cutter has a unique name. Unlike the 15 other Coast Guard seagoing buoy tenders that are named after trees, Spar is named in honor of the 11,000 members of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve in World War II. The name is short for the service motto in both Latin and English: Semper Paratus, Always Ready.
According to Zuckerman, maintaining buoys and beacons in the unforgiving and unpredictable waterways around America’s 49th state is hard and detailed work.
On a recent patrol in Bechevin Bay, Spar’s small boat teams inspected the waterway that serves as the marine highway between the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean. During the four-day hydrographic survey, the teams learned that the Aids to Navigation were no longer accurate.
“We used the sounding data and spent ten days moving floating aids in order to mark best water and realign the channel for vessels to safely transit,” said Zuckerman. “Every year is unique in regards to vessel traffic, which is highly dependent on the fishing fleet and cargo transport schedules.”