USCG's 180-foot Seagoing Buoy Tender

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Between 1942 and 1944, thirty-nine 180-foot buoy tenders were built for the U.S. Coast Guard.  The preliminary design was initialized by the U.S. Lighthouse Service prior to its amalgamation into the Coast Guard in 1939.  The final design was intended to replace all large or Class-A lighthouse tenders.  For the first time search and rescue features were added to a ship designed primarily for tending buoys and servicing lighthouses.  Following the merger it was decided that ice breaking capability and armament should be added to the design of the ship.  Most were equipped with one 3 inch-50 caliber gun in the gun tub behind the stack (as shown below right on the CGC PLANETREE) and two or four 20mm machine guns and depth charges.  All 39 of the 180's were named after bushes/shrubs.

The final design produced a single-screw ship with considerable slack bilges and a cutaway forefoot (as shown in the “Mesquite” B-Class outline above left).  Additionally the wheelhouse was extended outboard to the sides of the ship to increase the interior space.  The search and rescue requirements of the vessel caused a reduction in beam-to-length ratio, giving the ship a finer tapered shape at the bow and the stern.  


Faced with the problem of turning out thirty-nine ships in just three years, the Coast Guard awarded contracts to the Marine Iron & Shipbuilding Company and the Zenith Dredge Company both of Duluth, Minnesota along with its own facility at Curtis Bay, Maryland.   By the end of 1944 Marine Iron had built twenty-one ships, Zenith Dredge had built  seventeen and the Coast Guard Yard had built one, a B-Class, the IRONWOOD (W-297) at a cost of $850,000-$950,000 per unit for hull and machinery.

(Left)  There were 13 "A" Class 180's.  The "A" Class became known as the CACTUS Class since it was the very first one launched on 11 April 1942.(Right)  By January 1943 you can see five Cactus "A" Class tenders in different stages of construction.  The CACTUS with mains online at location (A), two at location (B) about to be launched and two launched at location (C)

There were three classes of 180-foot buoy tenders built between 1942 and 1944.  There were thirteen A-Class cutters built with the distinctive “A” frame boom hoist support and the boom controls being on top of the wheelhouse (see photos below).  Because CACTUS (W-270) was the first of the A-Class cutters, the 12 to follow would be known as the Cactus Class with Marine Iron building six and Zenith Dredge building seven.  

The physical differences between the thirteen Cactus Class cutters and the six B-Class and twenty C-Class cutters that followed were very noticeable especially around the bridge and boom support system.  Both the B and C-Class cutters eliminated the “A” frame configuration of the Cactus Class (accented in red in Photo above left) and opted for a vang supported boom hoist (Photo below left). Vangs were attached at the forward end of the bridge wings on both the port and starboard side to the end of the boom by two sets of cables.  To add further strength to the bridge, the outboard sides of the bridge ran down to the deck below and facilitated the addition of storage lockers under the bridge wings on both sides.

Another benefit of this configuration allowed for the boom controls to be moved from on top of the wheelhouse and facilitated their being tucked in under the bridge out of the weather (Photo above right).  Boom operators really liked that as most boom controls were not enclosed even in frigid climates until the 1960’s and others never were. Some other changes less noticeable were the radio room being placed one-half deck below and aft of the bridge and the Commanding Officers’ quarters were moved from directly below the bridge to a position directly below the radio room.  The engine exhaust was no longer vented through the stack but was vented out the side of the hull.  

The first of the Mesquite "B" Class cutters to be launched was the MESQUITE (W-305) on 14 November 1942 at Marine Iron followed closely by the IRONWOOD (W-297), the only 180 to be built by the Coast Guard Yard. Another change came about between the Mesquite Class cutters and the twenty C-Class cutters to follow.  The twenty C-Class cutters were powered up from 1,000 horsepower to 1,200 horsepower and the fuel storage capacity was increased from the Mesquite Class, but the C-Class still couldn’t equal the cruising range of the Cactus "A" Class.

On 20 May 1943 the first of the C-Class cutters, the cutter BASSWOOD (W-388) was launched at Marine Iron & Shipbuilding with three more under construction just in front of her. (Photo Above).  The nineteen cutters to follow would be known as Basswood Class buoy tenders.  

The last two Basswood Class cutters were built by Zenith Dredge.  As the BASSWOOD (W-388) conducts sea trials on Lake Superior (left above), the ACACIA (W-406) (above right) the next-to-last cutter nears completion.  Originally ACACIA was to have been named Thistle.  Before the Thistle is launched however her name was changed to ACACIA to honor the Lighthouse Service tender Acacia that had been torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine on 17 March 1942 off of the British West Indies.  The last of the Basswood Class cutters to be launched was the WOODRUSH (W-407) on 28 April 1944.

NOTICE:  Click on your cutter's name for your
                 cutter's Unit History and Photos

The "A" Class or Cactus Class

USCGC Balsam (WLB-62)Alaskan Fishing Vessel Baranof (Baranof Fisheries, Seattle)
USCGC Cactus (WLB-270)In Process of being scrapped
USCGC Cowslip (WLB-277)Serving in Nigeria as the NNS Ologbo A-502
USCGC Woodbine (WLB-289)Being scrapped by breakers in Mexico
USCGC Gentian (WLB-290)Serving In Columbia as ARC San Andres PO-45
USCGC Laurel (WLB-291)Being used as a leased party boat for large parties in Trinidad-Tobago.
USCGC Clover (WLB-292)USN sunk as a target on 26 June 1990
USCGC Evergreen (WLB-295)USN sunk as a target on 25 November 1992
USCGC Sorrel (WLB-296)Privately owned coastal freighter MV Fearless.  Appears in March 2011 Starbuck's commercial "SUE"  (06/2011)
USCGC Citrus (WLB-300)Dominican Republic as Almirante Juan Alejandro Acosta (456)
USCGC Conifer (WLB-301)Serving in Louisiana missionary organization Friendships as the MV Hope
USCGC Madrona (WLB-302)Serving in El Salvador as Manuel Jose Arce (BL-01)
USCGC Tupelo (WLB-303)Alaskan FV Courageous (Baranof Fisheries, Seattle)

The "B" Class or Mesquite Class

USCGC Ironwood (WLB-297)Tongue Point Job Corp Center, training vessel Ironwood
USCGC Mesquite (WLB-305)Lake Superior dive attraction in the Keeweenaw Underwater Preserve
USCGC Buttonwood (WLB-306)Serving in the Dominican Republic Almirante Didiez Burgos (301)
USCGC Planetree (WLB-307)Stored in Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet (Jan 2010 inventory)
USCGC Papaw (WLB-308)Serving in a Lousiana missionary organization Friendships as the MV MerSea
USCGC Sweetgum (WLB-309)Serving in Panama as SMN Independencia A-401

The "C" Class or Basswood Class

USCGC Basswood (WLB-388)Recycled in the fall of 2012 in California.
USCGC Bittersweet (WLB-389)Serves in Estonia as the Valvas PVL-109
USCGC Blackhaw (WLB-390)USN sunk as target in June 1997 off Puerto Rico
USCGC Blackthorn (WLB-391)Scuttled off of Clearwater, Florida as fish habitat reef
USCGC Bramble (WLB-392)Privately owned by Robert B. and Sara Klingler and is moored at the Seaway Terminal in Port Huron, Michigan
USCGC Firebush (WLB-393)Serves in Nigeria as NNS Nwamba (cat) A-503
USCGC Hornbeam (WLB-394)Privately owned in Florida renamed Rum Cay Grace
USCGC Iris (WLB-395)Stored in Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet (Jan 2010 inventory)
USCGC Mallow (WLB-396) Recycled in Maryland in the spring of 2012.
USCGC Mariposa (WLB-397)Recycled in Oregon in the fall of 2012.
USCGC Redbud (WLB-398)Serves in Philippine CG as Kalinga AG-89
USCGC Sagebrush (WLB-399)Scuttled 28 April, 1988 off Georgia coast as a reef
USCGC Salvia (WLB-400)Serves as a USNS training hulk at Little Creek, Virginia
USCGC Sassafras (WLB-401)Serves in Nigeria as NNS Obula A-504
USCGC Sedge (WLB-402)Serves in Nigeria as NNS Kyanwa A-501
USCGC Spar (WLB-403)Scuttled off North Carolina as fish habitat reef 10 June 2004
USCGC Sundew (WLB-404)Privately owned by Jeff Foster of Foster Trucking in Superior, Wisconsin  (04/2010)
USCGC Sweetbrier (WLB-405)Serves in Ghana as GNS Bonsu (whale) P31
USCGC Acacia (WLB-406)Privately owned and will be open for tours in Manistee, Michigan (04/2010)
USCGC Woodrush (WLB-407)Serves in Ghana as GNS Anzone (shark) P30

The Coast Guard 180s Go Off To War

During World War II the 180-foot buoy tenders performed multiple duties.  They were crewed by a compliment of 6 officers and 74 enlisted as gray painted U.S. Navy WAGL’s in the Pacific, the north Atlantic and here at home.  In the Navy designation of WAGL, the “W” stood for Coast Guard and the “AGL” was the Navy’s designation for lighthouse tender.  Their duties included convoy duty escorts, setting navigational aids along convoy routes and around minefields, patrolling coastal waters, search and rescue for downed aviators and rescuing crews from sinking ships, removing and transporting torpedo nets, firefighting, personnel evacuations from frontline areas and in some cases engaging enemy ships and aircraft.  The cutter BUTTONWOOD (W-306) for example withstood 132 air attacks just in November of 1944 while serving in the Philippines.  The BALSAM (W-62) distinguished herself during WWII by depth charging and sinking a Japanese submarine while operating in the Pacific Theatre.  The cutter TUPELO (W-303) serving in the Pacific Theatre established and maintained over 50 massive moorings for U.S. Navy ships.  These moorings had 15 ton anchors and 2 1/2 inch chain.  She was also used to set buoys around mine fields and to transport tons of dynamite to the Seabees, (Navy Construction Battalions) building airfields on the Pacific Islands.

None of the 180s were lost to enemy action during the war. Those in the Atlantic Theater operated under the threat of German U-boats, but the few encounters saw the cutters dropping depth charges on the suspected positions of submerged U-boats and receiving no return fire. A German U-boat sank one U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender from another class, Acacia (WAGL-200), while she operated in the Caribbean Sea . Acacia was one of the ex-Army mine-planters acquired by the Lighthouse Bureau after WWI. The USCG named a "C" class 180 in honor of the sunken vessel. Though the 180s serving in the Pacific came under enemy air attack on many occasions, no severe damage resulted. The 180s contributed to the screen of anti-aircraft fire around the fleet during air raids and shot down several enemy aircraft while contributing to the destruction of others. One tender suffered significant damage from an explosion attributed to a floating Japanese mine. There were no encoun­ters between the buoy tenders and Japanese submarines or surface units. Weather was also a formidable adversary. Tenders operating in the northern reaches of both oceans frequently battled ice and snow as they went about their work. Tenders in the Atlantic Theatre were subjected to dangerously high winds and waves during storms, especially during winter storms on the North Atlantic . They also had to dodge hurricanes sweeping up from the tropics during the summer and fall months. The Pacific 180s, besides normal ocean storms, were subjected to the fury of powerful typhoons that regularly sank large ships. Heat was a problem in both theatres and, while never a grave threat to the vessels; it made life unpleasant for crews operating near the equator in the days before air conditioning. The 180s survived enemy action and the dangers of operating in the maritime environment in any weather. Every vessel survived the conflict and the class provided valuable service in the war effort. Their endeavors made possible the safe navigation of thousands of warships and merchantmen as the Allied powers dispatched convoys, battle groups, and invasion fleets to the far reaches of the Pacific and set up a floating conveyor belt carrying millions of tons of war materiel across the Atlantic. (USCG)

The photo above right of the cutter SWEETBRIER (W-405) provides an excellent view of the armament added to the 180's for service in WWII.  This included depth charge tracks off the stern, a 3"/50 caliber dual purpose main battery (above left) in the gun tub just aft of the cutter's stack, up to four single-mount 20mm anti-aircraft cannons, and .50 caliber machine guns.  Some were fitted with mousetraps, K-guns, sonar and radar as well.  These tenders were capable of escorting convoys, tending anti-submarine nets, laying mines, salvage operations, weather patrols, and SAR operations in addition to their primary duty of tending ATON.

The 3 Inch/50 Caliber Gun

The 3"/50 caliber gun (Mark 22) was a semiautomatic dual purpose anti-aircraft and surface target weapon used by the U.S. Navy from the 1940's through the 1960's on a variety of combatant and transport ship classes with a power driven automatic loader that fired a fixed AA (Anti-aircraft) or HC (High Capacity) round consisting of a projectile and a cartridge case crimped to the projectile. The average weight of the round was 34 pounds. The projectiles weighed about 13 pounds including a burster charge of 0.81 pounds for the AA round and 1.27 pounds for the HC round. The initial velocity of the round was 2,700 feet/second with a maximum range of 13,100 yards at 45 degrees elevation and a ceiling of 27,300 feet at 85 degrees elevation. The gun could fire at a rate of 50 rounds/minute.

The 3" guns were fitted to both single and twin mountings. The single was to be exchanged for a twin 40 mm. mount and the twin for a quadruple 40 mm. mount. Although intended as a one-for-one replacement for the 40 mm. mounts, the final version of the new 3-inch mounts was heavier than expected, and on most ships the mounts could be replaced only on a two-for-three basis. The mounts were of the dual purpose, open-base-ring type. The right and left gun assemblies were identical in the twin mounts. The mounts used a common power drive that could train at a rate of 30 degrees/second and elevate from 15 degrees to 85 degrees at a rate of 24 degrees/second.

The gun was used in single or dual open mounts, designed to replace dual and quad 40 mm antiaircraft guns, respectively. It could fire a 13-pound projectile 14,600 yards in a surface role, and to 29,800 feet as an antiaircraft gun. The rate of fire was about 20 rounds per minute per barrel, which was good against slower planes, but not effective against faster ones such as jets.

The weapon was considered ineffective against surface targets. However, with World War II improvements in fuzing and fire control, a dual 3"/50 mount was considered as effective as a quad Bofors 40 mm gun in the anti-aircraft role.(Ref: Wiki)

Additional links to 3"/50 cal guns provided by LTGunner ....... Thanks Gunner

uss slater.com WARNING: This link opens with a boom sound.
180's Operations During WWII under the Department of the Navy as WAGL's

(Left) The cutter COWSLIP (W-277) encounters heavy seas on convoy duty in the North Atlantic.
(Right)  The cutter EVERGREEN (W-295) on North Atlantic Ice Patrol warning Allied convoys of ice flows.

The cutter MESQUITE (W-305) patrolled the waters around Corregidor and the cutter CLOVER (W-292) patrolled the Aleutians off Alaska

The cutter IRONWOOD (W-297) recovers a scuttled Japanese two-man submarine off Cape Esperance in the South Pacific.

World War II Ends and The 180s Return To Their Peacetime Missions

Following the war the gray painted one-eighty fleet were with some exceptions, stripped of armaments, repainted black on the hull with white superstructure and for a short time in the late 1940's and early 1950's had their alpha-numeric unit designations painted on in small white characters on the bow just aft of the anchors.  They were then assigned to Coast Guard Districts for search and rescue operations, maintaining shore based and floating navigational aids, supplying LORAN stations, ice breaking, law and treaty enforcement, drug interdiction, oceanographic and environmental research, fire fighting, safety patrols, assisting state fish and game departments, hurricane coastal evacuations and North Atlantic Ice Patrols. By the mid 1950's the cutters alpha-numeric unit designations were painted on in large white characters on the bow just aft of the anchor. 

Shown in their postwar markings underway are left, the BLACKHAW (W-390) and right, the MESQUITE (W-305)


The 180s saw limited duty in the Korean War and significant action in Vietnam. Four of the buoy tenders served in the waters around South Vietnam. None took up permanent station in the theater; instead, they rotated through short tours from homeports in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific. Eventually the Coast Guard decided to reassign the BLACKHAW (WLB-390) to Vietnam to place and maintain ATON marking coastal and inland waterways. Simultaneously, they conducted extensive training of Vietnamese nationals in preparation for the day when the ATON system passed into Vietnamese hands. This transfer was completed in 1972. Other missions carried out by the 180s serving in the war zone included cargo transport, survey work, and support of efforts to interdict enemy supply lines. Most of the 180s did not see wartime action after their service in World War II. This does not mean, however, that military training was not part of the buoy tender's overall mission. The potential military role of the Coast Guard, however, means USCG units participate in periodic military exercises and operations with the US Navy and allied maritime forces. As part of the US Coast Guard, the buoy tenders regularly drilled to improve their ability to find enemy forces, engage potential targets, survive battle damage, and work in concert with naval units. These maritime defense activities have been ongoing throughout the history of the Coast Guard's 180-foot buoy tender. (USCG)

The BASSWOOD (WLB-388) and the BLACKHAW (WLB-390) established and maintained AtoN in Vietnam


Icebreaking To Keep Shipping Lanes Open And Cargo Moving

The MESQUITE (WLB-305), the WOODRUSH (WLB-407) and the SUNDEW (WLB-404) break ice in the Great Lakes

Icebreaking on the Great Lakes was and is a key to the regions economy.  The Great Lakes are divided into two main parts; the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Upper Great Lakes.  The St. Lawrence Seaway includes Lake Ontario, the Welland Canal and the numerous lakes, river and locks the connect Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean.  The Upper Great Lakes include; Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake St. Claire, Sault Ste. Marie Locks and the St. Claire and Detroit Rivers.

An average of 200 million tons of cargo passes through the Great Lakes each year.  Major Commodities shipped on the Great Lakes each season are; iron ore 72,300,000 tons and coal 41,000,000 tons. Dry –bulk shipping generally begins in early March and extends until the end of January.  One 65,000-ton cargo of iron ore keeps a major steel mill in operation for more that four days.  One 65,000-ton coal cargo produces enough electricity to power the Greater Detroit area for one day.

During their careers on the Great Lakes, the 180's helped industries maintain the vital flow of goods and services in and out of the Great Lakes.  They kept the shipping lanes open a month longer in winter and they opened them up months earlier in the spring.  The longer shipping seasons meant that factories did not have to stockpile as much raw materials.  Those reduced inventory costs, kept manufacturing costs lower.  The 180s cleared the ways for shippiing to carry coal bound for power plants, resulting in lower costs to the consumer and reliable electic power during the coldest months.  Barges kept gasoline and home heating oil flowing north.  For the average citizen this meant lower costs for heating oil and gasoline.  The region needed shipping, and shipping needed the Coast Guard's Great Lakes 180-foot buoy tender fleet breaking ice to keep the economy flowing.

Salvage And Recovery Operations

         (Left and Center) The BASSWOOD, WLB-388 recovers a U. S. Army helo off Waikiki April 1963 (Right) The IRONWOOD, WLB-297
           unloads a NASA space capsule that they located and recovered in 1966

Search and Rescue Operations

     (Left) The HORNBEAM, WLB-394 stands by the sinking Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria as the liner's Captain Calamai's lifeboat
     pulls along side on July 26, 1956. (Right)  The WOODRUSH, WLB-407 (not in photo) stands by the burning cruise ship Prinsendam               as Coast Guard helicopters airlift passengers to safety in October of 1980

Public Relations

       (Left) Every year the WOODBINE, WLB-289 and many other of the Great Lakes 180s gathered in Grand Haven, Michigan for
           Coast Guard Day and opened the ships up for tours.  (Right)  The Pacific 180 fleet led by the MALLOW, WLB-396 and the
           PLANETREE, WLB-307 along with the PAPAW, WLB-308, BUTTONWOOD, WLB-306 and IRONWOOD, WLB-297 gather in Honolulu
           for an AtoN Conference and PR tour in 1966.

Modernizing The Aging 180 Fleet, New Designations, Stripes and Renovations
In 1965 the designation of 180-foot buoy tenders was changed from the U.S. Navy designation of WAGL to a new Coast Guard designation of WLB as the Coast Guard was switched from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Transportation.  The “W” stood for Coast Guard just as it had in the Navy designation and the “LB” stood for seagoing buoy tender.  In the late 1960’s with most of the one eighty fleet passing twenty five years of service, the Coast Guard initiated a program to modernize the appearance of all Coast Guard vessels and aircraft.  A wide orange, and a narrower white and blue “racing” stripe was added to the bow of its cutters, with the U.S. Coast Guard logo displayed in the field of the wide orange stripe and on both sides of the stack if the vessel had a stack.  The words “COAST GUARD” were added around amidships, and the unit designation number of the cutter was greatly reduced in size and displayed just forward of the orange stripe without the W prefix before the unit number.

Alaskan 180's SWEETBRIER (WLB-405) and CLOVER (WLB-292) in their new COAST GUARD markings in the early 1970's

The new look on USCG vessels shown in the photo above started in the late 1960’s.  Later “U.S.” was added just forward of “COAST GUARD” to distinguish USCG cutters from Canadian coast guard ships.

In the 1970’s and on into the 1980’s the Coast Guard experienced major changes due to Washington cutbacks and the Coast Guard was forced to downsize.  This led to four of the 180s being decommissioned and sold to private enterprise.  Gone were the CACTUS (WLB-270), WOODBINE (WLB-289), TUPELO (WLB-303) and the BALSAM (WLB-62).  For the remaining 180s on active duty the Coast Guard executed a number of modernization and renovation programs to extend the service life of the one-eighties since most of the budget appropriations for the Coast Guard were to fund the new WHEC Hamilton Class 378's and a new class of WMEC's which started in the mid 1960's.

Compare the above pre-SLEP LAUREL (WLB-291) left to her post-SLEP former "A" Class sister ship COWSLIP (WLB-277) right.

There were three programs to modernize the 180 fleet; austere renovations, major renovations referred to as MAJREN and the Service Life Extension Program referred to as SLEP.  These programs involved replacing main engines, main motors, replacing electric buoy handling systems with hydraulics, installing bow thrusters and improving living accommodations for crews of both sexes and much more.  The Cactus "A" Class 180s in going through SLEP saw extreme changes in their superstructure and buoy handling equipment.  For the "A" Class you could have called SLEP "Extreme Makeover Buoy Tender Edition"  ;D

The first round of overhauls to affect the 180 fleet, known as “Austere Renovations”, began in 1974. Improvements carried out as part of the Austere Renovation program consisted of habitability improvements, engineering improvements, and equipment upgrades. The habitability improvements included modernization of the World War II-era crew quarters and sanitary facilities, installation of a crew lounge, remodeling of the dispensary area, and improved climate control systems. Work in the engineering spaces centered on the overhaul of the propulsion systems and a general modernization of the engineering plant. Equipment upgrades elsewhere included installation of modern electronics and replacement of aging deck machinery. Four buoy tenders went through the Austere Renovation program.

At about the same time the Austere renovations com­menced, the US Coast Guard began rotating other 180s through shipyards for more extensive improvements as part of the 'Major Renovation' (MAJREN) program. Under the MAJREN program, vessels received new diesel engines while the main electrical motor and its control systems underwent a thorough overhaul. New electrical wiring and switchboards were installed, as were entirely new water piping and sewage handling systems. Each vessel received a bow thruster to improve its maneuverability in close quarters. Future crews benefited from the replacement and modernization of all furnishings in the living areas. Decreasing the size of the forward hold allowed the expansion of the living area itself. Fourteen 180s went through the MAJREN program. These repairs and improvements extended each vessels service life by an estimated ten to fifteen years.

The third renovation program to affect the 180s was the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). This program began in 1983 and culminated a decade later. These renovations all took place at Curtis Bay and involved vessels that previously went through the MAJREN program. Whereas, Austere and MAJREN had entailed significant overhaul, the SLEP was the most extensive effort to extend the class' life span. During the yard periods new main engines and generators replaced the aging power plants. Upgrades and replacement components served to modernize the electrical systems. Shipyard technicians installed new navigational systems and computer controls for the engineering systems. SLEP work was far more than the replacement or upgrade of various systems or simply the addition of new equipment; it also entailed significant structural changes. Workers sandblasted each vessel throughout to remove all paint and expose the underlying steel for careful inspection. Shipyard workers tore away the existing deckhouse and replaced it with a new structure that included an expanded pilothouse, ship's office, and radio room. Internal changes included the installation of smaller forward tanks and the conversion of the forward cargo hold to make room for the installation of more berthing space, including bunks and heads for female sailors and a crew lounge. The reconfigured space also included boatswain, electrical, damage control, and electronics workshops. Work was done in the internal spaces to improve the watertight integrity of the vessel. Up on deck, a hydraulic system replaced the electric weight handling gear and the boom operator's booth was relocated.

For the six Cactus "A" Class cutters COWSLIP (WLB-277), GENTIAN (WLB-290), LAUREL (WLB-291), SORREL (WLB-296), CONIFER (WLB-301) and MADRONA (WLB-302) any physical resemblance to a Cactus Class cutter was gone.  With major renovations to their superstructure and the addition of all new buoy handling equipment they looked just like any of their Mesquite "B" or Basswood "C" Class sister ships.  SLEP for these six cutters included removal of the A-frame and reconfiguring the cargo handling system so the boom attached to the bridge wings. Hydraulic weight handling systems were also added to the boat davits on either side of the superstructure. The SLEP overhauls were extensive and they were also time consuming and costly. The average cost for a single tender to pass through the SLEP was $11 million. Time spent in the yard averaged eighteen months or, according to the analysis of two representative overhauls, 210,000-215,000 man-hours by shipyard workers. Like the earlier programs, the SLEP helped to extend the service life span of the aging buoy tenders. Coast Guard projections during the period estimated the SLEP would extend vessel life spans by fifteen to twenty years.   (Ref: USCG)


The work of a buoy tender and her crew is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the Coast Guard.  By the very nature of buoy tending the ships and their crews are exposed to dangerous conditions.  Buoys mark navigational hazards such as sand bars and rock shoals and the edges of channels to guide ships safely in and out of ports.  Over the sixty or so years the 180s served many of the ships have sustained minor damage to their hulls while working a buoy with some having been holed while working a buoy.  There are even some buoys where the ship is deliberately grounded to work the buoy.  In an interview retired Commander Jimmie Hobaugh former C.O. of the WOODRUSH (WLB-407) was asked if he ever put the WOODRUSH aground.  His response was, “I used to put her aground all the time – that’s the only way you can set some of the buoys that you work.”     

                 The cutter SEDGE (WLB-402) (left) sustained minor damage on 09 January 1990 when she grounded and the cutter
                                   CACTUS (WLB-270) was holed 22 November 1971 while working Gray’s Harbor entrance buoy.

Every C.O. of a buoy tender prefers to work their buoys in good weather for the safety of the ship and crew.  Sometimes they don’t have a choice as buoys can be dragged off station by ice flows or storms, they can be hit and damaged or even sunk by ships in reduced visibility or they can become inoperable due to electro-mechanical failures of the batteries, 4-position lamp changer or the photo electric sensor switch. 

Missing its cage (left) a sunken buoy is retrieved after being hit and dragged off station.  Ice flows (middle) and storms (right) will move buoys off station.   At these times the buoy tender and her crew have to get underway regardless of the weather to work these buoys.  Sometimes you have to work these buoys in gale force winds or the stinging bitter cold of winter with heavily iced buoys and ice underfoot on the buoy deck.

Even under ideal conditions, working buoys is a dangerous job and there are so many things that can go wrong.  The buoy deck seems like a large work area but when you have a buoy load aboard complete with the hundreds of feet of mooring chain and concrete sinkers four feet square by thirty inches high weighing thousands of pounds, you’re left with a very small work space in which to work buoys weighing 10,000-pounds or more.

When the buoy tender gets into position and glides up next to the buoy (left above), the men on the buoy deck throw a rope around the cage, hold the buoy tight to the side of the deck and spring into action. The hook of the twenty-ton crane is hooked into the buoy’s lifting eye.  Next the BMC (center above) gives the boom operator the hand signal to lift the buoy.  The BMC then signals the boom operator to swing the buoy cross-deck positioning the buoy’s mooring chain so that it slides across the “V” in the chain stopper.  Once the buoy’ s tube and counterweighted bottom are on deck the buoy is lowered to the deck into a buoy saddle and the buoy’s mooring chain slides into and is gripped by the chain stopper.

While one team secures the buoy to pad eyes on the deck, another team disconnects the end of the buoy’s mooring chain from the buoy and shackles it to a buoy deck pad eye.  Then a shackle is placed into the buoy sinker chain just to the inboard side of the chain stopper.  The boom’s hook is then hooked into the shackle and then the chain is lifted by the boom bringing up “bites” (a length of chain) of chain each time before the chain is slid back down into the chain stopper.  This process is repeated over and over until all of the bites of the buoy’s chain and concrete sinker are on board.   Even under the best working conditions the painted steel of the buoy deck becomes very slippery with water, buoy and chain slime (photos above) and crustaceans and bird crap scraped from the buoy.  Now imagine trying to work a buoy on those wet slimy decks, slipping and sliding around in two to three foot seas. 

With the buoy and sinker aboard, the next two hours will be spent inspecting electronics, battery packs, lamps, inspecting the buoy’s sinker bridle and the sinker chain for bad links and replacing those links, welding, hammering, cleaning and sometimes painting and replacing faded numbers on the buoy.

With the work on the buoy and mooring chain complete, the buoy sinker is lifted by the ships boom and hung over the ship’s side (above left) by the chain stopper, while the ship maneuvers to get in position to set the buoy.  The pre-SLEP LAUREL (WLB-291) (above middle) lists to port with the weight of the buoy sinker in the chain stopper.  On deck the chain is laid out across the deck in a back and forth configuration so that it pays out smoothly once the sinker is released.  The chain will run off the buoy deck at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour and all personnel on deck stand well back from the chain.  The buoy is unshackled from the deck and at the direction of the BMC lifted by the boom in position at the outward edge of the buoy deck just above the surface of the water.  On the bridge the QM’s and the OOD are taking bearings to get the ship in proper position to set the buoy.  With the ship in position the command comes from the bridge “Set the buoy”.  With that command the BMC gives the man with the sledge hammer (above right) the go ahead to knock off the “U” clamp on the chain stopper that allows the buoy sinker to free-fall to the bottom.  Once the sinker hits bottom the buoy is then lowered into the water and unhooked from the ship’s boom. Then it’s off to work the next buoy and repeat the procedure all over again.

The Era Of The Coast Guard's 180-foot Buoy Tenders Comes To An End

In a solemn ceremony on 9 June 2006 in Charlevoix, Michigan, the last of the 180s, the Coast Guard cutter ACACIA (WLB-406) was decommissioned bringing to an end the era of the Coast Guard's 180-foot buoy tender.  The 180 has been deemed by many who have served on them to have been the most versatile platform ever developed for the Coast Guard.  Quite simply put, the 180s did everything that was expected of them and more.

(Left)  The "Ace of the Lakes" all decked out for the ceremony and looking like she could do another fifty years. 
(Right) The Coast Guard Band warms up and prepares to play the National Anthem

          Rear Admiral John Crowley (right) and the last Commanding Officer to ever command a 180, the last C.O. of the ACACIA,
            Commander Keith Bills (left) render a salute.  I like to think that when I look at these officers they are rendering a salute
            and a fond farewell to all of the 39 180s and to all those who have faithfully served on them over the years. 

The one-eighties during their careers traveled many of the oceans of the world.   Generally speaking their operating areas were limited to coastal waters, the Great Lakes and Alaska where the majority of buoys and shore based navigational aids are.  However; search and rescue missions, drug interdiction and illegal immigration activities took the one-eighties from a wide area to assist U.S. Customs, the D.E.A. and other government agencies in the Caribbean.  For example, the MESQUITE (WLB-305) when she was stationed in Charlevoix, Michigan in the 1980’s, the ACACIA  (WLB-406) when she was stationed in Charlevoix, Michigan and the BRAMBLE (WLB-392) when she was stationed in Port Huron, Michigan all journeyed from their homeports in the Great Lakes to winter in the Caribbean to assist federal agencies with drug smuggling and illegal immigration problems.

          On 27 June 2006 the ACACIA under temporary commission leaves Charlevoix for the last time with many residents
             rushing out to wave goodbye.  As the ACACIA heads out towards the open water enroute to Burns Harbor, Indiana
             for temporary dockage it's as if she is saying Fair Winds and Calm seas to those new tenders and their crews, for our
             time is done, our watch has ended.

During their careers the one-eighties proved their durability with many having served over fifty years.  They also proved their versatility by performing virtually every service the Coast Guard demands of their cutters, maintaining navigational aids, search and rescue missions, environmental and oceanographic research, law and treaty enforcement, salvage operations, fisheries stocking programs with state fish and game departments, emergency evacuations, medical evacuations, public relations, firefighting, and ice breaking.  Unlike the white cutters, the one-eighties were the work horses of the fleet and they performed admirably in all sorts of adverse conditions such as hurricanes, typhoons, floods, earthquakes and war.  The entire one-eighty fleet has been decommissioned and these ships, while just a memory to some, have become a significant part of Coast Guard history.

Some Of The 180s Have Continued On Past Their Coast Guard Careers

Quite a few of the former Coast Guard 180s have gone on past their Coast Guard careers and serve the people of foreign nations much in the same manner as they served in the Coast Guard.  They are used for fisheries patrols, drug interdiction, law enforcement and ATON.  The cutters SASSAFRAS (WLB-401), SEDGE (WLB-402), FIREBUSH (WLB-393) and COWSLIP (WLB-277) serve the African nation of Nigeria.   The cutters SWEETBRIER (WLB-405) now the GNS BONSU (whale) P31 and WOODRUSH (WLB-407) now GNS ANZONE (shark) P30 serve the nation of Ghana.  The CITRUS (WLB-300) and BUTTONWOOD (WLB-306) serve in the Dominican Republic, SWEETGUM (WLB-309) and GENTIAN (WLB-290) serve in Panama,  REDBUD (WLB-398) serves in the Philippines as the Kalinga, BITTERSWEET (WLB-389) serves in Estonia as the Valvas (PVL-109) and MADRONA (WLB-302) serves in the Navy of El Salvador.

The ex-Bittersweet (notice bridge rework) as Estonia's Valvas and the ex-Woodrush on patrol in
Ghana as the Anzone (shark)

Serving in the Navy of the Dominican Republic, Almirante Juan Alejandro Acosta (ex-Citrus) and the
 ex-Buttonwood (right) serves as the Almirante Didiez Burgos

Serving in Nigeria's Navy as NNS Nwamba A503 (ex-Firebush) and the NNS Kyanwa A501 (ex-Sedge)

Serving in Panama the SMN Independencia A-401 (ex-Sweetgum) and serving in Columbia
the ARC San Andres (ex-Gentian)

Others have been sold to private owners and serve their new owners in commercial ventures.  The cutters BALSAM (WLB-62) and TUPELO (WLB-303) were sold to Baranof Fisheries and have been harvesting King Crab and Cod as the M/V Baranoff (ex-Balsam) and M/V Courageous (ex-Tupelo) for markets around the world ever since. (Many thanks to Chief Rick Nygren, Ret. for the link) The WOODBINE
(WLB-289) has been used as a fish processing ship in Alaskan waters for the last fifty years.   The CACTUS (WLB-270) is being used as a storage hulk in Tacoma, Washington.

The M/V Baranoff (ex-Balsam left) and the M/V Courageous (ex-Tupelo right) have done well in their long productive careers.

The storage hulk ex-Cactus in Tacoma, Washington (left) and (right) the M/V Woodbine a fish processor in Alaskan waters

(Left) The ex-Ironwood at Tongue Point Job Corp Center training young men and women for a career at sea.
(Right)  The ex-Conifer the M/V Hope with Friendships.org a missions ship (note the 01 deck covered over for a Helo pad)

Some of the decommissioned 180s serve non-profit organizations. The ex-SORREL (WLB-296) serves the Sea Scouts of Stockton, California as the SSS Reliance teaching young men and women seamanship. The ex-IRONWOOD (WLB-297) trains young men and women in seamanship at the Tongue Point, Oregon Job Corp Center as the JCC Ironwood. The ex-CONIFER (WLB-301) and the PAPAW (WLB-308) serve as missionary relief ships with Friendships.org based in Louisiana. 
The ex-MALLOW (WLB-396) serves with an Indiana non-profit the CAS FOUNDATION.

The SUNDEW (W-404) (above left) serves the city of Duluth, Minnesota Convention Center as a floating maritime museum, the BRAMBLE (W-392) (above right) serves the city of Port Huron, Michigan as a floating maritime museum and the ACACIA is scheduled to serve as a museum at the Naval Pier in Chicago, Illinois.  The cutters IRIS (W-395) and PLANETREE (W-307) were last known (Jan 2006) being stored in the mothballed fleet at Suisun Bay, California.  The MALLOW (W-396) has been sold to a missionary organization; the BASSWOOD (W-388) and HORNBEAM (W-394) were sold at GSA auctions to ship brokers.  The MARIPOSA (W-397) is being used as a U.S. Navy training hulk in Everett, Washington and SALVIA (W-400) is being used as a U.S. Navy training hulk in Little Creek, Virginia. 


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