Reporter’s Notebook

Broken Channel Markers Offer Unique Opportunity to Learn More About Aids to Navigation

By GINA G. SCALA | Jul 03, 2019
Photo by: Gina Scala

Surf City — Being a reporter is a lot less glamorous than Hollywood likes to make it. A typical day, if there is such a thing, is juggling what feels like a million different plates in the air while becoming a master of the subject du jour before heading out to an assignment, interview or meeting, ahead of sitting down to write. On rare occasions, it’s quiet in the newsroom. The Wednesday following Memorial Day was one of those rare occasions – until it wasn’t.

It all started with a phone call about broken channel markers in the Intracoastal Waterway, the 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. Many believed the broken channel markers in local waters were responsible for two separate boating accidents Memorial Day weekend. Getting in touch with the right person at the right time, even for a member of the Fourth Estate, isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I spent the entire afternoon of May 29 and May 30 on the phone talking to anyone and everyone I could think of who would know something about broken channel markers, recognize the danger to public safety and want to do something about it. It wasn’t until a friend tagged me in a social media post that I found what, or should I say whom, I was looking for.

So, when the offer came to go out with the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Team to check on temporary fixes they put into play following those boating accidents, well, it was an easy decision. I mean who is going to turn down a day, or at least a portion of the day, on the water off the coast of Long Beach Island in early summer? Not me, even if it meant getting up and out of the house early. And it was early, but worth it; for a lot of reasons.

The Aids to Navigation team, stationed in Cape May, is comprised of 17 people, including Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Elijah Reynolds, the officer in charge of the team, and three boats to ensure the safety of waterways from Shark River in Monmouth County down through a portion of Virginia. Think about that for a second.

“It’s a different perspective on the water,” Reynolds said on our trip last month.

You think? It was tank-top, jeans and flip-flop weather for the trip to the Barnegat Municipal Dock, at the end of East Bay Avenue, windows down and music up. On the water, it was closed-toed shoes, a sweater, a wind-breaker and a New York Rangers baseball hat – a bit daring on my part since Reynolds and Petty Officer Brendan Crowther are both Boston sports fans.

No expectations. It’s an inside joke my best friend and I have, but it’s something I try to keep in mind for all things. So, when I boarded the TANB (trailerable aids to navigation boat) and took my seat I reminded myself to let go of any preconceived notions I might have about my day-in-the-life trip with a Coast Guard crew of four whose responsibility is, in the simplest of terms, public safety. There is nothing simple, by the way, about what these guys do.

Surprisingly, letting go of what I thought the trip should be, or would be, for that matter, was easier than I thought. But then everything looks different when you’re idling in a Coast Guard TANB a stone’s throw from the Island watching Reynolds, Crowther, Petty Officer Mitch Hopper and Seaman Nicholas Hopper locate the stump of channel marker 87 in the ICW, remove the hazard from the water, and mount a new foam buoy over the broken marker.

Reynolds estimates it took about 30 minutes for the temporary fix to be mounted. I hadn’t bothered to time it, mesmerized by how quickly and easily they worked to remove the hazard from the water, fit the new foam buoy over the broken marker, and anchor it.

I wasn’t the only one watching and learning, though. Standing on his dock, an older gentleman clapped as the TANB approached, shouting a word of thanks and some tips for finding the stump of channel marker 87. Turns out, he had served in the Coast Guard himself during the 1950s (thank you for your service, sir). That interaction shouldn’t have surprised me, considering all the public encouragement either Reynolds or his team received during the three-hour tour as we traveled from channel marker 40 (where the Aids to Navigation Team replaced the number marker) in Barnegat Bay through Manahawkin Bay to Little Egg Harbor (lower Barnegat Bay).

Beginning July 15, the Coast Guard’s East Coast dive team is expected to undertake a more permanent solution to repair, replace or remove hazardous channel markers in the ICW. Before the work begins, there are challenges. The first was scheduling the work. The second was finding a boat that could safely navigate the shallow waters of the ICW off Long Beach Island, where a majority of the broken channel makers are located. The size of the boats the Coast Guard used to initially install the aids to navigation can no longer be utilized, due to shoaling and water clarity.

“You can’t see your fingers in the ICW,” Reynolds reiterated on our trip. He’s approved a 49-foot boat from his fleet for use in the ICW for as long as it takes the East Coast dive team to install the more permanent fixes.

He’s right, by the way; you can’t see your fingers in the ICW off the coast. I tried and hopefully I will get the opportunity to try again when the dive operation gets underway later this month.

The thing about being a reporter is that you never know where a story is going to take you, what it’s going to teach you – at least that’s how it is for me. There’s always a general idea of what I’d like to learn, but most of the time it surpasses my vision. This time was no different.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Reynolds and his crew for the opportunity to see firsthand what aids to navigation is all about, how channel markers and buoys work, and how important public safety is to all of them. Gentlemen, thank you for your service. Fair winds and following seas.

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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