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Where the Buoys Are

More than meets the eye: this bell buoy lying on its side ashore towers over the two men in the foreground. The entire buoy, from the tip of its lantern to the bottom of its counterweight, probably measures about 35 feet. When placed in the water, only the tower and part of the hull are visible; the rest of the hull, which houses the fuel tanks and includes a counterweight, is underwater. Before setting a buoy in water, the crew attaches a heavy mooring chain to a concrete sinker and the hull of the buoy.

Buoys at the depot
Buoys at the depot
A buoy tender's deck

Crowded deck: the buoy deck is designed for carrying buoys, sinkers, mooring chains, and other heavy equipment.

Page from the Oak's logbook

Buoy tenders work in all kinds of weather: on February 28, 1925, the crew spent most of the day chipping ice off buoys. The Oak’s logbooks are preserved at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Bell buoy

This lighted bell buoy is of the type widely used in the 20th century to mark shoals in coastal waters along the East Coast of the United States. While the bell rang naturally with the motion of the waves, the fuel for the light was delivered by buoy tenders. Crew inspected and replaced the acetylene gas tanks set inside the buoy’s large pockets. In later years, they monitored and replaced the batteries—also housed in the pockets—that powered the light.

The bell buoy is shown on display in the Hall of American Maritime Enterprise, about 1980. The portion of the buoy that is normally underwater, including a counterweight and hardware for holding the mooring chain, was cut off when the Museum acquired the object in 1978.

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