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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 waterman.

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 changes.

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 mark.

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 conditions.

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 latter.

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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