The Panama buoy

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Stanton

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The history of navigation dates back to the beginning of seamanship. Navigation is the art of directing vessels on the open sea and waterways by means of traditional practice, geometry, astronomy or special instruments. With all these modes of navigation, some instruments have stood the test of time with simple concepts such as a buoyant metal object guiding you into port. Aids to navigation range from buoys to channel markers and serve as beacons transcending all languages.

While driving down the road you’ll see stoplights, signs,buoy warning signals and painted lines; these same signals are also needed in our oceans and waterways, which are international signs that guide vessels in and out of ports safely and efficiently. The U.S. Coast Guard’s responsibility is to ensure that these networks of signs, symbols, buoys, markers, lighthouses and their regulations are up to date and function properly. Coast Guard buoy tenders travel to these markers throughout the ocean and river waters to maintain, fix and replace these signal devices. With major ports and rivers all over the United States, there are plenty of buoys to work on, but do they stop there?

A Coast Guard Cutter Fir Chief Boatswain Mate describes their process of maintaining buoys to members of the Panama Port Authority in the Port of Panama on July 7, 2018. The cutter crew regularly clears the buoys of marine growth so they float better and are more visible to vessels, this buoy was cleaned and maintained as a demo to the Panama Canal Authority.

A Coast Guard Cutter Fir Chief Boatswain Mate describes their process of maintaining buoys to members of the Panama Port Authority in the Port of Panama on July 7, 2018. The cutter crew regularly clears the buoys of marine growth so they float better and are more visible to vessels, this buoy was cleaned and maintained as a demo to the Panama Canal Authority.

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Fir transited from Astoria, Oregon, to the assist the Panama Canal Authority.

“These joint international endeavors benefit each stakeholder in many ways,” said Cdr. Jason Haag, commanding officer of the Fir. “We get a chance to show them what works for us, how we operate and what equipment we use.”

The calm swells of the Port of Panama gave the Fir’s crew a perfect opportunity to show the Panama Canal Authority how buoys are maintained in the U.S. As the Panamanian crew traversed to the whistle buoy, they searched for the black-hulled tender sporting the iconic 64-degree Coast Guard red, white and blue racing stripe. There it was, on time, dead center of dozens of floating cargo ships. The red and white whistle buoy sagged low in the water, faded from the hot Panamanian sun beating down on its metal. It was obvious that many barnacles had formed and clung to this buoy, claiming it as their own, fighting for space alongside algae while the occasional perched bird rested their wings on top next to the small solar panels.

The Fir’s crew set up alongside the buoy, and immediately carried out their work detail with muscle memory. They tied a guide line to the top of the buoy, and the ship’s crane plucked it from the sea and swung it over the Fir’s deck. Once on the Fir, the crew took slack out of the anchor buoy’s chain and locked it down in large metal grips. The deck came alive crawling with crabs, fish, and an octopus squirting ink on the deck trying to find its way back into the ocean. The crew then grabbed their steel tools and began scrapping every square-inch of the whistle buoy sluffing layers and layers of barnacles, algae and ocean build-up off its surface. One Coast Guardsmen climbed up to the top of the buoy to check the solar panel’s operability. In a matter of the minutes the buoy was cleaned, maintained, floating back over the deck of the Fir and gently released by the crane back into the ocean.

The Fir’s crew commented on how much higher the buoy sat on the water.

We are used to seeing a six-inch to 1-foot rise; this buoy rose at least 4 to 5 feet, said Haag. The Panama Canal Authority commented on how fast the crew cleaned and maintained the buoy.

A Coast Guard Cutter Fir crewmember secures a whistle buoy to the deck to take the slack out of the buoy’s anchor chain in the Port of Panama on July 7, 2018. The cutter crew regularly clears the buoys of marine growth so they float better and are more visible to vessels, this buoy was cleaned and maintained as a demo to the Panama Canal Authority.

A Coast Guard Cutter Fir crewmember secures a whistle buoy to the deck to take the slack out of the buoy’s anchor chain in the Port of Panama on July 7, 2018. The cutter crew regularly clears the buoys of marine growth so they float better and are more visible to vessels, this buoy was cleaned and maintained as a demo to the Panama Canal Authority.

“Regardless of the size of complexity of the topic, we each walk away better for it,” said Haag. “They then ask questions which challenge our assumptions and force us to explain ‘why’ operate the way we do, which improves our processes as well”, said Haag.

Once the whistle buoy was operational, the Fir crew had some important cargo to be delivered.

“Since the Coast Guard Cutter Fir was coming down for this operation, the embassy asked if they had room to bring down a few pallets of donated goods, and they did,” said Cdr. Kevin Hill, a Coast Guard liaison officer with the U.S. Embassy in Panama City. The U.S. Embassy in Panama City coordinated with the Fir’s crew to transport approximately 900 deflated soccer balls and a few pallets of animal food to be delivered to local school and an animal shelter in the Panama City area.

“These efforts help maintain a healthy and prosperous relationship with partnership agencies, local schools and businesses and Panamanians in general,” said Hill.

The U.S. in the Coast Guards title stands for the United States, but we don’t stop there. The Fir’s crew traveled approximately 5,000 miles to show their capabilities and knowledge of the history of navigation.

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