Aids-to-Navigation unit: Steel and torch crew of Station Woods Hole

Buoy repairers get the job done with grit and elbow grease.


The United States Coast Guard is among the most sophisticated technical operators on the ocean. Yet when it comes to the installation and maintenance of marine markers — aids to navigation — their gritty work with hammers, winches, and torches looks borrowed from a simpler age.

Woods Hole Station’s 17-member, all-enlisted, Aids-to-Navigations unit is essentially the Coast Guard’s blacksmith squad for a stretch of the Atlantic from Provincetown to Westport. They work steel chains and buoys in arduous 10-hour shifts that would give CrossFit trainers insidious ideas — and they love it. The Times visited this unit aboard their primary workhorse, Buoy Utility Stern Loading Boat (BUSL) number 49406, a 49-foot black vessel with a silhouette that could be mistaken for a dragger’s and an aft deck like a machine shop floor.

Aboard the BUSL, the crew went right to work demonstrating how they repair the massive chains that hold buoys to their concrete moorings when The Times visited Station Woods Hole in late August. Petty Officer Keith Lynch flared into the pin of a rivet-pin shackle — recently fasted to two ends of chain—with an acetylene torch until it glowed orange. Fireman Wyatt Powers then brought a sledge down on the pin until it mushroomed. Petty Officer Britney Cavrales then hammered the mushroomed pin smooth with a steel mallet, and the chain was ready for sea use.

The Woods Hole unit applied this and many other types of repairs to 250 aids to navigation last year, according to Senior Chief Jeffrey Smith, the unit’s commander. The aids, mainly buoys, aren’t light. The A-frame mounted winch on the stern of the BUSL can hoist up to 4,000 pounds, he said. However, mooring blocks that the unit services can weigh between 2,000 to 4,000 pounds alone — buoys 700 to 1,700 pounds, and chain 710 pounds for every 90 feet, he noted. How do they manage with the BUSL’s weight limit? Everything weighs less when submerged, Senior Chief Smith pointed out. Additionally, buoy, chain, and mooring block are separated and brought aboard individually, breaking up their aggregate weight. Buoys too large for the BUSL are handled by large cutters out of Newport, Chief Smith said. These tend to be illuminated buoys or bell buoys, like the green one off the Menemsha inlet, he said. The unit does repair the bronze bells in bell buoys. These weigh between 70 and 150 pounds, Senior Chief Smith said.

Buoys the unit is unable to repair at sea or back in Woods Hole are sent to the “Buoy Depot” in South Weymouth, where all of New England’s buoys undergo major repairs.

Recent activity Islanders may have seen the unit engaged in includes the removal of two can buoys from between the Steamship Authority and Inkwell Beach, the repair of can 23 off West Chop, and last year, the installation of a special black-and-red isolated danger marker over a sunken sailboat outside Menemsha Harbor, the senior chief noted.

One of the more perilous areas the unit works in is Robinson’s Hole, a narrow strait between Elizabeth Islands Pasque and Naushon. The cans and nuns in the strait escaped de-establishment by the Coast Guard late last year after Island mariners voiced opposition to their removal. Senior Chief Smith described Robinson’s Hole as a unique situation requiring in-depth planning. To service the cans and nuns there — a mix of normal steel and fastwater foam buoys — the tide must be rising, the current slack, and the weather calm, he said. The unit has been forced to abandon planned work in the strait several times when the weather turned unfavorable, he said.

Wherever the unit works on buoys, Senior Chief Smith said there are always two constants: “Teamwork is essential,” and they’re always “really dirty at the end of the day.”

If servicing aids wasn’t enough, the unit also serves as an icebreaking team when conditions warrant. The BUSL can cut through half a foot of ice, he noted. In 2015 the unit used BUSL 49406 for 25 straight days of icebreaking in and around the Cape.