CHATHAM — The U.S. Coast Guard has abandoned plans to remove the lighted whistle buoy “C” that marks the entrance to Chatham Harbor.
The news was announced last week by the Coast Guard, which had previously argued that the navigational aid was too difficult to keep on its station in high winds and heavy seas. The Coast Guard pledged to “pursue
other additional mooring configurations to help better keep the buoy on its assigned position during
heavy weather.” It also indicated that the buoy would be equipped with an automatic identification system (AIS) device to make it easier to locate.
The announcement was praised by Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith, who argued that the buoy is an important waypoint for fishermen and others seeking to find the shifting harbor entrance channel, particularly in the fog or darkness.
Official word of the Coast Guard’s policy reversal came through their regularly published Notice to Mariners, but Smith said he had an inkling based on conversations with staff in the Aids to Navigation offices in Boston and Woods Hole.
“They were giving strong indications that they were getting a lot of input, a lot of constructive input,” Smith said.
Among those providing that input was the Chatham Board of Selectmen, which wrote a letter in support of keeping the buoy.
“I’m very pleased that they changed their mind,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. The town solicited support for keeping the buoy from selectmen from neighboring towns, and some fishing organizations and the county assembly of delegates also signed on.
“We engaged as many people as we could,” Davis said. The buoy benefits mariners from around the region, not just Chatham, she said.
“The Town wishes to thank all in the maritime community, the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates, and other communities who provided comments to make this positive outcome possible,” a press release issued by the town read.
Smith gave credit to the Coast Guard for revisiting the decision to remove the buoy, which some worried was related to the move last year to downgrade Station Chatham from a surf station to a “heavy weather” designation. The Coast Guard has said that change was strictly related to the number of days Chatham experiences breaking surf at the harbor entrance, a number they say is too low to justify continuing the station’s surf status. But Coast Guard officials have maintained that the new designation will not lead to a reduction in the station’s staffing or resources.
“The designation of the Coast Guard station is more critical than the ‘C’ Buoy, and more important, and the town continues to work on that,” Smith said. “It’s a bigger nut to crack, but it’s a more important one.”
The Coast Guard struggles to operate and maintain Station Chatham’s three 42-foot nearshore lifeboats, unique rescue boats designed specifically for service on the Chatham Bar. They are the only such boats in the Coast Guard’s fleet, which poses challenges when it comes to maintenance and training. With shoaling inside and outside Chatham Harbor making it increasingly difficult for vessels to enter and exit, there are concerns that any reduction in capability at Station Chatham might threaten the harbor’s viability.
Smith and other town staff members have met with the Coast Guard to discuss the station’s surf status, and Davis said she is optimistic that the talks will be productive.
In the case of the “C” buoy, it was public outcry that prompted the Coast Guard to revisit its earlier decision.
“It was really a group of people and agencies that came together to help the Coast Guard make a more informed decision,” Smith said.
Around Chatham, the town and the Coast Guard share the duty of maintaining aids to navigation. Chatham owns and maintains between 180 and 200 navigational aids, including channel markers, speed markers and buoys to mark hazards like rocks. The Coast Guard typically oversees larger buoys in more exposed locations.
Outside Stage Harbor, where severe shoaling is taking place (see related story, page 3), the town is taking over responsibility for three Coast Guard buoys closest to the harbor entrance. Those buoys are prone to shoaling, and it is easier for town crews to keep them on station rather than waiting for a Coast Guard buoy tender, which is typically three-and-a-half hours away in Woods Hole, Smith said.