The United States Coast Guard is the smallest of the five American military service branches, numbering some 42,000 men and women on active duty. These personnel are charged with their own brand of mission types that have not changed since the branch's formation. These missions include vital coastal and riverine patrol, enforcement of national maritime laws, interdiction of smuggled substances, immigration control and search and rescue of stranded persons at sea. Today, tenders like the advanced Juniper-class USCG Willow (WLB 202) operate specifically to perform these varied mission types.
Willow is the second ship of the Juniper-class of cutters and was formally commissioned in 1997. She was designed as a sea-going "buoy tender" able to deploy and maintain Aid of Navigation systems across the open ocean. Her general area of operation became the sometimes volatile waters off of the New England coast between New Port, Rhode Island and Bar Harbor, Maine but her total area of responsibility was much larger - including a reach from Canada to New York Harbor.
In her zone, there operates some 189 total buoy stations and navigational aids, some being of the weather variety used by the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) while others serve as navigational markers. The Willow is used to remove such buoys for general repair and maintenance, repositioning them back in their proper place when done. Placement of these buoys is an exacting science for, if not set back properly, its Aid in Navigation will be critically off - forcing other vessels to strike reefs or run aground. Her onboard positioning system is tied to a Global Positioning System (GPS) that allows the 225-foot long vessel to hold its place on the water within a 10 meter circle of center, this even with winds as powerful as 30 knots and waves as high as 8 feet.
When needed, the Willow shifts its mission based on the current requirements of the US Coast Guard. As of this writing, her primary buoy maintenance function is on hold so the Willow can be assigned to other needed operations. She is a small ship, having an complete displacement of 2,000 tons. She is capable of being used as an icebreaking ship in northern waters during winter. Her propulsion system consists of a controllable pitch stern propeller plus bow and aft thrusters which allow the vessel to ram ice plates some 14 inches thick at a speed of 3 knots. Willow also maintains equipment to counter oil spills resulting from leaking ships or commercial oil rigs at sea and was used to good effect in the massive Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill brought to you by BP in 2010. Willow's recovery system can process 400 gallons of oil and seawater per minute and the ship can stay at sea for 21 days without resupply. Her relatively small crew includes 8 officers and 34 enlisted personnel. The crew survives in relative comfort and a group of six personnel might be assigned to a single room for the same 20 on any another ship needing more hands to do the same work.
Like other USCG vessels, Willow was sent to New York to assist after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Once there, she handled anti-terrorist and force protection operations during that span and, in 2003, the Coast Guard was formally transferred from the Department of Transportation (DoT) to the Department of Home Land Security (DHLS). Since then, Willow has conducted Alien Migration and Interdiction Operations in the Straits of Florida. She also is called upon to respond to search and rescue missions when needed and performs Marine Environmental Protection duties on a regular basis in addition to its primary mission of Aids to Navigation. If expecting trouble, the Willow is armed with a pair of 12.7mm heavy machine guns as well as any small arms brought along by the crew - including M16 assault rifles and 9mm M9 pistols.
Of note to the Willow is that she conducted the first trans-Atlantic crossing by a US Coast Guard buoy tender in nearly 40 years. Since the Willow was not designed for high speed operation, the voyage lasted 68 days. Upon crossing the Atlantic, the Willow represented the United States Coast Guard at port calls in Ireland, Portugal, France and Germany. The Willow then visited New York once more for "Fleet Week 2011" from May through June as the USCG vessel that is "always be ready for all hazards and all threats".