The buoys are back in town

Coast Guard spares the cans and nuns in Robinson’s Hole, among others.

Vineyard Haven Harbormaster John Crocker. — Stacey Rupolo

The U.S. Coast GuardSector Southeast New England Waterways Management Division recently announced that many buoys targeted for elimination in Vineyard area waters would be preserved. The decision came three months after hearings at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Tisbury and at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. At the meetings, area residents aired their opinions about the Coast Guard’s proposal to “disestablish and remove” more than three dozen Federal Aids to Navigation.

During the Cornell Theater hearing in September, Coast Guard officials described Robinson’s Hole, a strait between Pasque and Naushon islands, as tight and perilous. They argued that keeping a string of navigations aids there invited calamity, especially when the broader and deeper option of Quick’s Hole was so close by. A bevy of Island boaters rebutted that assessment, and noted the strait’s value to sailboats working against tide or current. They also suggested buoy removal in Robinson’s Hole would lead to shipwrecks, not prevent them. Island boaters furthermore said they failed to see the wisdom of nixing “nun 4” on the outskirts of Vineyard Haven Harbor, which they saw as a hedge against undersea rock, among other values such as traffic separation.

Waterways Management chief Edward LeBlanc told The Times this week that the decisions to keep or not keep certain navigation aids revolved around their utility, “if they still added value to mariners,” he said.

Mr. LeBlanc added that public commentary on the issue was an important tool in the evaluation process: “We carefully considered that input.”

Prior to the Cornell Theater hearing, Tisbury’s harbor management committee, selectmen, and harbormaster expressed a written position that Island boaters would later echo at the hearing.

“We put together a letter that we sent to the Coast Guard regarding this issue,” Interim Harbormaster John Crocker said. “The areas of buoys that were of concern to us were red nun No. 4 in the channel here in Vineyard Haven, and the buoys that mark the channel through Robinson’s Hole.”

The June 17 letter addressed to Southeast New England Port Captain J.T. Kondratwoicz asked the Coast Guard to “reconsider the removal” of “Vineyard Haven Buoy #4.” The joint letter cited the buoy’s value in separating tug, ferry, and other heavy vessel traffic from “hundreds of small recreational vessels that visit and berth in Vineyard Haven.” The letter also noted the buoy’s value as a range and turning mark, as well as an anchorage and channel delineator. The letter argued that the “strong currents and crooked channel” of Robinson’s Hole would become “very dangerous without buoys,” and that smaller watercraft use it to avoid the heavy traffic through Woods and Quicks holes.

Tisbury town administrator John “Jay” Grande told The Times he was “very confident” that the letter was instrumental in bringing about the September hearing in Vineyard Haven and a working session that immediately preceded it. He said a copy of the letter was sent to U.S. Representative Bill Keating, and that Mr. Keating’s office then sent its own letter to the Coast Guard in response.

Nun 4 is one of a line of three red nun buoys marking the nautical path to Vineyard Haven Harbor. These federal navigation aids are buoyant steel cylinders chained to concrete moorings. According to Mr. LeBlanc, they are called nuns because their tops resemble a nun’s habit. The green can buoys that are seen throughout Vineyard waters are named for their resemblance to soup cans.

Mr. LeBlanc confirmed that nun 4 and the buoys through Robinson’s Hole will remain. He said Lone Rock Buoy 1, a junction buoy off Oak Bluffs, and Can 25 off West Chop, would be removed — the latter being at the suggestion of the town of Tisbury. In a letter to the Coast Guard, the town said there was no evidence that Allegheny Rock, which the can marks, has been seen in 50 years. Another buoy in Edgartown Harbor is in limbo, as Mr. LeBlanc engages in dialogue with the Edgartown harbormaster over its fate.

A dedicated 49-foot Coast Guard vessel out of Woods Hole called a buoy utility stern-loading boat or BUSL is a likely candidate to do the removals. Woods Hole also fields a smaller, trailered boat for such work, but Mr. LeBlanc stated that it’s possible that specialized cutters from Newport may also engage in some of the removals in the region. He said all these vessels routinely maintain a vast number of buoys and other aids. They do everything from scraping off barnacles and replacing chains to painting and fixing lights. He said in places like Robinson’s Hole, some of this work is very risky.

“We have to time the maintenance of those buoys very carefully,” he said, calling the scheduling a dangerous “choreography” that involves only the most highly trained crews.

Mr. Crocker sees economics at the root of the removal proposals.

“I think that that’s the reason why they embarked on this whole thing,” he said. “[It’s] about trying to remove buoys because it costs money to service the buoys, and they kind of said that that wasn’t the reason, but it seems awfully logical that it’s the reason.”

He added that he was pleased with how the Coast Guard absorbed and responded to Islanders’ suggestions regarding the proposed removals.

“They actually listened,” the interim harbormaster said, “and they did what we asked them to do, which I think was awesome. You know, how many times in life does that happen?”