May 22, 2018
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Composite center looks at buoys as candidate for new technology

Bridget Brown | BDN
Bridget Brown | BDN
By Walter Griffin

ROCKLAND, Maine — Navigational buoys have been built the same way for more than a century, and the U.S. Coast Guard is examining the possibility and potentials of making them from more modern materials.

The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composite Center has been asked to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether taking a modern approach to an old standard could save the agency time and money.

“Our cutters are 21st century technology and the buoys are 19th century technology,” Northern Sector Commander Capt. James McPherson said. “The whole idea is we haven’t really looked at the system in 100 years. Everyone looks at the buoys every single day and no one thinks much about them. Is there a better way of doing it? We’d like to know.”

The idea of getting the UM composite center to investigate the matter evolved from discussions U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had recently with Rear Adm. Joseph L. Nimmich, commander of the First Coast Guard District in Boston. The possibility of developing and implementing navigation buoys made from composite materials was something the university center was “uniquely positioned” to investigate, Collins said in a letter to Nimmich in October.

On Wednesday, the composites center senior research engineer Jake Marquis and Collins staff member William Card went aboard the Coast Guard buoy tender Abbie Burgess to see firsthand how the buoys are handled in order to gain insight into the beating they take at sea.

The Coast Guard’s northern sector, consisting of Maine, New Hampshire and Lake Champlain at the Vermont-New York border, takes care of more than 2,000 buoys, all of which are hauled and inspected each year and replaced every six years.

Marquis and Card watched from the ship’s bridge as a team of deckhands lowered a 4,000 pound sinker (mooring) and an 11,800-pound 824 buoy into the sea. It is a dangerous job, involving an onboard crane, steel cables, and 1½-inch thick chains. The “buoy elevation” process takes about 45 minutes, and is something the 24-member crew of the Abbie Burgess does about 500 times a year in good weather and bad.

“These are smart, knowledgeable guys doing this and they work as a team,” Executive Petty Officer Luis Ruano said. “It’s all based on experience and the feel for your ship and the sounds of your ship. The slightest little bump and you can tell if your chain is hung up or something else is going on down there.”

Capt. McPherson said the Coast Guard was particularly interested in the possibility of converting its ice buoys to composite. Ice buoys are placed in rivers and experience much damage over the course of a winter.

In addition, the ability to color the composite and build in reflective material would reduce maintenance costs, such as painting and replacing reflector tape. Reducing the weight of the buoys would enable the Coast Guard to use smaller crews and boats for their annual maintenance, McPherson said.

He said the buoys’ round shape came about because the barrel at the base used to be filled with kerosene to light their lamps. That shape makes a buoy a dangerous object on deck should it ever come loose. A composite buoy could conceivably have a flat side, he said, and eliminate the chance it would roll free.

Marquis said watching the elevation provided him with better insight into what was required of the buoys. He said that while it would be hard to surpass steel for strength, certain composite materials could be tailored to meet durability and impact standards.

“You can look at things in a drawing, but to see the operation and to see how the buoy behaves during the operation gives you a better feel. You have to see it under standard conditions,” Marquis said. “We have to determine if there is a place for us. If we do do it, we will do what we do best.

“Whatever solution we arrive at is not going to change the way you do business,” Marquis told Ruano after watching the elevation demonstration. “It’s more about finding a solution that will result in lower maintenance.”

McPherson stressed that the Coast Guard was a long way from committing to any changes in the current system. He said nothing would be done without first determining the local needs of fishermen and sailors.

“Certainly Coast Guard headquarters is very interested. No one is committed to anything at this point, but we want to explore it,” McPherson said. “We would not do anything without proper discussion. We can’t make any changes without going through rigorous review and public comment.”

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