COLUMBIA RIVER — Like drivers need stoplights or street signs, mariners rely on navigation aids like buoys and lighthouses to get to their destinations safely.
The red-and-white striped buoy that sits near the mouth of the Columbia River is the first sign that signals the entrance.
At 18,500 pounds, 35-feet tall and 9-feet wide, the buoy guides ships to safe waters as they cross one of the most dangerous river bars in the world.
The radio transmitter beacon on the buoy, which produces a signal on radar so ships can find it, was repaired this month after being out since early April.
“At the time it wasn’t working, so if you’re in a fog or a storm you might not be able to see it — it was of no use,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier said.
These types of buoys are the largest ones the Coast Guard maintains. The concrete sinker it connects to weighs 18,000 pounds.
Most of the time, buoys are only connected to the sinker by a chain, but because the water is so deep where this buoy sits, it is also connected by a nylon rope. Without the rope, the chain would cause the buoy to sit lower in the water or possibly submerge due to the weight of the chain.
The buoy is also unique because it has a whistle. If the light on top is not visible due to fog, the whistle is audible to mariners.
“All of these characteristics make servicing this navigation aid a unique evolution,” Strohmaier wrote in an email.
“When Coast Guard members service aids as large as this, safety is paramount. It is never a quick or easy task when a 35-foot, 18,500-pound object attached to (a) moving chain is placed on the deck of a buoy tender. There are a lot of moving parts. Then combine that with rolling waves or inclement weather.”
Usually, the Coast Guard cutter Elm, which is based in Astoria, would handle buoy work in the Pacific Northwest. But since the Elm was undergoing routine maintenance, the cutter Aspen, a 225-foot buoy tender from San Francisco, had to attend to the buoys in our vicinity.
Although it is not ideal, ships can still detect buoys without the light or the radio beacon.
The propeller-like object that spins on top of ships is a radar that detects objects or land near the ship.
“Even if there were no light, no sound, no radio beacon, they can actually ping off of structures,” Strohmaier said.
“So on their radar, it would show up as an object. Most of the time they can identify, ‘OK, if we’re going at this trajectory, that object showing up should be that buoy.’ So out at sea, it has nothing to bounce off of, but when it’s close to land, it’s either going to bounce off land, or a buoy, or a structure or other boats.”
Buoys are usually replaced every three to five years after becoming weathered by conditions at sea. Older buoys are either refurbished or recycled.
“There are a lot more people out on deck, getting their hands dirty working with the buoys, making sure they are safe, operating and putting them back in,” Strohmaier said of the repair work. “And you can see you’re making a difference right away. You’re taking this old ... buoy and taking it out and putting a new one right back in and you can see that difference right away.”
The Coast Guard also relies on other mariners to let them know when there is an issue with buoys, Strohmaier said.
Managing buoys is part of Aids to Navigation — one of the missions of the Coast Guard oftentimes overlooked.
“Navigation aids are not one of the things people always think of when they come to the Coast Guard, but it’s still one of the missions that we serve the American public with,” Strohmaier said.
“A lot of the freighters and ships that are coming in and out still rely on these pieces of equipment out there on the water.”