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Possible loss of mile buoy rankles Santa Cruz locals

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Local boaters are concerned about a proposal to remove the Santa Cruz's mile buoy, a lifeline for lost boaters and crowded sun deck for sea lions.

The idea is being floated by U.S. Coast Guard officials conducting a review of navigational aids along California's 1,100-mile coast. Coast Guard officials say technological advances — and in Santa Cruz's case, redundancies — have made many old buoys and lighthouses obsolete.

"Back in the day you would transit from lighthouse to lighthouse. You just wouldn't do that anymore," said Alameda-based Coast Guard Lt. Melissa Smith.

Smith stressed the idea is just in the proposal phase, one of 16 navigational markers the Coast Guard is proposing to abandon, with more likely to come. Buoys at Moss Landing, Año Nuevo and Pillar Point are also on the chopping block.

Smith said the breakwater lighthouse has a powerful light and horn, and that the buoy would be replaced by a digital navigation marker, though that would require boaters to have computerized navigation equipment. In addition, cheap GPS devices and even smartphones have made it easier for people on the water to find the shore.

The buoy is located directly south of the mouth of the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. On sunny days it's easy to see the shore, but on foggy days the buoy's bell helps locate the harbor mouth — find the buoy, set your compass to zero, and you're home free.

But backers of keeping the buoy point out that many people navigating the harbor mouth are inexperienced on the water and don't have navigational equipment. If the fog moves in, they are told to find the buoy.

"That's a real disaster," said Capitola resident and longtime boater Al Carlson. "Just think about it: We've got paddleboarders, kayakers, little sailboats. We're the only place in Monterey Bay that rents rowboats. We tell the people to use the mile buoy as a reference point."

A lifelong local, Carlson has been boating on Monterey Bay since 1938. He said lost boaters used to sail due north until they hit shore, which can be a disaster.

"Hitting land in a big swell is very dangerous, you were lucky to survive," Carlson said.

Port Director Lisa Ekers said the buoy also serves an important public safety purpose.

"The mile buoy is an important physical reference point for mariners and first responders who perform marine rescues," Ekers said.

The mile buoy is also a signpost of sorts for school children venturing out with O'Neill Sea Odyssey to learn more about the marine ecosystem. Executive Director Dan Haifley stressed that's also a critical tool for boaters.

"The ocean does not have paved roads it doesn't have highway signs," Haifley said. "So the mile buoy is an essential guide to navigation."

Smith said the Walton Lighthouse near the end of the harbor breakwater has an eight-mile light, shining a minimum of three miles 90 percent of the time. It also has a foghorn.

"It does kind of make (the buoy) excess and redundant," Smith said. "It's nice to have it as a great reference spot, yes, but is it really necessary for safety on the water?"

The public comment period on the proposal closes on Thanksgiving Day, but there is no time line for decision and Smith said a final decision could go to the highest levels of the U.S. Coast Guard.
 

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