CHATHAM – The board of selectmen will do everything within its power to convince the Coast Guard not to remove the buoy marking the entrance to Chatham Harbor.
Officials have already been in contact with Senator Elizabeth Warren's office to enlist her help and last week voted agreed to write to Coast Guard brass to stress the need to retain the navigational marker. Selectmen also plan to ask neighboring towns to lend their voice to the protest.
“Unbelievable” is how Selectman Jeffrey Dykens characterized the Coast Guard's decision to remove the marker, officially known as the Chatham Beach Lighted Whistle Buoy C.
“We should bug whoever we need to bug to make sure this doesn't happen,” Dykens said.
The buoy is scheduled for removal in late January or early February, Smith said.
The Coast Guard published a notice to mariners regarding the disestablishment of the buoy more than a year ago without notifying the town. Harbormaster Stuart Smith said he only learned about the plan when assistant harbormaster Jason Holm was contacted by a friend stationed on the cutter scheduled to remove the buoy to ask if Holm knew of the pending action.
The whistle buoy has been in place for 25 years, Smith said, and was originally added to mark the harbor entrance channel at the request of then-Chatham Coast Guard Chief Jack Downey. It's an important navigation aid for fishermen and recreational boaters alike, said Smith.
“It presents a large target for people coming in from the sea,” he said.
The buoy does tend to move in heavy weather. Smith said in the past 10 years it has had to be moved back on station 11 times. It is “not an insignificant buoy,” protruding 10 to 12 feet above the water and held in place by a 2,000 pound anchor. “If it's moving, they should put another [anchor] on there,” Smith said.
Although Coast Guard officials say the buoy does not mark a federal channel, Smith said the Aunt Lydia's Cove channel is a federal maintained channel and anchorage. “They didn't seem to be aware of that,” he said.
The town has had a good relationship with the Coast Guard, which is why it's surprising officials weren't notified of the buoy removal “until almost after the fact,” said Select Chair Shareen Davis. Fishermen, especially, take risks going over the Chatham bar, especially these days when they are squeezed by quotes and days at sea limitations. One fishermen told her that if he can't see the light of the “C” buoy, he knows it's not a night to go over the bar.
“That's the kind of risk guys are taking and have historically taken for as long as there's been a bar and a Chatham Fish Pier,” she said. “And the fact that the Coast Guard is almost literally going behind our backs taking that 'C' buoy away is really atrocious.”
Selectmen and Smith worried that the buoy removal is another step in the downgrading of Station Chatham. Last year the station's designation was changed from a surf station to a heavy weather station, and shoaling in the harbor has made it difficult for the station's rescue boats to access the open sea from the fish pier.
“This is just another side of that whole scenario,” Davis said of the buoy removal.
Smith added that he's worried what will happen when the current rescue boats, made especially for Chatham, reach the end of their useful life.
“You can begin to see the deterioration of the station, and none of it is good for the community,” he said.
The issues aren't related and no changes to the station's mission are planned, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Carlos Hessler. The decision to remove the “C” buoy, which is not located in a marked channel, was made at the upper levels of the agency and its absence will not impact the station's operations, he said.
The station recently had three of its vessels out for repairs; two are now back in service, Hessler said. The 42-foot rescue boats have yet to reach their service life expectancy, and it would not be unusual for them to remain in service beyond that time, he added.
The more pressing need is to find docking space in Stage Harbor. Currently one of the rescue boats is kept at Stage Harbor Marine, but because of the changes in Chatham Harbor, Hessler wants the flexibility to move the vessels where they can be most useful, and for that he needs two slips in Stage Harbor. Plans to extend the town dock at Old Mill Boatyard to accommodate two Coast Guard slips will be presented to the board of selectmen in the next month or so, said Smith.
Officials need to follow “whatever avenues we have to to tackle this,” said Selectman Cory Metters said of the buoy removal. “It's happening in a couple of weeks and we need to stop it.”
“This is totally unacceptable,” said Dykens.
Smith stressed the need to convince the Coast Guard not only to retain the whistle buoy, but to maintain full operations at Station Chatham.
“We need to emphasize that they're here because it's a really nasty place,” he said, referring to conditions in the harbor and on the bar.