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Twin Ports rolls out snowy welcome mat for Spar

The Coast Guard cutter sailed into its new home port early Wednesday, arriving to family and a much-needed break.

coast guard cutter arrives to Duluth
Family and friends gather to welcome crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spar to U.S. Coast Guard Station Duluth during a snowy morning Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The latest U.S. Coast Guard vessel to call the Twin Ports home emerged Wednesday through the shipping canal and into a snow globe on Park Point.

Several of the crew’s family members endured the morning’s snowfall to see their loved ones for the first time in roughly 90 days.

boy holds up sign
Andy Robb, 8, smiles while holding up a "Welcome Home" sign for his father, U.S. Coast Guard EMC Tony Robb, at U.S. Coast Guard Station Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“This is a big deal,” said Nicole Browne, of Cloquet, as she and 16-year-old Morgan awaited the arrival of warrant officer David Browne. “Normally, they’re gone for two weeks at a time.”

coast guard vessel travels on water
Near a gull in flight, left, U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Spar travels in the Duluth Harbor Basin.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Coast Guard Cutter Spar arrived after an adventurous year, bringing with it the former cast of the last vessel to call Duluth home, Cutter Alder.

Sources said about 80% of the crew arriving home sailed last summer with the Alder to Baltimore, where they later joined Spar, a 225-foot buoy tender beginning its second life after a year of refurbishment and career spent in Alaskan waters.

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“This was something very unnatural to the crew,” said Lt. Cmdr. Joel Wright, heaping praise on his charges, of which there are 48 assigned though it’s lighter than that at the moment.

“We are Spar as a crew, and we are Spar as a vessel,” Wright continued, “and to cross-deck, the way we call it, giving Alder away, which was a pristine ship, and taking a ship that had been up in Alaska, being used and reconstituted, that was a very difficult task.”

coast guard member smiling
Lt. Cmdr. Joel Wright smiles while posing in the Spar's pilothouse.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

The crew members will enjoy two weeks of well-earned rest, Wright said, but not before having been put to the test already when Spar encountered nine vessels stuck in ice in Whitefish Bay earlier this week.

Spar went to work alongside the heavy icebreaker Mackinaw, and the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Griffon to assist some of the first commercial lakers underway this season, including the Arthur M. Anderson and American Mariner — the first arrivals into Duluth and Superior, respectively, since the shipping season opened last Friday.

coast guard member gives tour
U.S. Coast Guard Junior Grade Kyle Hansen describes the Spar while giving a tour of the vessel.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Lt. Kyle Hansen counted six vessels aided by Spar in Whitefish Bay. A deck hand, Hansen described the rubble field of ice.

“There were parts that were at least 6 feet thick,” Hansen said.
For the captain, Wright, it was an easy choice to help.

“For us to get through Whitefish Bay, we had to help others get through Whitefish Bay,” Wright said.

In addition to loved ones, the arrival of Spar also brought out the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

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family reunites at coast guard station
Andy Robb, 8, center, smiles while his father, U.S. Coast Guard EMC Tony Robb, second from right, lifts him up as the family reunited in Duluth on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“Having an asset this capable here, home-ported here,” spokesperson Jayson Hron said, “it’s just a great all-purpose vehicle, of sorts, to make sure that our harbor works the way it should and that it’s safe and shipping traffic flows freely.”

The Spar now takes its position as the regional buoy tender and icebreaker on eastern Lake Superior.

Soon, once the ice leaves, the mission will call for aids to navigation to be set out on the lake.

A red buoy on the weather deck stood more than 10 feet tall, and revealed itself to be a hulking contraption worthy of the new crane Spar received during its refurbishment in Baltimore.

“It’s a very dangerous evolution to lift 10,000-pound buoys up over the ship and have people work below it,” Wright said, adding that the crew is going to require renewed training to get back up to speed on its buoy work.

coast guard vessel arrives to Duluth
U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Spar docks in Duluth during a snowy morning.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

For Spar, the arrival was a homecoming of sorts. The first buoy-tending Spar was built in Duluth in 1944, and home-ported in Boston; Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Bristol, Rhode Island; and South Portland, Maine. Wright said the first Spar, decommissioned in 1997, was now a reef in the Atlantic Ocean.

For Browne, the arrival was a moment to welcome home her husband. After Spar was lashed to the Coast Guard dock in Park Point, the couple shared a long hug near the gangway, and then it was right back onto the ship for some final chores.

“I’m just glad he’s home,” Browne said, kicking at the fresh snow. “And I’m also glad to be done with shoveling. He’s shoveling this stuff.”

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people gather to welcome crew members of vessel to Duluth
Family and friends gather to welcome crew members of the Spar to U.S. Coast Guard Station Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

A coda on the Alder, which served for more than 16 years in Duluth before its departure last summer: After a stint of refurbishment itself in Baltimore, Alder will head to its new assignment this summer in California’s Bay Area.

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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