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Aiding the Heartland
by USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey J. Ranel - November 16, 2011

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U.S. Coast Guard sealThe United States has more than 25,000 miles of inland navigable waterways, almost all of which are in the eastern half of the country. 10,300 miles of those navigable waterways are in the Eighth Coast Guard District. The most navigated of these is the Mississippi River, which is the fourth longest and the tenth largest among the world's rivers. The upkeep of the Mississippi River's many Aids-To-Navigation falls within the districts responsibility to ensure the safe flow of commerce; the life blood of America.

The Mississippi rises in Minnesota and flows southward for 2,230 miles until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way it drains into tributaries in all or part of 31 states between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. With all this navigable water, rules of the road have to be set and followed.

ATON was first established in 1716 with the Boston Lighthouse located in Little Brewster Harbor in Boston. Before this light, navigation aids consisted of burning fires on raised platforms, or on shore. Today those fires have been replaced by a variety of signals to alert mariners. Some of these signals include green and red day boards with large numbers on them, as well as green and red buoys. Some either float while others are secured to a beam sticking out of the water. They may blink brightly, rotate around in a circle or make a loud sound. These signals are paramount to marine safety.

“ATON is important because it shows mariners where dangers lie, and can include shallow water, obstructions or mishaps on the waterways,” said Petty Officer 1st Class John Sadler, a boatswains mate assigned to Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh. “ATON facilitates the smooth flow of commerce by promoting a safe route-of-navigation for mariners to follow.”

In order to navigate the water or to help plan a trip, it is helpful to have a chart. Charts show the nature and shape of the coast, buoys and beacons, water depths, land features and much, much more.

“It is imperative to know the difference between different types of aids-to-navigation,” said Sadler. “Taking the time to learn about different aids-to-navigation and their meaning could easily prevent you from damaging your vessel, or far worse, you and your crew.”

The Coast Guard operates and administers the United States ATON System, which is intended for use with nautical charts and has the goal of promoting safe navigation on the waterways. Safety signals are maintained by different types of ATON teams that are positioned on waterways across the U.S.

Some of these units include tenders, such as the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, a 240-foot ice-breaking cutter that navigates through some of the coldest waters. Cutter Mackinaw and its crew are responsible for keeping channels and harbors open to navigation to meet the winter shipping needs of commerce. In addition, the Mackinaw has state of the art mission capabilities that include search and rescue, servicing buoys, law enforcement and the ability to deploy an oil skimming system for use during pollution response. The Cutter Mackinaw is homeported in Cheboygen, Mich.

Another type of ATON unit's are the Juniper Class buoy tenders. These 225-foot long tenders have a Dynamic Positioning System that can hold the vessel within a ten-meter circle using a Global Positioning System that allows the crew to service and accurately position floating ATON. The cutter is also equipped with a single controllable pitch propeller as well as bow and stern thrusters, which give the cutter the maneuverability it needs to tend buoys offshore and in restricted waters.

Coastal Buoy Tenders, also known as the Keeper Class, are 175-feet long and are designed to rotate 360 degrees. The maneuverability is unmatched because of the thruster in its bow. These buoy tenders also have a DPS, which allows it to maneuver and position aids accurately and effectively.

The Inland Construction Tender is probably the most unknown and unrecognized in the fleet. At 75-feet long, the cutter pushes a barge equipped with cranes and other ATON equipment. These tenders drive piles and work smaller buoys along rivers and lakes throughout the country. Other missions include search and rescue, law enforcement, ice breaking and environmental operations. The fleet also has Inland Construction Tenders that are 160-feet long without barges.

There are two 65-foot Inland Buoy Tenders; the Coast Guard Cutter Bayberry, homeported in Portsmouth, Va., and the Coast Guard Cutter Elderberry, homeported in Petersburg, Alaska.

The smallest of the fleet are the River Tenders. Ranging from 65 to 75-feet in length, they push barges varying from 90-feet to 130-feet. These barges are equipped with cranes to work ATON and some are equipped with jetting devices that are used to set and anchor buoys in rivers with sandy or muddy bottoms.

From muddy bottom rivers to seas of ice-filled waters, the Coast Guard has a tender that can handle any day board, buoy or beacon light to keep America's waterways safe and moving.

By USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey J. Ranel
Copyright 2011

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