TONGUE POINT — The Coast Guard cutter Elm arrived in Astoria on July 15 to relieve the Fir and continue the mission of maintaining the region’s navigational buoys.
The ship’s crew maintains around 115 buoys in the Columbia River and along the Oregon and Washington state coastlines. Yeoman’s work compared to rescues and drug seizures, maintaining the buoys helps keep open multibillion-dollar lanes of commerce along the West Coast.
The Fir and the Elm are among 16 225-foot Juniper-class ships the Coast Guard rolled out beginning in the 1990s to replace 180-foot buoy tenders, including the Ironwood, now an instructional vessel for Tongue Point Job Corps Center.
Moving the vessels around is a long-term maintenance plan based on putting the hulls in different environments, said Cmdr. Jason Haag, lead officer of the Fir since 2017 who is now at the helm of the Elm. “How can we make these vessels last 30 years?”
The Elm, commissioned in 1998, spent its first 20 years based in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, maintaining buoys in a hot, humid, oceanic environment on the East Coast before heading for a yearlong midlife overhaul in the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Maryland. The Fir, commissioned in 2003, spent the first part of its life in the Pacific Northwest and heads for Cordova, Alaska, after its own midlife overhaul.
Buoy-tending tours often last a couple of weeks. But aside from a brief leave, the crew spent most of the past six months at the Coast Guard Yard preparing the ship for its new mission. They left early last month and steamed more than 6,000 miles down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to the Columbia.
The crew aboard the Elm remains largely the same as the Fir, aside from the yearly transfers in and out. Brian Schneider, a chief warrant officer on the Elm, estimates about one-third of the crew turns over each summer.
Mariners call in to the Coast Guard about broken buoys. Fixing them can mean anything from replacing the lights to pulling out buoys weighing up to 9 tons. Rough winter weather can snap buoys free from their anchors and send Coast Guardsmen searching.
“The ones in Puget Sound, they like to go to Canada for some reason,” Schneider said. “We kind of try to know where, roughly. You can figure out usually with the drifts where they’re heading. But usually the Canadian Coast Guard calls the U.S. Coast Guard and says, ‘Hey; we’ve got one of your buoys.’ We go up and retrieve it and put it back where it belongs.”
Along with navigational buoys, the Coast Guard helps government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintain weather and tsunami detection buoys. It tries to keep navigational buoys in service for at least 30 years, pulling them out on schedules like its ships for maintenance, Schneider said. Offshore buoys gather starfish, mussels and other sea life crawling up the anchor chain and covering the underside.
“We’ve pulled off almost 4,000 pounds of a buoy with the sea growth,” Schneider said.
Driving a buoy tender is the favorite job of Haag, who has been in the Coast Guard for 19 years, including on four separate buoy tenders. He plans to retire after his current tour.
“It’s dirty. It’s hard work. It’s exhausting. But when it’s done you go home,” Haag said.
Haag’s engineering officer, Chief Warrant Officer Clifford Mooneyham, recently hit 20 years worth of time spent at sea on 10 different Coast Guard cutters. Mooneyham keeps the Elm operational.
From South Carolina, Mooneyham originally planned on spending several years in the Coast Guard before leaving to become a game warden. But he soon fell for the service, fashioning a 30-year career below decks in the engine room.
He later gained his captain’s license from Clatsop Community College’s maritime science program and became an officer of the deck.
Mooneyham will be honored next month as a master cutterman, a rare distinction for those who have reached 20 years at sea.
“I fell in love with the sea,” he said. “I fell in love with the ships.”