Locals Lobby To Keep Buoy; Coast Guard Is Listening

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Coast Guard

The “C” buoy, as marked on navigational charts.

CHATHAM — The U.S. Coast Guard has extended the public comment period on a proposal to remove the “C” buoy, a key navigational aid marking the location of Chatham Harbor. Locals hope the move signals the agency's willingness to revisit or abandon the plan, which they say would endanger public safety.

The Coast Guard had set a deadline of this week to receive public comments about the proposal to remove the lighted whistle buoy, but a number of mariners expressed concerns.

“It sounds like they received enough comments or concerns to extend [the comment period] to Feb. 7,” Harbormaster Stuart Smith said. “It’s a hopeful thing.”

The buoy is an important reference point and radar target for boats trying to locate the harbor entrance. It is designed to be used in conjunction with other navigational aids, like charts, GPS and the lighthouse. It was installed at the request of Master Chief Jack Downey, a previous commanding officer of Station Chatham and a legendary local mariner.

“The buoy was important when they put it in 27 or 28 years ago, and nothing has changed with regards to the harbor,” Smith said. The entrance is still difficult to spot, prone to sudden fog banks, and at the edge of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” when it comes to shipwrecks, he said. Prior to the installation of the current lighted whistle buoy, the town actually maintained a buoy in a similar location further south, using Coast Guard-designated private citizens known as “lamplighters” to do so.

Smith said he was told that the reason the Coast Guard was considering eliminating the buoy was that it is prone to being moved off station relocated by storms, and that it does not mark a federally maintained channel. While that is true, the buoy does mark a natural channel that leads to Aunt Lydia’s Cove, a federal anchorage with a federal channel, Smith said.

“They didn’t know that,” he said. “It got their attention.”

As for the buoy’s tendency to be pushed off station, Smith said the solution is to replace the current 20,000-pound anchor with a larger one, Smith said.

Of greater concern is the worry 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.

“The solution should not be, we’re taking away one of the few buoys on the east side of the Cape, and downgrading Station Chatham’s surf designation,” he said. “That is not the solution when things get difficult.”

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.

Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis, a commercial fisherman, praised the Coast Guard for extending the public comment window.

“I applaud the Coast Guard for doing that,” she said. “They were listening.” Specifically, the Coast Guard is seeking written comments from mariners that include the size and type of vessel they use, whether it is commercial or recreational, if and how they use the buoy, and the distance from the buoy that mariners begin looking for it. Comments should be sent to Lieut. Arthur Frooks at arthur.e.frooks@uscg.mil and should reference Project No. 01-18-041. The last day to send comments is Feb. 7.

Keeping the buoy is a matter of public safety, Davis said.

“We have a dangerous bar, and we have not only the commercial fishing fleet, but we have mariners from all over the Pleasant Bay estuary system coming through and going over the bar,” she said. The thick fog and heavy seas make the “C” buoy all the more important, she said.

“We’re the fog capital of the East Coast,” Smith said. “We’ve had people who were lost who tied up to it” until the fog lifted, he said. While larger boats traveling from Nantucket or Monomoy Point north toward Provincetown may travel miles offshore in the shipping lanes, smaller boats stay closer to shore, and there are very few navigational aids along the way, he said.

Some boaters rely too heavily on GPS navigational systems, and don’t have the proper experience using a compass and navigational charts to find their way, the harbormaster said.

“No mariner should be navigating by one aid to navigation,” he said. “You’re supposed to be using them all to verify your location.” The “C” buoy is not only a visual aid, but its whistle can help mariners locate it in the fog. More importantly, it’s one of the few reliable radar targets along the back beach, Smith said.

Smith said he hopes the Coast Guard will reconsider the buoy decision, “and hopefully take a second look at the surf station designation.”