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(NOAA photo)

After a yearlong outage, the Cape Edgecumbe weather buoy is back in business. The platform floats 35 miles off shore from Sitka and is crucial to weather forecasting for the surrounding area.

This story begins aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maple.

Lt. Cmdr. Dan Gray is the commanding officer.

“Maple is a multi-mission cutter/buoy tender,” he said. “Working aids to navigation is our primary mission.”

The ship tends to 122 lights on shore, 55 floating buoys. They have regular maintenance schedules for all of them, and then…

“… and then from time to time, one decides that it’s not happy where it is and wants to get underway, and we have to track it down,” Gray said. “Like a shepherd.”

And among the Maple’s flock, the Cape Edgecumbe weather buoy is the mischievous one.

“About three years ago when I first got here, it broke its mooring and went ashore off of Yakutat,” he said. “If it’s not sending in a signal, it’s hard to even know if it’s there.”

Gray says the unofficial policy for the Edgecumbe buoy is that it requires major work – perhaps even replacement – once a year. This year, the Maple picked up a replacement buoy in Washington state, and swapped them out. The work requires calm seas, which makes it almost impossible in the winter.

“It was down for about a year,” said Tom Ainsworth, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Juneau. Around there, they call the Cape Edgecumbe buoy “Number 84.”

“They’re all numbered out there,” he said. “It’s kind of easier to shout across the room the number than the name of the buoy.”

Ainsworth says without Number 84, there was a big hole in tracking Southeast Alaska’s notoriously brutal winter weather. High winds, big seas, and sudden rainstorms are the norm. Ainsworth says his staff spent the winter relying on substitutes, like observations from ships in the area.

“There are a lot of pieces that go into building the puzzle picture of weather and weather forecasting,” he said. “Without the Cape Edgecumbe buoy, we really missed quite a few of those pieces for quite a long period of time.”

He says getting the buoy back in place was no small task.

“It’s a great team effort with the Coast Guard in getting these things back,” he said. “It takes a lot of people and a lot of time to get them back working again, but when they do, there’s a lot of smiles back with the forecasters, for having more information at their hands again.”

Back aboard the Maple, Gray is standing on the buoy deck.

It’s a huge platform in the middle of the ship, where buoys are loaded and unloaded out at sea. Gray says this is where the tough work happens.

The USCGC Maple, shown docked in Sitka. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

“If you were watching from the bridge, it’s nice and enclosed on the bridge, and it’s nice and warm and safe. Your point of view down here might be much different,” he said. “You’re rocking and rolling, you’re in 20 knots of wind, it might be raining or snowing on you, and those buoys look exponentially bigger when you’re standing next to it, and it’s moving.”

Gray says a weather buoy is especially tough to work with, because once it’s in the water, a crew must board it to make sure the instruments are working. But he also says the Edgecumbe buoy is crucial to mariners and to weather forecasters. He says helping to put it back into service, and the ships other missions, are what makes his job rewarding.

“I see people at the grocery store, and I know they want that NOAA buoy up and running,” he said. “That’s a tangible result for me. I see we’ve done work. Search and rescue… when you help a distressed mariner, that’s a tangible result. It’s a job well done, and it’s very satisfying for the crew.”