M/V John C. Widener
Tending to the Road Signs of the Chesapeake
Captain Jeff Lill gives some throttle to the M/V John C. Widener as the 73-foot Department of Natural Resources buoy tender pushes into a light chop on its way out of Cambridge Creek and into the Choptank River. A fine rain turns heavier and the shoreline fades to gray. The western horizon at the mouth of the river goes almost white as the low clouds scud in from the west.
Lill, a tall, blond man with blue eyes and an easy smile, is at home at the helm as the Widener starts her daily routine maintaining the ubiquitous white buoys that define Maryland’s oyster bars, clam beds, crabbing areas and speed zones. The black-hulled vessel with its white two-story cabin and wheelhouse has been his workstation, and the Middle Bay has been his regular route, for 14 years.
“We are running out to replace some dredge-line buoys,” he explains as Chief Engineer Doug Outten and crew members Bob Heim and Gary Hopkins, all dressed in foul-weather gear and hard hats, move out onto the wide foredeck below.
Maryland has almost 2,500 state buoys that have to be replaced every year. It is not the kind of work that gets done behind a desk or by telecommuting. To get to the job, the sailors of DNR’s Hydrographic Operations Section (Hydro Ops) have to get out on the water, in cold and ice and heat and humidity, to accomplish the task at hand.
“We don’t have a sun awning out here,” says Chief Outten as he works the controls of the six-ton hydraulic crane mounted on the deck.
Today, sun is not a problem. The rain is warm and the men pay it no mind as they move easily around the deck. Lill announces that they are coming up on their first mark. He scans the water with his binoculars but cannot find the buoy that has to be replaced.
“This one is gone,” he says. He explains that buoys go missing because of ice, excessive tides, being struck by boats (“We find speed limit markers that were sliced through by propellers.”) or being shot. Yes, shot. One of the buoys pulled today is riddled with shotgun pellets. Lill says they have found some shot with high-caliber ammunitions.
Lill watches the GPS screen as he closes in on the coordinates. Heim, standing in the bow, drops a leadline, like the ones used by ancient mariners with knots marking off the feet, to double check the depth of the water and calls out “25.” Outten pulls 28 feet of galvanized chain out of a plastic barrel and Hopkins uses a bolt cutter that would get you out of San Quentin to cut through a link.
What happens next is a fluid, almost silent series of events that are only accomplished by men who work together on a daily basis, know their job and execute it with precision. When Lill has the Widener right over the spot, he gives the word and within minutes, a brand new, shiny white buoy is floating past the stern as the boat heads to the next mark.
“You get into a sort of tunnel vision,” Lill explains. “You know what has to be done and you just concentrate on doing it.”
The next buoy to be replaced brings up more than a lot of barnacles and sea growth. It is a “9/11” anchor.
Lill says that Hydro Ops makes its own concrete buoy anchors at its headquarters in Matapeake on Kent Island. The concrete is poured into molds with rebar and left to cure. Before the concrete hardens, the date of the manufacture is scratched in the wet surface. This one was made on September 11, 2001.
“We have about four or five of those that still keep coming up,” Lill says.
The buoy, which has been in the water about 13 months, is faded and tattered, its reflective tape all but gone and its base covered with barnacles. The deck crew uses a pressure washer and a long-handled scraper to clean off the debris before bringing the old one on deck and replacing it with a new one.
Their work, though functional and prescribed by law, is not always appreciated by their fellow watermen, who are supposed to abide by the boundaries that the state markers represent.
“We have had incidents where clam markers were moved within days of when we set them,” Lill says. “So we watch those buoys.”
When one buoy on the edge of a productive clam bed was reported to have been moved, the Widener crew returned and reset it, this time with a second concrete anchor.
“When we pulled that buoy a year later, there was a line, a cleat and part of the back of a boat attached to it,” he says.
While the tending of the state’s regulatory buoys is one of the primary functions of the Widener, it spends its winter months working out of Annapolis as an ice breaker. The John C. Widener is one of three large buoy tenders and ice breakers run by the state. The 100-footer J. M. Tawes works out of Crisfield, and the 80-foot A.V. Sandusky is home-ported in Kent Island.
The Widener crew has also been called to help NOAA tend to their “smart buoys” that transmit high tech data on currents, water condition and tides.
Earlier this year, the Widener played a hand in the notorious illegal rockfish gill-netting investigation that forced severe restrictions on the commercial harvest.
“It was a pea-soup fog day, and we were called by the Marine Police to assist on an illegal net found off Bloody Point,” Lill says. The crew of the Widener and police pulled the net for the next several hours and hauled in 6,000 pounds of contraband.
“There was a workboat moving out in the fog. I could track him on the radar but only got a glimpse of him before he was gone,” Lill says. No one has been charged with the rash of illegal nettings.
With the new buoys placed and the old ones on deck for refurbishing, Lill heads the John C. Widener, named for a former head hydrographer of Maryland, back to its berth on Cambridge Creek.
“The Cambridge Creek Bridge closes from noon to 1 p.m.,” Lill says, looking at the bulkhead clock. He radios the bridge tender as soon as the span is in sight.
“John C. Widener to Cambridge Creek Bridge, requesting an opening.”
“Cambridge Creek Bridge opening. Will hold it for you.”
Lill eases the big boat into its slip without touching a piling. Dock lines the size of a man’s wrist are dropped over the pilings and the vessel comes to a stop with nary a bump or a jerk.
Just another day at the office for Captain Jeff Lill and his crew.
Dick Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.