United States Coast Guard Assists NOAA in Deploying Great Lakes NOAA Weather Buoy

--By Kirk Lombardy, NOAA/National Weather Service, Cleveland, OH

For the United States Coast Guard, the Cutter Bristol Bay has many different tasks to carryout during its annual mission. One of those tasks is to deploy a NOAA weather buoy and aids-to-navigation buoys from Lake St Clair through the western basin of Lake Erie to near Cleveland, Ohio.Cutter Bristol Bay

The Bristol Bay is a 140-foot icebreaking tug and is named after a body of water that was formed by the Alaskan peninsula that empties into the Bering Sea. The Bristol Bay was built in 1978 by the Tacoma Boat Building Company and was commissioned in Detroit in 1979.

The primary responsibility of the Bristol Bay is opening and maintaining icebound shipping lanes in the Great Lakes. The ship was designed to continuously break at least 20 inches of hard, freshwater ice, but can break ice more than 3 feet thick by backing and ramming the ice. A special feature built into the hull of the Bristol Bay called an air lubrication system helps extract the ship from thick ice and improves ice-breaking ability at slower speeds. Other important tasks that the Bristol Bay was tasked with include search and rescue, marine environmental protection, law enforcement and port security and safety.

In August 1991, the Bristol Bay was outfitted with a barge that was designed and then built to perform aids–to-navigation work. This work includes the deployment of red and green buoys outfitted with lights, and sometimes bells, that mark the location of deep channels to avoid grounding vessels in shallow water. Other buoys mark shallow water caused by sand bars and submerged outcroppings of islands or sunken man made objects such as old bridges.  The 120 foot long barge fits snuggly against the bow of the Bristol Bay. Approximately 160 aids to navigation are serviced each year at an operational cost of about $10,000 an hour.

On May 2, 2005, the tug began its voyage from Detroit, Michigan with the barge strapped to the bow and was destined for the waters of western Lake Erie. The barge contained several aids-to-navigation buoys and a critical NOAA weather buoy numbered 45005.

NOAA Weather Buoy 45005

At approximately 1:45 PM EDT, I arrived at the Marblehead Coast Guard (CG) station, located along the south shore of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio. I donned a full body suit called a Mustang that would serve to protect me in the event I fell into the cold 49 degree F Lake Erie water. Once suited up, I was instructed to meet the Coast Guard search and rescue boat, waiting just off shore, at the end of the pier. I climbed aboard and joined six Station Marblehead crewmembers already onboard. We departed the Marblehead Coast Guard station at approximately 2:00 PM EDT, by boat, to rendezvous with the Bristol Bay near Kelleys's Island, Ohio located in the western third of Lake Erie.

At approximately 3:00 PM EDT, we arrived in the vicinity of the Bristol Bay and waited just off her stern while the crew on the tug finished deploying an aid-to-navigation buoy. After Commander Scott Smith, of the Bristol Bay, gave clearance through radio contact we docked alongside the barge and three Station Marblehead crewmembers and I boarded the tug-barge combination. The crewmembers were tasked to assist in deploying the buoys while I joined Commander Smith in the wheelhouse to observe.

Once the boat that ferried us out to the Bristol Bay departed, we headed for the next location to deploy an aid-to-navigation buoy. During the winter months, smaller and likely less expensive buoys are deployed due to the ravaging effects of ice that develops on the lake. The larger buoys would likely be lost to the ice if left out on the lake during the winter. Commander Smith stated they are able to deploy a buoy within a foot of last year's location. A sophisticated global positioning system on board the Bristol Bay directs the crew to nearly the exact spot where the winter buoy will be removed and the summer buoy will be deployed. Once the aid-to-navigation buoy was placed in the water we headed out to the open waters of Lake Erie. The trip took just over an hour to reach the destination.

Commander Smith asked the crew on the barge to have the NOAA buoy ready to go when we arrived at the site. Commander Smith wanted to Commander Smith and the crew at the helmmake sure the buoy was in the water before the next sequence of weather and sea observations began or else we would have to wait another hour for the next observation sequence to start. The buoy automatically takes weather and sea observations every hour and sends the information via satellite to NOAA's National Weather Service offices and other users. The observation from the buoy includes wind speed and direction, air temperature, water temperature, wave height and period, and barometric air pressure.

deployment of the buoy

A NOAA technician was also on board the Bristol Bay and he was tasked with completing a data quality assessment before we could leave the buoy behind. The data testing took about two hours to complete. Meanwhile, the Bristol Bay circled several hundred yards down wind of the buoy while the tests were being completed.

The deployment of buoys requires that seas be 2 feet or less to mitigate the hazards of operating a tug and barge combination in rough water. Commander Smith informed me of one situation where waves of about 2 to 4 feet were expected and they hit waves up to 8 feet. This wave condition is particularly hazardous because the barge and ship are two individual vessels held together by facing lines with 50,000 pounds of pressure each. At one point during the high seas, the stern of the barge was lifted up as high as the bow of the ship forcing Commander Smith to separate both vessels in order to tow the barge back to calmer waters. We were fortunate to have ideal winds and waves for deploying buoys with winds fairly light and waves running about 1 to 2 feet.

After the NOAA technician finished his observation comparison he notified Commander Smith that the data was good. We left the buoy and were underway headed back to near Kelley's Island. There was one more navigational buoy to deploy before we were to rendezvous with the Coast Guard search and rescue boat. The three Station crewmembers and I climbed off the Bristol Bay and onto the search and rescue boat. Once everyone was secure, we made a fast trip back to the Marblehead Coast Guard station.