The Black-Hulled Keeper of New York Harbor

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Black-hulled ship

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Sondra-Kay Kneen.

As the bitter winter temperatures come to an end and the ice that frosts the Hudson River begins to melt, preparations for the spring and summer months are in full effect as Coast Guard Cutter Katherine Walker makes its way north towards Albany, N.Y.

The Katherine Walker is a 175-foot buoy tender, homeported in Bayonne, N.J. Its major mission includes the servicing of aids to navigation throughout New York Harbor, Western Long Island Sound, the Hudson and East Rivers, as well as other waters along the Connecticut, New York and New Jersey coastlines. During a five-day patrol up the Hudson River, the ship serviced 18 seasonal aids to navigation, the last of 53 buoys that the crew restores every spring.

The ice buoys were built for rough weather and ice conditions. The Katherine Walker crew replaced these winter aids to navigation with standard buoys that provide better visibility with a greater radar cross-section crucial to mariners. The ice buoys are put in place at the end of fall and are replaced by the standard buoys at the beginning of spring.

“Commerce on the river operates year round and depends on our aids to navigate safely,” said Lt. Adam G. Leggett, commanding officer of the Katherine Walker. “However the standard buoy hulls can be crushed by the ice, which would cause them to sink and in order to continue to safely mark the channel we must put in the ice hardened hulls. Its hard work, but its our duty to the mariner.”

The crew of Katherine Walker operates proudly and professionally during the cold working hours on the buoy deck and below in the engine room, keeping the cutter transiting safely. Although servicing more than 300 floating aids to navigation in and around the New York harbor remains the main mission for the crew of the Katherine Walker, crewmembers find volunteer work in between can be beneficial within the marine partnerships throughout the same region.

During their latest patrol, they had the pleasure in assisting the crew of the USS Slater, the last destroyer escort in America, with several restoration projects before it opens for tours in April.

“It was an excellent opportunity to connect with our maritime heritage working alongside a dedicated group of veterans and enthusiasts trying to preserve such an incredible piece of U.S. and Coast Guard history,” said Leggett. “As we learned during our time aboard, 13 of these ships were manned by Coast Guard crews in WWII.”

Upon their arrival to Albany, the crew moored outboard of Slater in Rensselaer, N.Y., where the Slater is temporarily moored during colder months to prevent ice build up at its home pier on Albany’s waterfront. The crew of Katherine Walker worked on several projects aboard Slater, putting their nautical skill sets to apt use, from sanding and caulking the ship’s whaleboat, to chipping and painting in the engine room bilge, to splicing line and polishing the galley.

Katherine Walker holds a crew of 24 personnel. During their patrols, time away from family is never easy, but this crew makes the best of it. During the last night of their patrol on the Hudson River, the crew held an Easter Egg Hunt. Plastic eggs filled with prizes ranging from free movie tickets to a 24-hour liberty pass were hidden throughout the ship.

 “Keeping the crews morale up is an important job, among the main mission,” said Chief Petty Officer David M. Acosta, 1st Lieutenant of the Katherine Walker. “I tell my crew to keep their eyes on the prize, complete the work and go home safely, and return to do it again another day.”

The Katherine Walker was commissioned in 1996, the second 175-foot, Keeper-class buoy tenders built and commissioned for the Coast Guard. The cutter was named after keeper Katherine Walker, the keeper of Robbins Reef Light in New York Harbor. Walker was the keeper of the light from 1895 to 1919 when she retired. Her efforts at the lighthouse resulted in the rescue of 50 sailors from shipwrecks. Walker passed away at age 83 on February 5th, 1931.

The crew visits her gravesite, located on Staten Island, N.Y., before most patrols, to pay their respects, bring her fresh flowers and leave with the hope that she’ll bring them a safe return home.