Coast Guard Wants to Turn Out Island Lights

Byline: Shane Scott

Coast Guard Wants to Turn Out Island Lights

The Coast Guard is proposing to discontinue Santa Barbara Island Light, Santa Catalina Island West End Light, Ship Rock Light, Catalina Harbor Light, Long Point Light, Santa Catalina Island East End Light and San Nicolas Island East End Light and replace them with marks on the chart designating the preferred latitude and longitude to be used for approach.

“There are eight (lights) total that are being proposed to be discontinued,” said Coast Guard Lt. Jennifer Osburn. “Five of them are in Catalina. They’re very old, and in difficult areas to get to and maintain.”

The plan was announced as an item in the Coast Guard’s Local Notice to Mariners, with a request for boaters to comment on the plan.

Many did — at least on social media, including the SailingAnarchy.com website. Boaters commented that they assume the government is attempting to save the cost of operating the lights, but Lt. Osburn said there’s more to it than that. Much of the time and money spent comes in repairing and maintaining the markers.

“It costs a lot of money to get the folks out to the aid (to navigation),” Lt. Osburn said. There’s a lot more to it than funding the running of the aids.

“As you know, the military has taken a huge budget cut — and we can’t maintain our operations 100 percent, when the budgets need cuts,” Lt. Osburn said. “We need to look at how much money we’re being budgeted.”

Marina del Rey resident and Catalina boater Whitall Stokes said he believes any money saved would be offset by an increase in boaters’ calls for assistance, if the navigation aids are removed.

“The USCG has a far larger budget than they did pre-9/11, and they kept the lights on and maintained far more buoys than today,” Stokes said. “This whole thing is really hard to understand.”

Some of these lights will be taken out due to safety concerns, Lt. Osburn said. Many of the structures stand in disrepair, some even leaning away from their original post, toward the ocean.

For many lights, neglect is nothing new. Sharp Island Light has been on the verge of toppling for years, since bad winter weather pushed it around in 1976. “No one ever bothered to straighten it up: Shows you how much they care about maintaining the old lights. Now the damn thing is just an obstruction in the mouth of Choptank,” one Sailing Anarchy Forum member, “Daffyd,” said, commenting on a post on the Coast Guard’s proposal by Stokes.

As a boater who sails to Catalina at least 10 times a year, often navigating along the back side of the island, Stokes said boaters such as himself would be particularly affected by the discontinuance of these important aids to navigation.

“GPS signals can be disrupted by solar events (and) GPS units fail; usually when you need them,” he said. “Leaving mariners with only one means of navigation — GPS — raises navigation risks. If there was a light on North Coronado Island, would we have lost the crew of Aegean (to an accident during the Newport-to-Ensenada Race)? We will never know, but obviously it would have reduced the odds.”

Stokes recently wrote to Coast Guard Lt. Melissa A. Smith — who, in the item on the light discontinuance plan in the Local Notice for Mariners, had encouraged comments and questions from boaters up through Dec. 15.

“As a pleasureboater, I have depended on (most of those lights) about a half-dozen times a year over the last five years,” Stokes wrote. “As mariners, I thought we all knew that relying on one means of navigation is foolish.

“RDF and Loran are no longer functional, and that leaves piloting,” Stokes wrote. “Visual confirmation of one’s GPS position is important, and these lights are often the only means to do so.

“I have come into Cat Harbor at night from the west with a low cloud cover and when the Cat Harbor light is out,” Stokes wrote. “Even with GPS functioning, when everything is black, it is stress I’d really rather avoid.”

Stokes said he has yet to receive any sort of response from the Coast Guard to his comments.

While the Coast Guard had initially proposed to change the lights themselves at Ship Rock Light, one of the more frequently utilized markers on the island, the repair was out of the Coast Guard’s budget, according to Lt. Smith. Therefore, the marker was added to the list of lights planned for discontinuance.

“I cruise to the island at night, and Ship Rock helps,” said frequent Catalina boater Robert Anderson. “I’ve only got one chart plotter — so, if it goes out, I don’t know if I’d see anything.”

For many boaters, the idea of relying solely on electronics for navigation is unsettling. For them, Lt. Osburn advised, “They should have paper charts and backup plans.”

However, earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it would stop printing lithographic paper navigation charts in April 2014, meaning that boaters will have to obtain them from other sources.

There are a lot of small dinghies on the Isthmus that don’t have chart plotters — many of which are operating at night, Anderson noted. The average boat smaller than 20 feet in length has no chart plotter, he said.

“You have shoreside lights — but things can happen,” he said. “It gets dark out there — really dark.”

“I feel it’s very important that we have those lights on Ship Rock, West End, Eagle Reef and around the buoys, primarily for the small boater — so that if he’s anchored overnight, he can quickly look up and see if he’s dragging (anchor),” said Randy Boelsems, a regular Catalina boater, who owns Quickline Marine Products and is the founder of the Catalina Conservancy Ball.

“If it’s not a moonlit night, you aren’t going to see the rocks around — but you can always see Ship Rock, the West End, Arrow Point, Eagle Reef and any other lights in different places,” Boelsems said. “Here we’ve gone and spent all this money to make them maintenance-free and solar powered; I think it would be foolish to deactivate them.”

While the Coast Guard has no plans to supplement these markers planned for removal, private parties would be allowed to obtain permits to maintain them as private aids to navigation, should they choose to, Lt. Osburn said.

Comments should be addressed to Lt. Jennifer Osburn at jennifer.m.osburn@uscg.mil or submitted by phone at (310) 781-0619.

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