Coast Guard’s Buoy Decision Raises Worries

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Coast Guard , Waterways

CHATHAM — The U.S. Coast Guard will soon be removing the “C” buoy, the main offshore navigational aid marking Chatham Harbor. And that’s raising a red flag with local mariners.

Updating the waterways advisory committee last week, Harbormaster Stuart Smith said the Coast Guard published the decision in the lengthy Notice to Mariners, but no one took notice until he received a call from the chief of the cutter assigned to remove the buoy in late January. Smith expressed concern about the decision and asked the rationale.

“He said, ‘Part of the reason is we keep putting it back on station,’” Smith said. Because of its exposed location, the buoy is prone to being relocated by storms, and even when it is on station, that fixed location is often not near the actual channel entrance, which itself moves regularly. Smith said the chief also mentioned that the removal of the buoy was likely related to the fact that Coast Guard Station Chatham was recently downgraded from a surf station to a heavy weather station.

“Just the mere comment bothered me,” Smith said. Despite reassurances to the contrary, local officials are alert to the possibility that the Coast Guard may be moving toward scaling back the number of boats in Chatham or otherwise lowering their response capability here.

“What else is the Coast Guard planning to do that we’re not aware of, as a result of that redesignation last spring?” said Smith.

After the board of selectmen sent a letter challenging that change in designation, Coast Guard officials in Boston said the move was strictly related to the number of days Chatham experiences breaking surf, a number they say is too low to justify continuing the station’s surf status. Coast Guard officials stressed that there would be no reduction in Station Chatham’s staffing or resources.

Smith said the Coast Guard plans to remove the “C” Buoy in late January, and that decision in itself is not unusual.

“This isn’t the first time” the Coast Guard has sought to remove longstanding aids to navigation, he said. Motivated at least in part by the desire to reduce costs, they have removed other buoys in the area, he said. “They wanted to get rid of the Saquatucket buoys,” Smith said, but Harwich Harbormaster John Rendon “objected to that, so they kept them.”

Smith said he spoke with Coast Guard officials at First District Headquarters in Boston, who noted that the “C” buoy does not mark a federal channel.

“It does, in that Aunt Lydia’s Cove is a federal anchorage and a federal channel,” even if the channel through Chatham Bar is not, he said.

Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the Coast Guard is still accepting emailed public comments on the proposal, and he urged mariners to let their feelings be known. While the town maintains smaller navigational aids that are stationed closer to shore, it lacks the equipment to maintain a large sea-going aid like the “C” buoy.

Waterways Committee Chairman Dick Hosmer said the buoy is a good reference point for the harbor entrance, and the buoy matter is something his committee should monitor closely.

“People look for it, even though it may not be on station,” he said.

Smith said he is also concerned about the status of the station’s three 42-foot nearshore lifeboats, some of which have been out of service lately. Like commercial fishing boats, the 42-foot lifeboats are unable to enter or exit Chatham Harbor during certain phases of the tide due to shoaling. Those unique rescue boats were designed specifically for service on the Chatham Bar, and are the only three of their kind in the Coast Guard fleet. That makes them something of a nuisance when it comes to maintenance and training, Smith said.

“My longer range concern is, when these boats are done with their service life—and the Coast Guard would like them gone today—there’s nothing to replace them,” Smith said. “We had to raise holy hell to get those boats 15, 20 years ago,” he said. At the time, the Coast Guard was phasing out the venerable steel-hulled 44-foot rescue boats like the one currently on display on the station’s lawn. The newer generation of rescue boat, suitable everyplace else, would not function on the shallow water and pounding surf of Chatham Bar. Now, the 42-footers are nearing the end of their usable life.

“I think they’re going to replace them with standard boats, or less boats,” Smith said. “It’s something we ought to be paying attention to.”

If the next rescue boats at Station Chatham are standard 47-foot motor lifeboats, they won’t be able to operate effectively in Chatham, the harbormaster said. “And after that, it’s a helicopter.”

Shoaling is threatening the viability of Chatham Harbor as a port for all but small craft, prompting town officials to try and build capacity at Stage Harbor by expanding commercial fish offloading space at the former trap dock, and by adding floats specifically to host Coast Guard boats. That latter effort is seen as particularly key to showing the Coast Guard that the town continues to need its services.

“The Coast Guard is important in the town,” Hosmer said.

But the reality is that Chatham Harbor isn’t the port it once was. In the dead of winter, it is used mostly by shellfishermen and duck hunters, Smith said. “Fishermen aren’t fishing as much as they did years ago,” he said. “That means less cases. That just means less reason [for the Coast Guard] to be here.”

Smith has brought news of the “C” buoy decision to the town’s various water-related committees and was expected to make a similar presentation to the board of selectmen this week.