Thursday, August 9, 2012


Detroit Harbor buoys and sinkers offloaded at the Potato Dock August 8th.


As a ferry operator, my greatest tension came when entering the Detroit Harbor Channel in heavy fog or blinding snow.   Finding the entrance mark, knowing I was where I was supposed to be in relation to the dredged channel, was an enormous relief.

A most reassuring moment was the visual sighting of buoy #2 by a crew member, followed by buoy #4.  We considered ourselves "home" once we were inside the end of Kap's Marina dock, and from there, the outline of the ferry dock was generally visible.

If the Coast Guard's long range plan for Detroit Harbor's navigational aids proceeds, then in cold weather months we'll have no floating buoys to help us.  The Coast Guard will remove temporary, seasonal buoys made of lightweight foam sometime in November, resetting them again in spring, so that they won't have to deal with the steel buoys, ground tackle and heavy sinkers.  In the interim, we'll have to learn to split the difference between the new cylinders that bracket the channel like the Colossus of Rhodes.  There will be a gap between cylinders #4 and #5 and the entrance tripod where no aids will mark the 150-foot wide channel.

This plan was revealed by the Coast Guard Tuesday through questions asked of the crew who came from Muskegon in their specialized aids-to-navigation maintenance craft.  By Wednesday morning they  had already pulled #6 buoy opposite our ferry dock.   (The crew is shown in the photo above depositing steel buoys 2, 4 and 6, along with sinkers on our Potato Dock property, where, I was told by Bosun Mate Chief Barra, the cutter Mobile Bay would moor to remove them from Washington Island.)

What will replace them, I asked?  Chief Barra, following orders to remove the steel "ice hull" buoys until told otherwise, said that foam-filled buoys would replace them until the late fall.

What will we do then, I asked?  Chief Barra said we would have the new navigation poles (the 20-foot poles atop the cylinders) to help us, and that "we've done the best we could."

If the plan to construct the two new cylinders in the harbor, aids #4 and #5, came to us as a surprise and  a curiosity in June, this new revelation caused even more surprise, along with consternation.   Why would the Coast Guard build two very expensive cylinders (at a cost approximating a half-million dollars), and then proceed on a plan to pull the steel "ice hull" cylinders on which we, as primary user of this dredged federal channel, depend for safe navigation in winter months, we wondered?

Their answers, we think, come from institutional decision making in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and perhaps Washington, based upon projected long term costs to maintain buoys in Detroit Harbor and the (perhaps) limited life of the Muskegon specialized nav aids maintenance craft. This vessel  powers across the lake each summer - as it has for the past number of years - to lift and inspect buoy chain, anchor fastenings, repaint buoys and reset the aids.  A presumption on our part is that the efforts made to save money on the annual District budget, coupled with the practical matter of lifting and maintaining the heavier steel buoys led to the solutions now evident:  permanent structures and seasonal, lighter foam buoys.

What is missing?

It is impossible to fault any single individual for a decision made over time because input has doubtless come from numerous, expert sources within the Coast Guard organization.  Rather, these decisions seems to us, frequent users of this waterway, an institutional failure to include the opinions of those upon whom such decisions can make a huge impact.

We have no idea of the cost involved in maintaining the old floating steel aids, life as we knew it for so many years, versus the cost of building new cylinder bases with light poles (at half a million dollars), and so it is hard for us to compare costs, one way or another, other than to say, that was a huge chunk of taxpayer money spent on cylinders.   And one of those cylinders, #5, is nearly useless in terms of its importance to channel navigation because of its position.  It would have been far superior had it replaced buoy #2, so that a line of marks could be used for navigation.  Had this been done, we would have less reason to squeal now about the pending loss of floating aids for six months of our operating year.

Only a few years back, the Commandant of the Coast Guard ADM Thad Allen, in his annual statement on  Coast Guard operations, admonished his organization to "Honor the Mariner." By this he meant: to listen; to engage in dialog; to not make hasty assumptions that might make matters worse for the maritime community.

We've seen great improvements since his statement was publicly made, most notably in mariner licensing where six months to get a license renewed was standard practice and mariners were advised to begin their renewal process for a five-year license a good year in advance of the expiration date, just in case.  Rich Ellefson told me just the other day that his renewal application had been approved, along  with official notice to him, within one week of his mailing!

Our frustration with the buoy change-out is coupled with our difficulty to communicate our concerns to someone in the Coast Guard - anyone - with authority to listen and address the Detroit Harbor situation.   It seems that the various names and phone numbers we had led to messages announcing personnel on vacation, on family emergency leave, on temporary duty elsewhere, and in the case of one officer I had met and knew, his voice mail box was full and I was unable to leave a message.

It was only after many calls were made that a call was finally returned to Hoyt Purinton of WIFL.  By this time, our greatest hope was to simply keep the removed buoys here, stacked on Washington Island's shore, so that if resetting is approved, the Coast Guard will not have to go to Sturgeon Bay or somewhere else to retrieve them.

And, if cost is a major consideration in Detroit Harbor's plan, as it must be, why not consider privatization of navigational aid maintenance?  I suppose there may be some Federal Code that limits service of navigational aids to the U. S. Coast Guard, but maybe it't time to reconsider that policy.

I observed the seven-man Coast Guard crew struggling to off-load buoy and sinker on our Potato Dock, and I found it hard to believe this could not be achieved locally with a barge and backhoe or other more specialized, private marine equipment, with greater economy.  It wasn't but a few years ago our company got chewed out for resetting harbor buoys to positions where they did us the most good, so far were they from their proper and useful positions.  Given frequent winter buoy drift in ice, our actions were essential to avoid running them over with our propellers, or running ourselves aground to avoid them.  We didn't mind the inconvenience of the task, and we believed we saved the Coast Guard an unnecessary trip to Washington Island, or so we thought.

Given today's GPS instruments and available commercial lift equipment, surely it is possible for a contract to be privately let that will specify annual maintenance and placement of buoys and sinkers.

As of late Wednesday, August 8th, Ferry Line President Hoyt Purinton was told by a Ninth Coast Guard District Waterways Management representative that the Detroit Harbor situation would be discussed via phone conference on August 20th.  There is no guarantee that a change in plans will result, but we're hoping that common sense will prevail.  We've made an assumption here that as a ferry transportation company, we also speak for those who rely on our services and our reliability to make ferry trips safely in all weather conditions, and that "improvements in navigation," whether viewed up close or from afar, should not pose greater risk to those dependent upon water transportation.

- Dick Purinton

1 comment:

Bill Tobey said...

"We're the government and we're here to help!"

Amazing ......

Dick, how accurate is your GPS and can you place navaid points on your GPS display showing the positions of the new "robust" cylinders and virtual points for the floating aids, whether there or not?