225 years of Service to Nation: Aids to navigation

Vessel DocumentationCoast Guard News & Updates

Aug. 4, 2015 marks the 225th birthday of the United States Coast Guard. Throughout the year, we’ll be unveiling a series of blog posts and other events that mark this important milestone. Stay tuned to learn more about the Coast Guard’s 225 years of Service to Nation and join the celebration! Today, we share the history of the Coast Guard’s aids to naviagtion mission.

Written by Scott Price

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. 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.

Buoys. Beacons. Dayboards. All things the Coast Guard maintains on a daily basis across the nation to keep our mariners safe. But when did this start? Where did this mission come from?

Managing the nation’s aids to maritime navigation is in fact the earliest mission of the Coast Guard, as this mission began officially on Aug. 7, 1789, when Congress agreed to accept control of the nation’s lighthouses that had previously been established and run by the colonies.

The Act provided “the necessary support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers erected, placed, or sunk before the passing of this act, at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States, for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States.”

The lights included the nation’s oldest light station, Boston Harbor on Little Brewster Island that was first lit in 1716, Boston Light also included the nation’s first foghorn, when a single cannon was placed next to the light tower “to answer ships in a fog.”

These beacons of light are beloved by many Americans and indeed, enthusiasts cover the globe, but they are not the only aids to navigation that have seen service to assist in keeping mariners safe. Included in the duties of what became known as the U.S. Lighthouse Service–beyond building and caring for lighthouses–for servicing the nation’s waterways, were building and laying buoys, day marks and manning, outfitting and operating a fleet of lightships that marked some of the most dangerous waters around our nation’s coastline.

Ambrose Lightship (WLV-613) makes farewell departure as new Ambrose Offshore Light Structure is placed in operation. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Ambrose Lightship (WLV-613) makes farewell departure as new Ambrose Offshore Light Structure is placed in operation. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Lightships were a fixture of the maritime landscape for decades, and what a duty it must have been: staying on a fixed location at sea, through all types of weather, day in and day out, guiding ships around dangerous waters for weeks at a time.

When radio navigation beacons came into use, these lightships were outfitted with the most modern equipment and served as fixes for incoming and outgoing vessel traffic, becoming victims of many near misses and collisions, some with deadly consequences, including the loss of the LV-117 on the Nantucket station in 1934 after it was struck by RMS Olympic and LV-78 in 1960.

Others were lost during storms and ice while maintaining their station, including the loss with all hands of LV-82 on the Buffalo station in 1913 or LV-73 lost with all hands during the horrific hurricane along the east coast in 1944. Others fell victim during wartime, including the LV-71 lost during World War I to a U-boat’s torpedo. Despite their valiant service though, modern technology prevailed, eventually making the lightships obsolete.

The USLHS also pioneered the use of another special type of vessel. To help with the servicing of light stations, lightships and buoys, the USLHS would charter vessels that served in the capacity that today are carried out by vessels known as tenders.

In 1840, the USLHS bought a former revenue cutter to serve as the service’s first officially commissioned buoy tender, stationed in New York Harbor.

Photo of the Coast Guard Cutter Mariposa, commissioned in 1944, which assisted in carrying out the Coast Guard's aids to navigation mission. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Photo of the Coast Guard Cutter Mariposa, commissioned in 1944, which assisted in carrying out the Coast Guard’s aids to navigation mission. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Soon, the USLHS began constructing vessels specifically built to transport and lay buoys, carry supplies and personnel to far-flung light stations. The tender Shubrick, launched in 1857, was the first steam-powered tender and the first to serve on the west coast. It was also the first armed buoy tender and served with the Revenue Cutter Service during the Civil War.

Other tenders served under Army command during the Spanish American War and World War I, where they maintained mine fields that protected the nation’s ports.

The USLHS became noted for its spirit of humanitarianism, inclusiveness, ability to embrace technology to increase mission effectiveness and growing professionalism amongst its work force and management, ultimately requiring uniforms for its sea-going crews on both the tenders and lightships, and finally those serving ashore.

By the time the USLHS transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939, the nation’s aids to navigation was one of the best in the world, something that still holds true today. A lasting legacy of the USLHS, beyond the cultural traits, traditions, and work methods employed by Coast Guard men and women today is the district system we now use as our organizational structure, which was established in 1838.

U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender Hornbeam approaching buoy off Nantucket. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender Hornbeam approaching buoy off Nantucket. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Today, the U.S. Marine Transportation System, MTS, consists of over 1,000 harbor channels and 25,000 miles of inland, intracoastal and coastal waterways serving over 300 ports, with more than 3,700 terminals that handle passenger and cargo movements for approximately 68,000 vessel calls.

Waterborne cargo and associated activities on the navigable waterways component of the MTS contribute more than $649 billion annually to the Nation’s gross domestic product in personal wage and salary income and local consumption expenditures, sustaining over 13 million port-related jobs. In addition to waterborne cargo, nearly 73 million U.S. citizens are involved in recreational boating, international and coastal trade, and marine fisheries, all of which contributes $70 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

With all of this activity that depends on safe navigation throughout our Nation’s waterways, the U.S. Aids to Navigation System, USATONS, remains an integral element of the navigable waterways component.

Today, the Coast Guard establishes, maintains and operates approximately 49,700 visual aids to navigation, requiring the efforts of 2,564 military personnel assigned to 76 cutters, 61 aids to navigation teams, and four small boat stations with aids to navigation responsibilities.

Seaman Robert Stocks, from Aids to Navigation Team Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., secures the final piece of the West Nebish Downbound Upper Range Rear Dayboard on Nebish Island, Mich. ATON team Sault Ste. Marie is responsible for 20 ATON ranges, 120 floating aids and various other ATON markers throughout northern Michigan. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Read.

Seaman Robert Stocks, from Aids to Navigation Team Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., secures the final piece of the West Nebish Downbound Upper Range Rear Dayboard on Nebish Island, Mich. ATON team Sault Ste. Marie is responsible for 20 ATON ranges, 120 floating aids and various other ATON markers throughout northern Michigan. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Read.

The primary objective of the USATONS is to mitigate transit risks to promote the safe and efficient movement of military, commercial and other vessels by assisting mariners with determining their position, charting a safe course, and warning them of dangers and obstructions.

Within the past few decades, the rapid development, reliability and availability of electronic navigation, components such as the global positioning system, electronic chart display and information systems and automatic identification system has fundamentally reduced, but not eliminated, a mariner’s reliance on traditional buoys and beacons.

Technological advances have given today’s mariners the ability to transit the MTS using electronic navigational charts interfaced with GPS on their portable electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets and personal computers.

This fundamental change has presented the Coast Guard with an opportunity to modernize the USATONS by transforming the delivery methods of marine navigational and safety information to the MTS user. Integrating existing and emerging technologies into the USATONS will facilitate the optimization of the current constellation of buoys and beacons, provide up-to-the-minute aids to navigation and waterway operational status, and enable real-time delivery of other navigational and safety information.

The technology has changed over the years but not the mission: to safeguard the Nation’s waterways and the ships, craft and personnel that ply those waters, maintaining the nation’s economy by supporting, guiding and protecting the most efficient form of transport we have – our Nation’s waterborne commercial vessels.

Now that you’ve learned all about the Coast Guard’s aids to navigation mission from inception to present day, stick around to learn about the remaining Coast Guard missions in the coming weeks!

Members of Coast Guard Cutter Willow's buoy deck crew work together to install the clappers on a bell buoy before the buoy is set in the water near Block Island, R.I. The Willow, a 225-foot buoy tender homeported in Newport, R.I., has an area of operations that ranges from the U.S. Canadian border to Rhode Island Sound and New York Harbor. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class MyeongHi Clegg.

Members of Coast Guard Cutter Willow’s buoy deck crew work together to install the clappers on a bell buoy before the buoy is set in the water near Block Island, R.I. The Willow, a 225-foot buoy tender homeported in Newport, R.I., has an area of operations that ranges from the U.S. Canadian border to Rhode Island Sound and New York Harbor. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class MyeongHi Clegg.