Shortly after 8 a.m. recently, the U.S. Coast Guard Hollyhock and her crew, surrounded by fishing boats under an overcast sky, pulled away from the Algonac pier, embarking on a buoy-tending mission that would set a record for the ship.
The schedule included working 17 buoys, which would break the ship’s previous record of 14. Work included pulling winter buoys, or marks, and replacing them with summer buoys and placing summer buoys where other winter marks had previously been removed, The Times Herald reported.
To help facilitate some of the work, the Hollyhock’s Aids To Navigation, or ATON boat, was deployed with several crew members to handle some of the smaller buoy work that wouldn’t require it be removed from the water, such as installing or removing a light.
Winter buoys are designed to be able to float under the ice and to withstand the pressure, while summer buoys are light and easier to see, which facilitates more commerce overnight. According to U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Nick Monacelli, the ship’s captain, it will take about two months to replace the about-150 buoys from Lake Huron to Lake Ontario.
Waterways are designated in tiers depending on how critical they are for shipping. The St. Clair River is part of a tier-1 waterway, which is the most important. Having the buoys in the water makes the waterway easier to navigate, which requires less pilots on each vessel.
“When we have all the buoys back in, because it’s so much easier to navigate with all of the aids helping you go through the waterway, they can actually decrease the number of pilots required on the vessels, meaning they can essentially double the amount of traffic going through the waterway,” Monacelli said.
One of the buoys the crew was meant to swap had disappeared during the winter. A large grapple was dropped into the water to attempt to find the chain connecting the winter buoy to the stone at the bottom of the river.
The crew hoped to be able to find it to avoid setting a new one directly on top of it, which could cause other problems. On the first attempt, the grapple hooked the chain of the former buoy, and it was determined the stone and winter buoy were both still attached.
Using a torch, one of the crewmembers cut the chain so it could be lifted as two pieces, which would cut down on the weight and keep it from dangling and swinging. What caused the buoy to sink wasn’t immediately determined.
After the sun had set and the Hollyhock neared Blue Water Aggregates in Marysville, where the ship would moor and reload for the next day’s operations, Monacelli announced that they had worked “17 and a half” buoys, officially breaking the ship’s prior record.
“That sunken buoy should count for something,” he said.