Broken Channel Markers a Danger, Coast Guard, State Officials and Local Boaters Agree

Repair Work Slated for July in Waters Off LBI
By GINA G. SCALA | Jun 05, 2019
Photo by: Gail Travers A broken and rusting marker off Long Beach Island last summer.

The U.S. Coast Guard is expected to undertake work next month to repair, replace or remove hazardous channel markers in the Intracoastal Waterway, which some say are responsible for two boats sinking Memorial Day weekend off Long Beach Island.

The ICW is a 3,000-mile inland waterway running from Boston south along the Atlantic seaboard, around the southern tip of Florida and around the Gulf Coast to Brownsville, Texas. It runs through bay areas west of LBI.

“It’s scheduled for July,” Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Elijah Reynolds, the officer in charge of the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team in Cape May, said in a recent telephone interview regarding the broken channel markers and when the work would be performed. “Is it ideal? No.”

Calling the issue a public safety matter in a May 29 letter to state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine M. McCabe, Ninth District legislators said they received several communications, in a short period of time, from “alarmed constituents and summer residents, alike, regarding the number of broken channel markers in Barnegat Bay that we understand have led to a number of injuries to boat passengers and damages to several boats.”

The state representatives, in the same letter, noted many of the broken markers are now submerged below the surface of the water, “allegedly causing at least two separate boating accidents this past holiday weekend. Making matters worse, while there are buoys chained to the submerged markers, we are told the buoys tend to drift anywhere between 15-25 feet from the broken markers, altogether negating the purpose of their placement.”

Jeff Paterson, who has been in the boat towing industry for more than three decades, said if the work being done doesn’t include removing the stump, left behind because the steel rusts off after being exposed to air, then the problem will remain.

“It’s not an adequate solution,” Paterson said, noting the addition of floating buoys in places like Great Bay Inlet don’t work because of the water dynamics. “Most boaters going north avoid the ICW in New Jersey because of the danger of accidents. If it was safe and navigable, there would be more business.”

Reynolds’ Coast Guard team is responsible for ensuring more than 364 structures, including channel markers and buoys, are up to date and functional. Roughly 75 percent are located in the ICW in New Jersey, and a majority of those markers are located in the waters off Long Beach Island. Still, the repair, replace or remove work is slated to begin near Toms River before heading south to the LBI region, according to Reynolds. He said the decision to start north of local waters is because there are so few broken channel markers there.

Repairing, replacing, or removing the channel markers will be handled by the Coast Guard’s East Coast dive team, Reynolds said. That team is responsible for the entire East Coast, making scheduling work a challenge. The Coast Guard has only two dive teams; the other is responsible for the West Coast, he said. Subcontracting the work is costly, and recreational boaters should not interfere with marking broken channel markers or other aids to navigation in need of repair. Doing so is considered tampering, Reynolds said.

There are other challenges in getting the work done, including the size of the boats the Coast Guard used to initially install the aids to navigation. Those boats are now too big for the ICW in New Jersey because of shoaling. Still, Reynolds is giving the go-ahead for the same size boat from his fleet to travel into the ICW so the channel markers can be fixed. The fleet, including Reynolds, has 17 people and three boats responsible for aids to navigation from Shark River in Monmouth County down through a portion of Virginia.

Following the Memorial Day weekend accidents, a social media campaign that began in one Facebook group morphed into several groups, including one specifically dedicated to the broken channel markers. Reynolds even asked to be included in one of the groups to answer any questions and hear concerns.

“I have a 12-year-old son who is on the water. If (one of those things) is hit on a wave runner, a tube or a wake board it will rip you apart,” Adam Scott, a local boat broker from Manahawkin, said in a recent telephone interview. “This has been an issue for several years and I never took the steps that I did last week.”

Scott reached out to the Aids to Navigation Team directly about the channel markers with an offer to help, if he could, after learning about the recent boating accidents. There have been rumblings about broken channel markers in local waters for some time. Weekly, every Wednesday, the Fifth Coast Guard District releases a local notice to mariners listing any and all discrepancies for aids to navigation from the Shrewsbury River in Monmouth County south to Little River in South Carolina. When issues arise after the notice to mariners is released, a voice message goes out over the radio alerting mariners to those discrepancies.

“That’s what happens in real time. It’s not ideal. It’s a balancing act,” Reynolds said.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Coast Guard Mid-Atlantic office released an official warning to boaters in the ICW near Barnegat Bay. Boaters were told to stay away from any area marked with a green or red buoy and the letters WR. The WR means there is an underwater hazard nearby. The green buoys mark all the odd-number channel makers and the red coordinate with all the even-numbered channel markers.

Addressing the dangerous conditions in the ICW has been a priority for Reynolds since he assumed responsibility for the Aids to Navigation Team a little more than a year ago, he said. When he arrived from the Northeast region, having spent most of his 20-year career in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, he said he learned quickly there is a large boating community using the ICW in New Jersey.

The Coast Guard is “doing everything we can” to remove the dangers from local waters, Reynolds said, adding, “We do a very good job at doing what we do.”

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