Coast Guard Vessels

‘Black Hulls’ Keep Waterways Safe and Efficient

From remote Pacific Islands to Great Lakes, Tenders manage aids to navigation and break ice.

By Edward Lundquist

USCGC Juniper (WLB 201) is a 225-foot multi-mission buoy tender based at Honolulu

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard
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The U.S. Coast Guard takes the responsibility of managing and maintaining of aids to navigation (ATON) seriously, and has a fleet of vessels that are designed for that mission—from the high seas to the coastal waters, Great Lakes, and inland rivers and waterways.

Buoy tenders have black hulls, and are distinguished from the patrol cutters with white hulls and icebreakers with red hulls.

The largest of the black-hull fleet are the Coast Guard’s fleet of 225-foot Juniper-class seagoing buoy tenders, which can travel long distances and work independently for extended periods of time. In addition to service a large network of ATON, they are highly capable multi-mission platforms to conduct law enforcement, oil spill recovery, search and rescue, homeland security and even some icebreaking operations.

Like the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters and medium endurance cutters, the oceangoing buoy tender have endurance and good seakeeping qualities.

“Our cutters can be out for weeks in remote locations. It's very difficult to provide for deployed logistics in areas that are just sparsely populated,” said Capt. John Driscoll, chief of Cutter Forces at Coast Guard headquarters. “There isn’t a lot of support available along the Aleutian Island chain up in Alaska, and up into the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. So, our ships have to be extremely reliable.”

The 225s are stationed as far away as Guam, as well as in America’s heartland on the Great Lakes.

The U. S. Coast Guard’s Fourteenth District covers more than 14 million square miles of land and sea from the Hawaiian Islands and across most of the Central and Western Pacific, and is responsible for operational units ashore and afloat on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, as well as American Samoa, Saipan, Guam, Singapore and Japan performing maritime safety, protection of natural resources, maritime security, homeland security, and national defense missions. It’s the Coast Guard’s largest district in terms of size.

The Coast Guard operates some of the only aids to navigation ships in all of Oceania. District 14 has a seagoing buoy tender stationed at both Guam and Honolulu. USCGC Juniper operates from Honolulu. Up until recently, the USCGC Sequoia (WLB 215) has been assigned to Guam, where it has been busy servicing the ATON in Guam, the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas and the Compact of Free Association states of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Marshall Island, as well as conducting law enforcement missions.

The crew of USCGC Sequoia (WLB 215) works to set a new floating ATON Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

The Guam-based Sequoia has frequent international engagements. It performs a lot of the ATON work for Palau, FSM and Marshall Islands, and others. Through the unique shiprider aspects of Coast Guard bilateral law enforcement agreements, the Coast Guard can embark host nation law enforcement teams on its cutters—including the buoy tenders—and augment the host nation’s surveillance of their Exclusive Economic.

The WLBs are equipped with dynamic positioning that allows them to stay in position even in 30-knot winds and 8-foot waves. The 2,000-ton tenders have two boats and a crane that make them especially useful—and desirable—in remote locations.

The WLB’s crane is used to retrieve buoys from the water for servicing, but are also useful in remote locations to perform tasks they have no way of performing themselves.

“The buoy tenders are so capable in this region, because they have terrific range and endurance, their boats and lift capacity, and they carry medical people on board. They do great work,” said Lt. Jacob Tronaas, future 0perations officer for District 14s response division.

“We recently conducted a mission with Navy divers to clear the channel at Kapingamarangi to allow ships to safely enter the lagoon,” Tronaas said. “We couldn’t have done all of that without Sequoia’s crane.”

The lead ship was commissioned in 1996, so the Juniper-class tenders are undergoing major maintenance availability (MMA) to ensure the 16 vessels in the class achieve the full 30-year designed service life. Sequoia, for example, was commissioned in 2004 and is now undergoing a routine mid-life maintenance availability at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore. The Sequoia’s crew will bring its sister ship USCGC Hickory (WLB 212) to Guam this fall, which will have completed its MMA.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Cypress (WLB-210) moored to a pier on Base Kodiak in Womens Bay, Alaska. Credit: Ian Gray / U.S. Coast Guard

Great Lakes

The 9th District encompasses the Great Lakes. For the ATON mission, the district has the 240-foot Great Lakes Icebreaker (GLIB) USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB 30) which is a dual-purpose buoy tender, two 225-foot buoy tenders and five 140-foot icebreaking tugboats.

Based in Cheboygan, Mich., the 3,500-ton Mackinaw has a very similar profile to the WLBs, designed for working ATON, but is strengthened for ice operations. She conducts law enforcement and interdiction, search and rescue, and environmental remediation response, as well.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (WLBB-30) breaks ice and maintains ATON across the Great Lakes. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Although an “oceangoing” cutter, USCGC Hollyhock (WLB 214), is one of the two Juniper-class tenders stationed on the Great Lakes.

“Usually, buoys need to be visited once every couple of years for servicing,” said Cmdr. Stephen Brickey, who completed his two-year tour of duty in command of USCGC Hollyhock from in May of this year. “But here we have an ice season where much of the lakes freeze over so just about every buoy has to be visited twice a year. In the fall we either remove the buoy for the ice season, or replace the ‘summer’ hull with an ice resistant ‘winter’ hull—and then in the spring we reverse the process!”

Brickey is an experienced mariner, but the Hollyhock was his first time sailing on fresh water. “I served on other cutters in my career, including three buoy tenders. I’ve worked buoys on the west and east coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and western Pacific, and I can say that the ATON work here in the Great Lakes has been some of the most challenging I’ve ever encountered. It’s also my first-time icebreaking, which is an inherently challenging mission. You could say I’ve traded the challenges of salt water for those of ‘hard’ water—ice.”

Coastal and Inland Tenders

The 14 ships of Keeper-class coastal buoy tenders service aids to navigation in coastal areas such as New York Harbor, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. The 175-foot Keepers are similar in design to the Junipers, but smaller at 850 tons, and a crew of two officers and 22 enlisted personnel. The coastal buoy tenders maintain aids to navigation, conduct search and rescue, law enforcement, migrant interdiction, marine safety inspections, environmental protection and natural resources management, as well as provide light icebreaking operations. Both the Juniper and Keeper classes were built by Fincantieri Marinette Marine. The Keeper-class cutters were commissioned between 1997 and 2000, and will commence MMA soon.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maria Bray (WLM-562) is a Keeper-class Coastal Buoy Tender. Credit: Dana Warr / U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard’s inland tender fleet consists of 35 tenders that maintain the more than 28,200 marine aids to navigation throughout the 12,000 miles of inland waterways that support the Marine Transportation System (MTS). This fleet represents nine different designs, and is aging and in need of replacement. The average age of these vessels is more than 57 years.

According to the Coast Guard’s 2023 Posture Statement, the service maintained 46,529 buoys and beacons across the MTS.

“Our national security and economic prosperity are inextricably linked to a safe and efficient Marine Transportation System; an integrated network of 361 ports and 25,000 miles of coastal and inland waterways,” the posture statement said.

During her 2023 State of the Coast Guard address in Washington, D.C. on March 7, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Linda Fagan said that the WCC program will provide crews with more capable platforms to do their jobs on the rivers and inland waterways which are so vital to the nation’s economy.

“We have the enduring responsibility to safeguard the Marine Transportation System and enable the uninterrupted flow of commerce, which sustains more than 30 million American jobs and contributes more than $5.4 trillion to the U.S. economy every year,” she said.

The Coast Guard is replacing the existing tug-and-barge tenders with three WCC monohull variants with greater endurance, speed, deck load capacity, and improved habitability for mixed-gender crews to best meet mission needs.

“The new cutters will also accommodate both men and women, ensuring heartland assignments are open to every member of the service,” Fagan said.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, “The Coast Guard’s Waterways Commerce Cutter (WCC) program envisages procuring 30 replacements for the Coast Guard’s 35 aging river buoy tenders (WLR), inland construction tenders (WLIC) and inland buoy tenders (WLI).” In October 2022, the Coast Guard awarded a $1.187 billion contract to Denver-based Birdon America, Inc. to build up to 16 WLRs and 11 WLICs.

Credit: Birdon

Birdon has tapped Louisiana-based Bollinger Shipyards to build the hulls for the WLRs and WLICs, and in August it announced that Master Boat Builders of Coden, Ala., will build the superstructures. Other key subcontractors involved in the program include Kern Martin Services, Hiller Marine, Techcrane International, Beier Integrated Systems, LeBlanc Associates and Cummins.

The WLRs and WLICs will feature a high degree of commonality and be acquired under a single contract, while the three Inland Bouy Tenders will be acquired with a government design and contractor-built under a separate contract.

Icebreaking tugs

The 140-foot Bay-class tugboat icebreaking tugboats can break ice up to 3 feet thick, and ram pressure ridges of up to eight feet thick. There are nine of them, and they are stationed in the Northeast and Great Lakes where they also support aids to navigation. The class has received the 140-foot WTGB Service Life Extension Project to extend their service lives and maintain a high degree of operational availability.

About the Author

Edward Lundquist is a retired naval officer who writes on naval, maritime, defense and security issues. He is a regular contributor to New Wave Media publications.

September 2023