Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Early chart of Detroit Harbor, from 1928 Light List,
courtesy of Eric Bonow. At that time, wooden ferries

crossed the harbor to land at the shipyard.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

We've been awaiting word from the U. S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation representatives in Cleveland regarding our request for them to reconsider their policy for the intended, permanent removal of several steel floating aids to navigation in Detroit Harbor.

Late this summer we learned that all of the steel "ice hull" buoys would be pulled and then replaced with lighter, floating aids on a seasonal basis.  This action would mean no floating aids to rely on for approximately five months of the year, including winter, and full reliance would necessarily shift to the two newly constructed cylinders and the long-established "tripod" entrance marker.

We had the opportunity to discuss our point of view in a phone conference with three Coast Guard officers who represented Ninth District Aids to Navigation, Cleveland, two weeks ago. We're hoping the intervening period of time brought about a change of policy regarding those buoys, aids that we consider critical for year around, daily ferry operations.

Boiled down, we requested that buoys #2 and #6 be reset for year around use.  Such steel buoys are superior radar targets in fog or snowstorms over the smaller foam buoys, we said, and they always provide important visual reference for our ferry captains.  We offered to assist with buoy setting using one of our ferries, if that were helpful, but we learned that there is a policy to not rely on such civilian help, or mix private aids with approved federal aids.

Of concern to us was that we had to repeatedly make our case, in several different ways, to be clear that those buoys are not just a nicety but critical to repeated, safe transit of the channel in varied conditions.   Those new, large cylinders will provide strong visual and radar targets, we agreed, but there is nearly a 1/3 mile gap between entrance mark and the first cylinder, a time when an operator, attentive to his compass course, depth, GPS, radar and throttles, must use all of his senses at once to maintain safe course.  Those floating buoys provided excellent visual reference when nothing else was available.  This was certainly true for #2 buoy, but equally important for #6 that marks the reef opposite the ferry dock.   Our ferries need to avoid this rock pile (now only several feet beneath the surface) each time the captain squares away on an outbound course.  High winds, occasional current, and ice in the channel can add difficulty to what is essentially a visual piloting exercise.

We got the impression though our prolonged discussion that we needed to toughen up and get used to relying on the Colusus of Rhodes columns that stand tall over our harbor. We regret having sounded argumentative during the 75-minute phone conference, but when it turned into a debate on what the purpose of a buoy is, and how we ought to be able to safely navigate the channel without floating aids, was there a better way we could have gotten our points across?

The two buoys (#6 and #2) that we described as essential for our safe operations are already here on the island with their sinkers.  The vessel that services them from Muskegon, and the sailors who man that vessel, are available and have already been funded.  That leaves the cost of fuel and the orders to sail a 46-foot vessel across the lake every two years for buoy maintenance as the sole "obstacle," apparently.  That vessel has limitations placed on its scope of service that make such a voyage in open water a violation of its intended use in protected waters.

It may indeed be time to toughen up.

In this photo the C. G Richter was still the winter
ferry, but it does point out the rather small, constricting
basin in which  to turn around or maneuver.  At the
top right of the oval is the red nun #6, marking
the shallow reef.
Others used to do it!  Why can't we?

Back in the days of sail and small mechanized freight boats, called hookers, there were but a few channel aids to assist them. That channel was natural, like a river, and not mechanically dredged.

Eric Bonow, as he has done many other times, sent along information in the form of a chart of the Detroit Harbor entrance from the 1928 Light List.  It may be one of the earliest that depicts buoys marking the West Channel.  At the outer end is the gas buoy with bell which then marked the south end of the shallow reef (rather than sitting on top of the north end as does the present day entrance buoy.)   A bit farther in was a black can where the channel took a slight dipsy-doodle.

Another aid, called the "elbow light" on the old chart where the channel crooked off to the east, marked what Nathan Gunnlaugsson called the "false channel."  A crib of stones marked this naturally deep route, and the mark's remains, a rock pile with a single, upright timber protruding from it, still shows itself to this day east of the dredged channel.  To the west of that crib and the false channel is a two-foot shoal, presently marked by the #6 red nun foam buoy.

From my perspective, the channel then was minimally marked, and it must have been a tense time when vessel masters entered or left port.  Maybe they produced greater testosterone than we do today.
The frequency of modern day ferry travel to and from Detroit Harbor, and the consequences for striking bottom (which includes reporting such incidents to the Coast Guard, and the possibility of haul-out for repairs) won't be satisfied by an old-fashioned spit of plug juice over the side or the vow to do it better the next time.

If we read our regulators' remarks correctly, now is the time for us to toughen up, sharpen our boat handling skills, and be thankful for all we've been given from our federal government!

We hope to bring good news to our readers when such news is available. - Dick Purinton

A few additional thoughts...

Several comments have already been received by direct communication regarding the above essay, and one of them was a comment on the Coast Guard's preference for the installation of "gated" buoys whenever possible.  And while in general this practice may be a proven benefit to navigation, providing a guide for both sides of the waterway, in the case of Detroit Harbor there were only the red floating buoys, for decades, in addition to the green entrance buoy.  (And also the exception of #9 placed at the north end of the channel in the turning basin, now replaced with a white and red striped buoy).   Later, about the year 2001- which happened to coincide with a completed, major dredging project in front of our island ferry terminal - green can #5 was installed.   It proved beneficial as a turning mark for our ferries, marking the shallows along the west side of the channel much in the same manner #6 now marks the hump on the east side of the channel.  But, cost and engineering overkill aside, that new cylinder #5 does not appreciably aid navigation because even though such a "gate" of cylinders may look good on paper, it becomes an immovable obstacle both for vessels and for ice.  And when you're coming into the harbor in low visibility, by the time you're near #5 you've already got a visual bead on the end of the ferry pier.   We're hoping winter ice will not be held back by that cylinder.

The other comment had to do with the new, foam buoy #6A placed approximately one month ago at the north end of the "hump," opposite the ferry landing.    This buoy #6A was installed as a response to several groundings by sailboats as they cut #6 too close to starboard and headed directly for #8 buoy over the top of the hump, with the intention of motoring into the harbor itself.   We don't object to #6A being added, if it helps recreational boaters.  But when asked our opinion during our conference call, we suggested moving #8 further west, so that navigators of recreational craft could, more or less, continue on course beyond #6 to #8 and thereby miss the shallows.  Instead, it appears the Coast Guard proposes the reposition #6 (thus "saving" another foam buoy, #6A).  This proposal, we emphasize, is an entirely wrong and is a potentially dangerous move as it will expose the south end of the shallow hump, which our ferry captains depend upon for visual positioning as they come into or leave their landing area, in both instances while engaged in a major turn.

We spoke up, and we hope notes were taken in Cleveland, because we did not acquiesce on this point regarding the importance of #6 being where it now is, for here and evermore, winter and summer, using a steel "ice hull" buoy.   -  DP

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I'm from the government and here to help you"