by NRP Reserve Officer Den Leventhal
“They do the kind of work that is only noticed if it isn’t done.” This was the
way Cpl. Dallas Reece of Maryland’s Natural Resources Police (NRP) described the
work done by the crews that maintain the state’s waterway navigational aids,
when I first floated the idea of riding an NRP buoy tender to find out what they
do -- and how they do it.
He was referring to the experienced
and dedicated staff of the NRP’s Hydrographic Operations Section (Hydro Ops),
responsible for maintaining the State-owned system of navigational aids
throughout the Chesapeake Bay, its navigable tributaries and watershed lakes, as
well as Maryland’s portion of the Atlantic coastline.
Based at the NRP’s Matapeake facility on Kent Island, Hydro Ops manage some
2,600 floating and 315 fixed, navigational and regulatory aids with a total of
only 22 staff, three diesel-powered buoy tenders, and eight trailered outboard
boats. The sheer magnitude of their primary job -- repairing, repainting and
replacing all these critical boating safety aids at least once each year --
indicates the dedication required from this small staff.
Add to this list ice-breaking, charting and marking clam lines around public
oyster bars, removal of navigational obstructions and hazards, and tracking
private oyster bar leasing titles, and you get the sense that the Labors of
Hercules were miniscule by comparison. Furthermore, only the portion of the
public that benefits directly from their work pays the costs of this division
since it is funded solely through the Boat Title Tax.
Close Up on The Widener
Through the kind arrangements of Capt. Joe Scharnus, manager of Hydro Ops, I had
the privilege of observing some buoy-laying operations. My first ride along was
on the M/V John C. Widener -- the smallest of their three buoy tenders.
Named for a former chief hydrographer who served the state back in the 1950s,
the Widener is 76 feet long, powered by a 525 horsepower diesel engine,
provides a cruising speed of more than 10 knots, and has a crew of four.
Captain Jeff Lill has been at the
helm of the Widener for the past 10 years. For this Rock Hall native, boating
the Bay is in the blood: His granddad was a chief engineer on Chesapeake
steamboats and his great-grandfather worked seine hauling on log canoes out of
the tiny Eastern Shore watermen’s town.
As we steamed out of Cambridge at sunrise that June day headed for our work site
below Calvert Cliffs, Captain Lill explained that his team was responsible for
replacing and repositioning 450 buoys per year, as well as obstruction removal
and ice breaking when necessary. Most of the buoys they handle are non-lateral
markers such as the orange and white buoys that distinguish where commercial
watermen can work and what areas are off limits. However, they also handle
lateral aids such as the familiar red and green channel markers in the smaller
waterways not overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard in places like Trappe Creek and
St. Michaels Harbor.
The day’s job was marking out a restricted area just off the nuclear power plant
on the Calvert County shoreline. Approaching the work location, Chief Engineer
Doug Outten took charge of the hydraulic sea crane, an enormous piece of
machinery capable of pulling a 1,500-pound Safe Working Load (SWL). Doug is a
sixth generation Eastern Shore native who has over 20 years experience as a Bay
Two crewmen, Greg Whiteside and Pete Bornhoeft, sorted out the other gear
required for replacing a total of 11 buoys. Originally from Harford County, Greg
has been with the NRP since 2002 as a mate. Before that he served in the U.S.
Navy, with an extensive tour-of-duty in the Persian Gulf. Pete is also an
accomplished seaman, having served as chief mate on Maryland’s state boat, the
Independence, for 17 years. The safety consciousness of this team was
exemplified by the clean and well-maintained appearance of the vessel, and their
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were thorough and well-practiced.
Their procedure for replacing a single buoy demonstrated an efficient merging of
high-tech equipment and traditional seamanship. First the captain programmed the
buoy’s position in the GPS, with the exact latitude and longitude as
predetermined by the chief hydrographer. He then maneuvered the ship up to the
buoy position. Despite being equipped with an electronic depth finder, the crew
still used a hand lead line to verify the depth at the drop point, and then cut
a galvanized anchor chain to that depth plus three feet to allow for tidal
The crew then shackled one end of the chain to the buoy, and the other to a
1,000-pound concrete anchor block. Using the hydraulic crane, the anchor weight
was hung from a pelican hook off the starboard side. The buoy was then dropped
into the water; when the captain signaled that they were “on station,” the
pelican hook was tripped with a boat hook, releasing the anchor block.
Some very refined judgment is required with this release. The concrete block has
a tendency to plane when dropped, moving off the precise positioning. Also, the
shape of the sea bottom can affect the direction of the movement as the block
descends. Taking these factors into account, the captain, with hands on wheel
and engine controls, and eyes on the GPS, decided the precise moment to make the
drop. His accuracy was phenomenal -- 10 of the 11 buoys were directly on the
The old buoy and anchor weight, usually out of position due to forces such as
exceptionally high tides or ice, was then lassoed with a chain and lifted up
with the crane. Envision a cowboy on a horse using a rope lasso to catch a
running steer; now picture a seaman ensnaring a bobbing buoy in a rolling sea
using a chain lasso! A power wash then removed most of the buoy’s accumulated
barnacles, weeds and mud.
We had a poignant moment when one of the old anchor weights appeared out of the
water with 9-11-01 engraved on its surface. Apparently, there were a number of
weights made that day at the NRP’s Cambridge facility, all of which were
inscribed with the date. It certainly inspired a moment of quiet reflection
within us all.
Fresh Water, Salty Company…
My next ride along was on a 23-foot trailered Maycraft with a 175 horsepower
outboard engine. The trailered boats are used for work in shallower water,
mostly in the many Bay tributaries. These boats are loaded up with enough buoys
for one or two specific assignments, and then launched at public landings near
the work location.
My hospitable hosts on this occasion were long-time watermen Robert Ireland and
Norval Pritchett (this line of work apparently attracts a special breed more
comfortable with the freedom of the wind and waves than the comforts of a career
on land). Bob, born into a Caroline County family with over 100 years of history
in the area, has more than 30 years experience in Bay service. Norval, who comes
from Cambridge and has been with the NRP since 1987, good-naturedly boasted that
he wears barnacles and grass shrimp home from work every day.
The two often work together when circumstances call for a two-man team, although
each is assigned his own territory. They both also work the Ocean City region
where strong ocean currents often drag the smaller buoys out of position, making
the work more complex.
Naturally, they handle lighter weights than the large diesel-powered buoy
tenders that work in deeper water. Their boat’s davit, or small crane, is
capable of pulling 200 pounds SWL, and their 35- to 45-pound anchor weights are
made from cinder blocks with cement filler. Their SOPs are similar to those on
the Widener, but with some modifications required by their own unique working
On this occasion, they were working White Crystal Beach and inside Cabin John
Creek near the mouth of the Elk River. Swimming Area markers were dropped at two
sites along the former location, and Minimum Wake markers were put in the
The buoy positions were chosen to protect some extremely lovely State-owned
shoreline along the quiet backwater. I noticed that all but three of the buoys
installed the previous year had been blown or dragged out of place by the
winter’s ice; the remaining three seemed to have been replaced in a perfect line
across the mouth of the creek. Bob explained that they had probably been
repositioned by a local resident who wanted to protect his pier and waterfront
property from jet skiers.
It is clear that the job done by these professional seamen is a great service to
all who use the Chesapeake for business or pleasure. Over and above the warm
welcome I received, my impression was that these men provide a special service
marked by dedication to, and a high degree of professional competence with, a
difficult and often dangerous job.
NRP Reserve Officer Den Leventhal became a full-time resident
of Maryland's Eastern Shore in 2001 after 25 years in China, where he
represented multi-national corporations in various business development
activities. A fluent speaker and reader of Chinese, he also served in the
U.S. Merchant Marine after graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in
1962. Den provided the photos for this article.
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