As Steamship Authority manager Wayne Lamson explains nearby, the boatline supports an amendment to H.R.889, now pending in Congress. The amendment would require a separation zone of 1.5 nautical miles between offshore wind turbines and established shipping lanes and ferry routes. SSA ferries, some fast, some slow, traveling between Hyannis and Nantucket carry thousands of people and vehicles. Other ferry companies operate over the same routes, as do Coast Guard vessels, fishing vessels, yachts and small craft, the latter unscheduled, sometimes operated by seagoing neophytes, and in summer, plentiful as ticks. It's a busy sea-lane just south of Horseshoe Shoal and northeast of Cape Pogue.
That's where Cape Wind plans a wind turbine grid of 130 generators. Cape Wind has a data gathering tower in place on the proposed site now. The company's application for permission to build its project, which will occupy about 24 square miles of the shallow water over the shoal, is now pending, and H.R. 889, if approved with the amendment Mr. Lamson addresses, may mean curtains for Cape Wind.
This fall, on a sailing trip to Nantucket, my son and I passed the Cape Wind data tower. It 's a shocker to someone who has passed this way often before the Cape Wind project was contemplated. In that September trip, I thought, as I have on other occasions, that Nantucket is a splendid place to sail to and to arrive at, especially in early morning. About 25 miles from home, it's a satisfying short cruise, with some navigational challenges, rewarded with the thrill of the island's low-slung sandy self rising like the sun ahead of you, if you've steered the correct course. If you haven't, Horseshoe Shoals or Tuckernuck or Muskeget await. In foul weather it can be tricky work. The course runs south of Horseshoe Shoal, and the proposed wind farm's tall data collection tower imposes itself on the otherwise mostly unmarked sea surface. The image of 130 turning, humming, lighted wind turbines lining that sea route offends the mariner's eye.
Naturally enough, the Army Corps of Engineers draft environmental impact statement had nothing to say about the aesthetics of the Cape Wind project, but the Corps did consider the impact on marine traffic. The Corps conclusion differed from the position taken by the Steamship Authority. The Corps acknowledge temporary impacts to marine navigation, but found that they could be managed satisfactorily by restrictions implemented by the Coast Guard. And, the Corps found, "Large spacing of the WTGs [turbines] would allow those vessels not restricted by depth to navigate between the WTGs, and also will prevent rafting of ice between the WTGs. Installation of the wind park would result in the presence of additional aids-to-navigation in Nantucket Sound that can be used by mariners in the area."
The aids the Corps refers to are lights and fog signals, now blessedly absent from this wild, empty seascape. Still, there's something to be said for the Corps' point of view: if lights and horns don't trouble you, steering through the field of wind turbines, if one chose to do so, would certainly be an eerie challenge in the fog-bound dead of night.
Mr. Lamson, in support of the separation zone proposed in the Congress, comes to another conclusion altogether, based on his understanding of the nearly 50-year history of the modern steamship line. "Under certain wind and sea conditions, it occasionally becomes necessary for our captains to use tacking maneuvers outside of our normal navigational tracks to ease the motion of the vessel and allow for a greater margin of safety with regard to the passengers and freight on our vessels, or to provide a greater margin of safety between vessels transiting within established ferry routes."
(So, you say, that's what they've been up to.)
"The area," Mr. Lamson continues, "is very congested at times with commercial and recreational traffic. With the wind farm as currently proposed for Nantucket Sound, it has the potential for creating a significant hazard to safe navigation for our vessels and other users of the waterways. A separation zone of at least 1.5 nautical miles appears to be a reasonable requirement in order to minimize the potential radar interference, navigational risks and disruptions of service that we are likely to encounter, especially in adverse conditions such as fog, high winds and high seas."
Reasonable? Absolutely, and especially when you consider that the cost of fuel to create electricity is becoming an increasingly less significant part of the energy generating equation, as clever technical and engineering types discover ever more efficient ways to do more with less. Even today, the engineering marvels that convert raw fuel of whatever sort one uses to electrical power are a bigger share of the cost of power generation than the fuel itself. Wind power may one day be efficient and economical enough to justify tampering with a place like Horseshoe Shoals and with the safety of mariners operating nearby, but the case hasn't been made yet.