Billion-dollar buoys

Psst. Want in on a secret of a sweet deal?

It’s not plastics, cold fusion or a pair of superconductor bracelets that cure arthritis, cancer, hypertension, depression or mesotheli-something-or-other for just $19.99.

No, plastic fills the bumpers of cars and the faces of celebrities. Cure-alls for under 20 bucks and pancake makeup know-nothings who do nothing become rich and famous in a fantasy land of celluloid idols and friends as fake as cardboard castles.

 

Coast Guard crewmembers deploy a buoy during a river tender training event at the Coast Guard Industrial Support Activity, Sept. 23, 2011. Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River is hosting five Coast Guard cutters and more than 115 sailors for a week of training and exercises beginning September 19. This assembly of ships represents nearly half of the Coast Guard's inland river fleet. They are responsible for more than 10,300 miles of inland waterways and the entire navigable lengths of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee river systems. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Coast Guard crewmembers deploy a buoy during a river tender training event at the Coast Guard Industrial Support Activity, Sept. 23, 2011. Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River is hosting five Coast Guard cutters and more than 115 sailors for a week of training and exercises beginning September 19. This assembly of ships represents nearly half of the Coast Guard’s inland river fleet. They are responsible for more than 10,300 miles of inland waterways and the entire navigable lengths of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee river systems. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Results over rhetoric is the only fraction that matters in a world where money talks and you-know-what walks. There is no room for fancy, namby-pamby window dressing when all you really need is, say, some thick, bullet-proof glass.

Fret not. There are a few things still made of steel and stone right here in the U.S. of A., not in China – believe it or not.

Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, there is one thing that protects the prosperity of the towing industry and America.

A river buoy.

You read right – a buoy.  You will probably never see one on television, but the American taxpayer and the rivermen who depend on them, get not just one, but two for their money. Men and women alike gave fingers, toes and more (and still do) to ensure they are on station, marking good water for rivermen. The splash of a launched buoy is the ch-ching of the nation’s cash register.

Already know what you’re thinking: “So what. It’s a buoy. They float, alert and direct maritime traffic. Got it. No big deal.”

“The buoy not only tells them the limits present on the channel but also lets them know what the river is doing,” said Capt. John Arenstam, chief, 8th Coast Guard District, Western Rivers. “Just remember some tow vessels are pushing up to 1,400 feet in front of them,” said Arenstam. “For instance, a 1,000 feet in front of you is the end of your tow; so, they need to see well ahead before they get there. It’s not like driving straight and nothing happens, you’re moving and what you’re traveling in is also moving.”

Consider: there are two buoy types on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the 4th Class and 6th Class river buoys, and there are 13,000-15,000 of them bobbing, listing and swaying in numerous critical bends, turns and straightaways; about 6,000 go missing each year. The 4th Class weigh 465 pounds and cost $520.00, and the 6th Class weigh 170 pounds and cost $279.00. The 4th Class are shaped like a can while the 6th Class resemble a red cone.

 But, if you add the cost of the two buoy types and multiply it by an average total of around 14,000 buoys, you get $11,228,000.00. Not exactly chump change, unless it’s a check cut for an overrated prima donna pop star.

“The cost of the cargo coming down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers is astronomical – just the cargo value, not the selling value, the salary of the longshoremen, not the value of all the jobs associated with the cargo,” said Arenstam. “Just the value of the cargo is astronomical.”

An estimated $180 billion of goods travel along the Mississippi River each year; only about $7 billion is transported in December and January.

A bulk of the commodities, such as petroleum, grain and corn, are exports headed toward New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico en route to markets around the globe.

“Seven million dollars in components per year to safely facilitate billions of dollars in cargo, seems like a pretty good return on investment for the federal government,” said Arenstam. “Now, if you throw in the cost of the personnel, the cutters, maintenance, cost of all the other stuff, you’re still only talking probably in the neighborhood of $400 million – just for the 18 [Coast Guard] river tenders.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Dan Langley, a machinery technician from the Coast Guard Cutter Cheyenne, directs an anchor stone to the edge of the cutter during a training exercise in St. Louis, Feb. 15, 2013.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ayla Kelley

Petty Officer 3rd Class Dan Langley, a machinery technician from the Coast Guard Cutter Cheyenne, directs an anchor stone to the edge of the cutter during a training exercise in St. Louis, Feb. 15, 2013. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ayla Kelley

 With all of the solid steel and sleek fins of a 1962 Cadillac and stature of a 1950s rocket afloat, the river buoys dot the waterways from Venice, La., all the way up to St. Paul, Minn., and guide towboat pilots on their lucrative and lengthy haul like stars in a brownwater constellation.  

To the pilots and lookouts who rely on them, the buoys’ color scheme might as well match Christmas ornaments, which is more than a coincidence, since the buoys gift the towing industry with safe navigation all year long.

“If you go to a business and say ‘you’re going to move $6.5 billion worth of goods and you only have to spend $225 million to help that – “I’d take that return on investment any day of the week,” said Arenstam.

Mark Twain never actually said, “A river dammed is damned good for somebody’s business,” but in the heartland, life on the Mississippi is where river buoys are more than just dam buoys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: , , ,