All in a day’s work: Multi-mission ready, a buoy tender takes to law enforcement

Story by Seaman Sarah Wilson

Members of the Coast Guard Cutter Fir, a 225-foot buoy tender homeported in Astoria, Ore., stand by as a 20-foot buoy is loaded onto the deck for inspection in Astoria, Ore., Sept. 11, 2014. Buoys are inspected to ensure lights are working properly, the hull in good shape and the chain connecting to a sinker on the bottom of the river or ocean has not worn too thin. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Members of the Coast Guard Cutter Fir, a 225-foot buoy tender homeported in Astoria, Ore., stand by as a 20-foot buoy is loaded onto the deck for inspection in Astoria, Ore., Sept. 11, 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

At first glance, the Coast Guard Cutter Fir looks more like a construction site than a Coast Guard asset. Its heavy black hull, giant superstructure and massive yellow crane give it almost a hulking façade.

Like the ship itself, the buoy tending job is not for the faint of heart. Maintaining and servicing buoys is hard, dangerous, and dirty work. With the help of its crane, Fir’s crew muscle around several-ton, barnacle encrusted buoys that often have a beard of kelp and smell pleasantly of rotting marine life.

The 225-foot seagoing buoy tender, homeported in Astoria, Oregon, spends more than six months each year completing its primary mission of tending more than 150 aids to navigation and five weather buoys in the Pacific Ocean. When other Coast Guard crews head into port at the end of a long day, Fir has only gotten started.

A boarding team member from the Coast Guard Cutter Fir reviews logs and certificates aboard the fishing vessel Martin off the coast of Oregon Jan. 27, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Fir.

Ensign Jake Taylor, from the Coast Guard Cutter Fir, reviews logs and certificates aboard the fishing vessel Martin off the coast of Oregon Jan. 27, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Fir.

Although few people see beyond the brawn, the Fir is more than just a buoy tender. The cutter and others in its class are some of the most versatile ships in the entire Coast Guard fleet.

On its last patrol alone, a mere 11-day tour of the Oregon and Washington coastline, Fir not only worked five buoys, but also completed 24 safety boardings of fishing vessels engaged in the Dungeness crab fishery — a mission that protects fishermen in one of the country’s deadliest jobs.

“The Fir has been one of our greatest assets for the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety program,” said Dan Hardin, coordinator of the program in the Coast Guard 13th District, which encompasses all of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. “They are highly proficient in law enforcement and other critical operations.”

Hardin said Dungeness crab fishing in the Northwest is the most dangerous fishery in the Pacific, even more so than the infamous fishing industry in Alaska’s Bering Sea. Hazardous bars, severe weather, rough surf conditions and use of heavy gear make for risky operating conditions, especially during winter months.

Each year, the CFVS program attempts to mitigate those risks by ensuring fishing vessels maintain proper safety and survival equipment.

A boarding team member from the Coast Guard Cutter Fir inspects an emergency position indicating radio beacon aboard the fishing vessel Martin off the coast of Oregon Jan. 27, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Fir.

Petty Officer 3rd Class David Hargon, from the Coast Guard Cutter Fir, inspects an emergency position indicating radio beacon aboard the fishing vessel Martin off the coast of Oregon Jan. 27, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Fir.

Though the Coast Guard prefers to conduct voluntary dockside inspections before the crab fishing season begins Dec. 1, some crabbers opt out of being boarded in port. Once at sea, however, Coast Guard resources like Fir have the jurisdiction to conduct safety inspections on any vessel operating 3 miles or more from shore.

And they do. While medium and high endurance cutters steam several hundred miles from the coast and small boats patrol near shore, seagoing buoy tenders are the perfect asset for the mid-range law enforcement required during fishing seasons.

“Fir is essentially the bread and butter of this mission because of their operational flexibility,” said Brian Corrigan, living marine resources specialist for the Coast Guard 13th District. “Buoy tenders have the endurance to be out longer, and the range to travel farther in rough waters than station crews.”

Crewmembers aboard the fishing vessel Martin work Dungeness crab pots during a Coast Guard commercial fishing vessel safety boarding off the coast of Oregon Jan. 27, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Fir.

Crewmembers aboard the fishing vessel Martin work Dungeness crab pots during a Coast Guard commercial fishing vessel safety boarding off the coast of Oregon Jan. 27, 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Coast Guard Cutter Fir.

During the compliance checks, boarding team members examine fishing vessels for number and condition of cold-weather immersion suits, survival crafts, emergency position-indicating radio beacons, watertight integrity, and vessel stability in a process that is often thought of as search and rescue prevention.

“We focus on reducing the chances that a casualty will occur,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kristen Serumgard, Fir’s commanding officer. “Then, if the worst happens, the boat and crew will have the best odds of survival.”

The multi-mission capabilities of seagoing buoy tenders are nothing new. Fir’s namesake, a lighthouse tender that was homeported in Seattle for 50 years, performed extensive search and rescue missions including the rescue of 19 people off the distressed vessel Andalucia in 1949. The ship also transported 600,000 Chinook salmon to seed the waters of Saxquin Island and assisted in two major oil spills before it was decommissioned in 1991.

Coast Guard Cutter Fir (WLM 212). Photo courtesy National Parks Service.

Coast Guard Cutter Fir (WLM 212). Photo courtesy National Parks Service.

“The operational tempo for buoy tenders is 60 percent aids to navigation and 40 percent other operations,” said Serumgard. “They are the most diverse platform, capable of performing all of the 11 Coast Guard missions.”

The Fir may be stouter and a few knots slower than much of the Coast Guard fleet, but it is certainly no underdog. From aiding navigation to saving lives, seagoing buoy tenders uniquely embrace the Coast Guard spirit by executing all of its missions. All in a day’s work.

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