PACIFIC OCEAN - It was just five weeks ago that the giant crane on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir pulled a critical weather buoy from its place about 20 miles west of the Columbia River bar and replaced it with a brand new upgraded $100,000 buoy.
Not long after, a strong November storm system came through the area, putting the new buoy to the test with 30-foot swells and 60-knot winds. The weather knocked out wind sensors and tore off a solar panel, eliminating wind speed and directional readings.
On Sunday, Dec. 13, the buoytender Fir again made a visit to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's buoy 46029, with representatives from the National Buoy Data Center in Mississippi on board to make repairs.
"It appears that the buoy may have literally rolled over in the surf a couple of weeks ago causing the damage," said Fir's captain, Cmdr. Mark Vlaun. "Both wind birds were gone, and there was damage to the solar panels and other sensors."
The vessel has visited the site four times in the last six months as part of an agreement between the Coast Guard and NOAA to supply the brute strength needed to haul the almost 4,000-pound buoy from the water and onto Fir's 2,875-square-foot deck for servicing.
Stephen Cucullu, program manager of the NBDC, said the new buoy performed well considering the beating it took - despite the loss of its wind meters and the solar panel. Several of the newly-added improvements continued functioning throughout the storm, he said.
"The mooring, the system and the data kept flowing," Cucullu said. When the new buoy was installed, the mooring was reconfigured to reduce the loading on it and keep the buoy in place. Wave measurements and other readings were generated and sent to the NBDC in Mississippi and posted online for mariners to use.
He agreed the damaged wind sensors appeared to have been submerged in the waves, which they weren't designed to withstand, he said. Each costs about $1,500 to replace.
Vlaun said the NBDC is tasked with trying to outfit one of the most weather-beaten buoys on the ocean.
"The challenge for them is to get a buoy to operate in some of the worst conditions we'll see," he said. Coast Guard buoys, by comparison, are considerably easier to maintain once they're out of the ocean. They are much heavier, and really only contain materials needed to keep navigational lights flashing - not particularly hi-tech, Vlaun said.
Relatively calm seas are needed to get the weather buoy out of the water and onto Fir safely, and chances to do so are fleeting with the quickly changing weather on the North Coast, he said. But without the readings from the buoy, no one has a sense of what conditions are like at the spot.
The buoy is an indispensable source of information on incoming weather headed toward the coast. Commercial ships, tow boats, fishermen and recreational boaters rely on the real-time measurements of wind speed and direction, wave height and frequency and barometric pressure to determine whether conditions are safe. National Weather Service scientists use buoy data to make weather forecasts, and U.S. Coast Guard officials use it to determine bar closures.
"Everyone uses it because it provides a fantastic snapshot of what's coming in towards the bar," Vlaun said.
The Fir spends 100 to 150 hours a year providing the labor NOAA needs to pull the buoys out of the water for repairs and replacements, but finding the time to get it done among the ship's many other priorities can be a challenge, Vlaun said. The Fir maintains 150 other navigational aids that belong to the Coast Guard, from the Oregon-California Border to the Canadian border and includes the Columbia River, Grays Harbor and Puget Sound, and also spends time on fisheries enforcement and search and rescue.
So when the weather presented a fleeting opportunity on Sunday, Vlaun's crew took a break from Operation Safe Crab inspections to get to the buoy site and coordinate with a crew from NBDC who happened to be off the Washington coast working another buoy on the Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake.
"We literally did planes, trains and automobiles just to get their crew down here," Vlaun said.
Once the sensors on the buoy had been replaced, the Fir crew had the bull-in-the-china-shop job of pulling it upright and out over the ocean, trying to release it without the delicate mechanisms getting in the way of the cables or banging into the ship's hull.
"I honestly hold my breath and try to get the ship away before anything can touch it," Vlaun said.
Then Fir got back to inspecting fishing vessels, making sure that they're following federal safety regulations. Vlaun said he'll be checking online to see what weather conditions he can expect, using the data from the buoy that's now available.
"A lot of us are sitting here, with our laptops open, hoping it will survive this next week's storms," he said.