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How To Make Changes to Coast Guard Aids to Navigation


Sitting smack in the middle of Boston Harbor, right between the ship channel and a small boat channel, there’s an ominous pile of rocks just below the surface known as the Lower Middle. It’s somewhat akin to the median strip on a very busy superhighway; giant ships pass within a few yards on their way out to sea while recreational boats following markers around Governors Flats can be equally unaware of the nearby rocks unless they bother to look at a chart. Many don’t.

Eliott Hammerman has lived in Boston all his life. As a kid, he rowed out to Lower Middle and collected boat parts — props, shafts, rudders — to sell as scrap. Over the years he’s seen an increasing number of boats run up on the rocks, including some very expensive yachts that were being operated by professional captains. Hammerman finally decided it was time to do something and began making phone calls and writing letters to the Coast Guard. He even helped circulate a petition among local yacht clubs, asking that the rocks be marked. His efforts thus far have been for naught. Hammerman describes the Coast Guard’s reluctance to put a marker on Lower Middle as “weird.”

You Want to Make Changes? Here’s What You’re Up Against

BoatUS members have written occasionally to complain that the Coast Guard has been slow to rectify existing buoys that are off station and even slower to respond, if they respond at all, to requests to place new markers on shoals. After talking to numerous people at the Coast Guard, we found the reason has more to do with budget than with bureaucracy, but it’s possible to work with the Coast Guard to make necessary changes. The key is to know what you’re up against and what tools are available to help.

First, there’s a big difference between reporting a buoy that’s off station, or a marker that’s missing, and proposing that a new buoy or marker be installed. With the former, the problem should be corrected relatively quickly. Both the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Power Squadron have programs to report discrepancies, or you can call the Coast Guard district headquarters yourself (see below).

If you’re proposing a new buoy or marker, then be prepared to do battle. Funds for new projects are scarce. The Office of Management and Budget gives the Coast Guard’s Aid to Navigation Office (ATON) $4.4 million for new projects, which must somehow be divided between all nine Coast Guard districts. The current shortfall for new projects is $11 million and growing. According to John Mauro at the Coast Guard’s 1st District ATON office, there have been years when a large portion of the money went toward a single project. He cites as an example the Ambrose Light Tower, which was damaged beyond repair by the tanker Aegeo in 1996. The 1st District thought the light was no longer needed, but when the harbor pilots objected, the Coast Guard had to come up with $4.5 million for repairs — 100 percent of the entire budget for that year! (The shipping company eventually paid $2 million.)

One thing the Coast Guard must consider when apportioning money for a new buoy is who stands to benefit. Projects involving military and commercial shipping are given priority. Another consideration is the level of support, or lack of support, for possible changes. Given the huge number of potential ATON projects vying for money that must be evaluated, it doesn’t take much to sink a proposal. Details for proposals are published in the local Notice to Mariners along with a request for comments. That’s it; the Coast Guard doesn’t mail letters to interested parties and there’s no announcement on the evening news.

With most people, Mauro says the tendency is to make comments after a decision has been made. After the 1st District placed lights on some buoys in a recreational boat channel, the Boston Harbor Pilot Association submitted a complaint that the various blinking patterns on the buoys near the shipping channel were confusing. This is most likely what happened at Lower Middle, the pile of rocks in Boston Harbor. The multiple, often conflicting, uses of Boston Harbor are a major consideration, and according to records at the 1st District, a proposal made by the Coast Guard to light the two buoys at either end of Lower Middle was published in the Notice to Mariners, Volumes 3599 and 4399. There were several letters in opposition to the proposal from professional captains — and none in support.

You Want to Make Changes? Here’s What to Do

There are something like 40,000 markers in U.S. waters, which is far more than in any other country in the world. Despite the impressive number of markers, a comment that was made by just about everyone we talked to in the ATON program is that it’s impossible to mark every rock and shoal. It’s up to boat owners to avoid damage by knowing the basics of navigation and using their charts. Mauro acknowledged that the Coast Guard realizes that many boaters don’t: “They run hither and yon and that can be dangerous.”

The Coast Guard Wants to Know

How you go about contacting them could give you a valuable head start getting the job done.

  • Write a letter (be polite) to the Aids to Navigation Office at the Coast Guard district headquarters (2100 2nd Street, SW, Washington D.C. 20593). You’re wasting your time writing to a local Coast Guard station, and phone calls tend to slip through the cracks easily
  • Read the Local Notice to Mariners (information concerning proposed changes aren’t given in Notice to Mariner VHF broadcasts). The time to make comments — the more people who write, the better — is before an action has been taken! Local Notice to Mariners can be accessed for each district at Don’t expect things to happen immediately; changes take time. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, so be persistent. A BoatUS member in Maryland wrote 27 letters before a marker was installed.
  • Think cheap. A day marker is much more likely to be funded than a proposal involving larger buoys, or lights, etc. If all else fails, you can get permission from the Coast Guard to install a private marker, for which you will then be responsible to maintain.

Bob Adriance

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine