The Coast Guard’s buoy tender fleet is responsible for maintaining more than 28,200 marine aids throughout 12,000 miles of inland waterways, through which 630 million tons of cargo move annually. The current inland tender fleet consists of 35 tenders that support the service’s aids to navigation (ATON) mission in federal inland waterways. Half of these (17) belong to the Eighth Coast Guard District. A buoy tender is stationed in Dubuque, Iowa; Keokuk, Iowa; Peoria, Ill.; and two in St. Louis, Mo. (one of which, the Sangamon, will be shifted from Omaha, Neb., back to St. Louis this summer, according to the Coast Guard).
The average age of the fleet is 55 years, and the Coast Guard is currently recapitalizing its fleet. For fiscal year 2021, the Coast Guard asked for and received $25 million for its Waterways Commerce Cutter Program. According to its WCC Program website, it is “working under an accelerated program schedule to reach initial operating capability” by 2025, while “full operational capability” is to be reached only by 2030. That’s a long timeline.
On the one hand, each new modern tender can be expected to do more work, more efficiently and safely, and with greater automation than the older vessels. So one new tender will more than replace an older one. On the other hand, the level of river commerce is expected to increase substantially by 2030.
In the meantime, what can be done to extend and assist the mission of the existing buoy-tending fleet? During a recent period of low water and groundings, a total of four out of five tenders operating out of St. Louis were out of action. Electronic buoys and AIS help a great deal, but the surveying for e-buoys must still be done on the spot unless and until the Corps and/or Coast Guard figure out a way to survey a river accurately with drones.
Everyone agrees that e-ATONs and AIS ATONs are a tremendous help, especially because they can be put in place much more quickly than physical buoys. They are gaining greater acceptance among towboat captains, as they understand that no one either in industry or the Coast Guard is talking about phasing out physical buoys altogether. “I don’t foresee a time in the next 50 years when physical aids to navigation will be removed from the picture. You always need redundancy,” according to Eric Kvistad, the aids to navigation officer at Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River.
Another question: why are only two shipyards (in Memphis and Dubuque) currently certified to work on Coast Guard tenders? Whatever regulatory or other barriers prevent more shipyards from helping could surely be cleared away. After all, the Corps of Engineers’ vessels, which cooperate with the Coast Guard on buoy management, are regularly serviced by shipyards up and down the river system.
The River Industry Executive Task Force recently outlined several recommendations for enhancing buoy-tending service. Besides urging a speed-up of the tender acquisition program, it suggests that the Coast Guard implement a streamlined process to contract private vessels and equipment to place buoys (bare boat charters). Again, as with vessel repair, it should surely be possible to clear away whatever regulatory or other barriers might impede this.
The Coast Guard and its too-often-unsung buoy-tending crews do a tremendous job of achieving a lot with a little, in the face of unpredictable challenges and uncertainties like government shutdowns, pandemics and regular “floods of the century.” Any way you look at it, the job is a lot of work for the level of resources assigned to it. Anything that would increase cooperation between the Coast Guard and industry in the maintenance of the buoy-tending fleet would be a win-win for all parties that depend on river commerce.