Tending Waterways

Busy harbors have hundreds of buoys and other aids to navigation to keep seaways safe. But like roads and airports, waterways take tending. Channels fill and shift, buoys drift off station, and lighthouses need fuel and repair. Small fleets of vessels carried out this indispensable work in the nation’s harbors and rivers. In addition to maintaining every buoy—from once a year to several times a week—these ships delivered coal, water, mail, and supplies to lighthouses and lightships. And a vessel in distress sometimes found that the first ship to its aid was a buoy tender on its daily rounds.

The Steady Oak

The engine room below, and its 750-horsepower steam engine, are from the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s buoy tender Oak. Four officers and a 23-man crew were responsible for setting, inspecting, repairing, and replacing hundreds of buoys—like the one to your right—that marked channels and shoals in and around New York harbor.

For more than 40 years, in all kinds of weather, the Oak carried out its duties in one of the world’s most important ports. In 1964 the vessel was decommissioned and taken to a Coast Guard facility near Baltimore, where this engine and related equipment were removed for the Smithsonian.


Engine Room From Coast Guard Buoy Tender Oak

Engine from U.S. Lighthouse Service Tender Oak

Built 1921

Transfer from the U.S. Coast Guard


Profile View of the Oak

The Black Oak

Like all buoy tenders, the Oak’s 160-foot-long steel hull was painted black to hide the scrapes and bumps that were unavoidable when handling buoys and channel markers. Buoy tenders are known as the “Black Fleet” in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Buoys on Board

The Oak’s spacious deck forward was designed to carry buoys, concrete sinkers, mooring chain, and other heavy material.

The Oak’s Crew

Crew members aboard the Oak shoveled a lot of coal. They had to feed the engine’s coal-fired boiler and deliver coal to lighthouses and lightships. The crew was relieved of most coaling duties when the engine was converted to an oil-burning system in 1934.

Officers and Crew

The Oak’s officers and crew, about 1930. At the time, the daily subsistence allowance for officers was one dollar, and 65 cents per man for members of the crew.

Bell Buoy

Lighted bell buoys marked shoals in both coastal and inland waters. Made about 1930, this bell buoy last served at Turkey Point in the upper Chesapeake Bay in the 1970s.

The bell rang naturally with the motion of the waves. Acetylene gas stored inside the buoy fueled the light. Buoy tender crews inspected the buoy and replenished its fuel regularly. The parts of this buoy normally under water—a counterweight and hardware for holding the mooring chain—have been removed. They would extend about ten feet below the buoy.

Gift of the U.S. Coast Guard

Aboard Buoy Tenders

This six-minute video shows how servicing aids to navigation has changed—and remained the same—over the past 70 years. Join buoy deck crews in 1936, 1955, and 2002 as they maintain and position buoys in coastal and inland waters.

Produced by the History Channel