For 22 years, until being decommissioned last week at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, the cutter Red Birch was a familiar sight to mariners and those who live along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
The diminutive vessel and her crew of 31 enlisted men and six officers tended the bay's buoys and unmanned lighthouses.
They also helped with search-and-rescue missions and during winter months took on ice-breaking duties to keep the bay's shipping lanes open to navigation.
From Hooper's Straits northward to Baltimore, the Red Birch once maintained the largest buoy patrol area in the country. An odd-looking craft that steamed along at a top speed of 12.6 knots, the vessel was responsible for maintaining some 400 buoys that help guide commercial ships and recreational boaters up and down the bay.
Assigned to the Coast Guard's Fifth district, the 157-foot coastal buoy tender was not only based at the Curtis Bay Yard but also was built there in 1964.
Highly maneuverable, the Red Birch was well-suited to the bay's shallow estuaries and tributaries.
Commissioned in 1965, the vessel was first based in San Francisco, where she maintained navigational aids along the California coast until being reassigned in 1976 to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Red Birch's motto, "Illuminamous Via" or "We Light the Way," was indicative of the work her crew performed -- a combination of space-age technology and hazardous, back-breaking, manual labor carried out in all kinds of weather.
Because buoys are continually battered by water and weather, and occasionally by ships and boats that collide with them and ospreys that call them home, they require regular servicing and inspection.
"We're trying to keep up with technology, so that where we put the buoy is where it's supposed to be," Lt. Donald E. Jaccard, the ship's last captain, told The Sun in an interview several years ago.
"Most buoys are hollow, made of steel and attached to the bottom via a long section of heavy chain connected to a sinker -- a concrete block nestled in the mud. The heaviest sinkers, used on larger buoys, weigh six tons," reported the newspaper.
Often working 12-hour days, the ship's crew began its work by hooking a buoy with the ship's 10-ton crane and pulling it onto the deck. There crewmen scraped barnacles off the bottom and sides of the buoy and, if necessary, made repairs, including repainting the red or green that distinguishes buoys.
If the anchor chain was worn, old links were cut out with an acetylene torch, and new ones were added up with a shackle at each end.
Before the renewed buoy was returned to the deep, a positioning team on the Red Birch's bridge checked the Differential Global Positioning System to make sure that when it hit the water it was where it was supposed to be.
"We took pride in our ship and our work," said Mark C. Stegall, a former crewman from Marietta, Ga., who has spent most of his 1 1/2 -year Coast Guard career aboard the vessel and is currently waiting reassignment at Curtis Bay.
In addition to repairing buoys, Stegall said he enjoyed visiting the bay's unmanned lighthouses at Sandy Point, Bloody Point and the Baltimore Light, where he and his fellow crewmen checked lighting equipment, cleaned glass, made minor repairs and gave areas in need a fresh coat of paint.
The final mission of the Red Birch in May was the inspection and repainting of the red, white and blue Star-Spangled Banner buoy that bobs brightly in the Patapsco River channel near the Key Bridge.
The buoy marks the spot where in 1814 Francis Scott Key observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the deck of a cartel boat towed by the HMS Surprize. Before the buoy was reset into the waters of the Patapsco, the crew of the Red Birch took paint pens and signed their names to the buoy's underwater shaft. They then lined the rail and saluted it as the Red Birch slowly steamed back to home port.
In October, the James B. Rankin, now being built in Wisconsin, will assume the former duties of the Red Birch, which has been transferred to the Argentine Navy.
Pub Date: 6/20/98