Island boaters ask Coast Guard to modify buoy removal plan

Members of the Vineyard sailing community said it would be folly to remove nun 4 outside Vineyard Haven Harbor and buoys in Robinson’s Hole.

Captain Robert Douglas, designer, builder, and master of the Vineyard Haven schooner Shenandoah, said buoys increase safety on the water.

U.S. Coast Guard officials heard straight talk from some of the Island’s most experienced sailors at a public hearing in Vineyard Haven last week on a proposal to remove or change 43 aids to navigation (ATON) in the vicinity of Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the testimony focused on two specific pieces of the overall plan, which encompasses Buzzards Bay and Vineyard and Nantucket sounds.

Speaker after speaker standing in Katharine Cornell Theater Thursday said it would be a mistake to remove Vineyard Haven buoy number 4, which marks the western edge of the outer harbor channel off West Chop and a shallow area with rock hazards just below the surface. They also took aim at a plan to remove a series of seven buoys that mark the channel that wends its way between Naushon and Pasque islands, known as Robinson’s Hole. Several speakers said that doing so would be counterproductive and result in an increase in the number of Coast Guard responses.

In addition to describing the changes they did not want to see, the Islanders relied on their local boating knowledge to provide the Coast Guard officials with some suggestions for buoys no longer considered necessary. For example, the buoys off West Chop and East Chop could be removed, they said.

Captain Richard Schultz, commander of Sector Southeast New England, and waterways manager Edward G. LeBlanc, a civilian Coast Guard employee and former officer, presided over the hearing, attended by about 20 recreational boaters and Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker. At the conclusion of the hearing, Captain Schultz said he would consider all of the testimony and make his decisions on which of the 43 buoys to remove by Nov. 1. That decision may be appealed, he said.

Prior to the start of the official public hearing, during which no discussion and only statements from the public were allowed, Mr. LeBlanc and members of the Coast Guard’s ATON division attended an informal meeting to which all of the Island’s harbormasters had been invited, and met informally with members of the Tisbury harbor management committee, tug operator John Packer, and Mr. Crocker, the only harbormaster to attend. Mr. LeBlanc explained the rationale that underpinned specific removal decisions, and the Island boaters described their concerns. He stressed the goal was to improve efficiency and evaluate effectiveness.

Mr. LeBlanc said the Coast Guard had gotten an earful about Robinson’s Hole. The tenor of the informal meeting was cooperative, and all agreed the frank exchange was useful.

‘Adequate balance’

Captain Schultz began the formal hearing with an explanation of the purpose of the review. He said the Coast Guard had received more than 100 comments on the proposal, “most opposed,” with the majority focused on Robinson’s Hole.

Rather than go down the list he focused on that passage. “Robinson’s Hole is quite simply,” Captain Schultz said, “a narrow, shallow, treacherous waterway — virtually all comments acknowledge that fact. It’s also a considerable risk to our Coast Guard assets as they enter that waterway to service those aids.”

Captain Schultz said Quick’s Hole, less than one mile to the west, provided a much wider, deeper, safer alternative to the narrow passage. “Maintaining aids to navigation in Robinson’s Hole could be viewed as inviting mariners to navigate this treacherous waterway,” he said.

Given the circumstances, he said, it was reasonable to ask mariners to avoid Robinson’s Hole and use the safer alternative. “We feel that our proposal for Robinson’s Hole and our proposal for all 43 aids on this list achieves an adequate balance between navigation safety and resources necessary to support the aids to navigation system,” he said.

‘Nice things to have’

Speaker after speaker took issue with the rationale that Quick’s Hole was a good alternative, particularly for a sailboat fighting the tide. They suggested that boaters would continue to use the passage as a shortcut between Buzzard’s Bay and Vineyard Sound, or as an alternative to Woods Hole passage, and the absence of buoys would only increase the likelihood of accidents that would require a Coast Guard response.

“Those of us who grew up sailing here — in my case it’s been 45 years — learned pretty early on that at East Chop, you can go right in on the bricks, closer than somebody who doesn’t sail here would ever imagine you could go without coming close to touching bottom,” Bowdoin Van Riper said, “but in conjunction with that, if you grow up here, you learn that you go inside nun 4 and you take your life and your keel in your own hands, because it’s a God-awful mess of confused seas and tide eddies and rocks, not just Douglas Rock — there’s another one out there that was colloquially known for a time as Van Riper Rock in two different decades, for two generations of Van Ripers that bounced off it.”

Mr. Van Riper said nun 4 was vitally important as a marker for visiting boaters “and should stay where it is.”

Rez Williams of West Tisbury said that removing the buoys in Robinson’s Hole would be analogous to removing the guardrails from the curving road over a cliff.

James Lobdell, chairman of the Tisbury harbor management committee, identified those buoys not considered necessary, including one that marked Allegheny Rock, which he said “marked nothing.”

As to Robinson’s Hole, and the notion that Quick’s provided an alternative, he said, “There’s a lot of sailors in Vineyard Haven, and I recognize that there aren’t too many sailboats outside of the Coast Guard Academy, for the Coast Guard, there are powerboats — that mile you are talking about with a fall current and a boat that only does four knots is a long way away.”

Captain Robert Douglas of West Tisbury, designer, builder, and master of the Vineyard Haven schooner Shenandoah, provided an unvarnished critique of what he described as an ill-advised cost-cutting measure. “I’ve been fencing with the Coast Guard for 53 seasons,” he said, “and literally every year new regulations come out that are described as making things safer.” He said he recently had to install a $3,000 piece of equipment that was unnecessary for his purposes.

Captain Douglas said, “It seems to me, if we’re interested in safety afloat, the buoy system is the most important thing we’ve got … I just can’t see that we’re going to improve the safety of this area by removing buoys.”

As to Robinson’s Hole, he advised the Coast Guard to go in at slack tide to perform maintenance.

“I appreciate the Coast Guard’s job,” he said. “I’m vitally interested in buoys and having them where I can count on them. I can’t imagine this is the right way to save money. You’ll be causing wrecks, you’ll be causing a lot of damage, and you don’t need to … I’ve been around here for 53 years with my vessel, and I get used to them. They’re nice things to have.”