Operation Fall Retrieve

Buoy on cutter's deck

Approximately 1,264 navigational aids, such as the one above, are taken out of service during the winter months due to decreased vessel traffic and to minimize damage from ice and severe weather. Photo by PA3 William B. Mitchell.

As the winter season descends upon the Great Lakes region, units at the Ninth Coast Guard District are undertaking a massive effort to remove 1,264 navigational aids protecting 6,700 miles of coastline. Known as Operation Fall Retrieve, this removal of buoys is the largest domestic aids to navigation (ATON) recovery operation in the United States.

Spanning the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway System, the operation incorporates six Coast Guard cutters, five Aids to Navigation Teams (ANTs) and small boat five stations. District’s units also coordinate with Canadian Coast Guard partners and the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation.

Bristol Bay ATON

Operation Fall Retrieve incorporates six Coast Guard cutters, five Aids to Navigation Teams (ANTs) and small boat five stations. Here, members of Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay conduct service on an aid. Photo by PA3 George Degener.

The buoys are taken out of service during the winter months due to decreased vessel traffic and to minimize damage from ice and severe weather. If left in place they could sustain damage from the sheets of ice that move in every winter. In some cases, the ice could pull the buoy under, which causes damage to both the buoy hull and the light.

“One of the biggest problems with the buoy hull becoming damaged is that it may sink and never be recovered, said Boatswain’s Mate Jerad Calobreves, the executive petty officer at ANT Duluth, one of the units involved in Operation Fall Retrieve.

As part of Operation Fall Retrieve, ANT Duluth will maintain a total of 83 “seasonal” buoys that includes river and lighted buoys. The ANT will be working long days well into December to complete the job, but at the end of each day there is a constant reminder of how important their work is to the maritime community.

“ATON is very rewarding!” said Calobreves. “Every time you work ATON you can look back and see what you accomplished for the day. Everyone at the unit plays a key role ensuring that all ATON is operating and maintained properly.”

As part of the maintenance for the buoys, they will be taken to the unit and inspected. The ones that are in good condition will stay in the buoy yard for the winter, but some of the buoys that are more worn will be sent out for rehabilitation. This rehabilitation includes sandblasting, patching and repainting the aid. If the aid has lights, its batteries will be recharged and stored through the winter.

Bringing aboard buoy

Two crewmembers bring aboard a buoy as part of Operation Fall Retrieve. Once brought aboard the buoys will be taken to the buoy yard where they will be inspected. Photo by PA3 George Degener.

Another unit participating in the operations is Station Saginaw River, which is a unique station in that it is responsible for both search and rescue and aids to navigation, giving it the abbreviation of “STANT.” The ATON department at STANT Saginaw River maintains over 100 aids to navigation including floating aids, lighthouses, fixed lights and ranges.

“The time that these buoys are taken out of service is an opportune time to do maintenance on the buoys,” said Seaman Francis Armstrong, a member of STANT Saginaw River’s ATON department. “We inspect the lighted portions of the buoy to make sure they have the correct flash characteristics, that all of the component parts are in working order, that the power source is in working order, and that the light flashes with the correct intensity.”

As a seaman at the unit, Armstrong is responsible for doing a lot of the hands on work that keeps the station running. When asked what work at the station is like day to day, he replied, “In a word: exhausting.”

“The job can be quite exhausting when you are hauling out buoys for eight to ten hours a day during the spring and fall buoy runs,” said Armstrong. “If I am not dirty by the end of the day then I clearly have not been working hard enough.”