Winter Ice Floes “Turn Out the Lights” on Rehoboth Bay

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

January 2004 ice floes
Photo by Ann-Marie Trapani

January 2004 ice floes

Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, is loved by avid fishermen and recreational boaters alike for its sparkling summer waters of enjoyment, but there is another side to this aquatic paradise that few people understand when their “fun in the sun” draws to a close each year. Not long after the warmth of summer dissipates, the harsh effects wrought by “Old Man Winter” begin to take hold of the seascape. When the air turns cold and the Atlantic’s icy winds blow unabated across its open waters, Rehoboth Bay transforms itself from a desirable summer playground into a desolate body of water frequented only by a handful of hardy watermen dedicated to their trade.

More so in 2004 than in recent years past, winter ice proved especially problematic in the surrounding waters of the Delaware River and Bay as blustery winds and frozen temperatures set in during late-January and spawned the worst ice season in more than a decade. Frozen seascapes were not relegated to simply the Delaware. Similar conditions were quietly wreaking havoc on the all but deserted waters of Rehoboth Bay as well.

Rehoboth Bay Channel Light 9
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A fallen light...
Rehoboth Bay
Channel Light 9

“The degree of ice damage varies from winter to winter along the mid-Atlantic coast,” said Senior Chief Dennis Dever, officer-in-charge of U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Cape May. “Sometimes with warmer cycles, there is no ice at all. But as we saw this winter, the ice can be very severe. Indian River and Rehoboth Bay are particularly susceptible to ice. Being uniformly vast and shallow, the water cools quickly, freezes, and forms heavy ice.”

With much of Rehoboth Bay encased in the frozen clutches of winter by the end of January, the free flowing waters that once provided the freedom of buoyancy to the bay’s channel marker buoys were brought to a screeching halt. Even the pilings serving as support platforms for lighted aids to navigation in Rehoboth Bay could not escape the fate of icy ensnarement. With the ice packed-in solid, it was only a matter of time before the grueling effects of an eventual thaw and the moving tides caused the jammed cakes of ice to begin “running” for open waters.

Junction Light IR
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A fallen light...
Junction Light IR

“Once the ice in Rehoboth Bay started to break up, it moved forcefully in the strong tidal currents to plow over anything in its path,” said Senior Chief Dever. “This includes the wooden pile navigational lights. Usually the pile breaks off below the bottom, or “mud-line” as we call it, then the whole aid is carried off – usually out to sea.”

In its wake, winter’s ice floes had “turned out the lights” at many spots on Rehoboth Bay by carrying away helpless buoys and sending doomed lighted aids down to “Davey Jones’ Locker.” The seascape, now devoid of any guiding light or marker at various critical locations, suddenly posed a heightened safety risk to the local watermen or the rare boater who might chose to venture out for a trip on the bay in the middle of winter.

U.S. Coast Guard ANT Cape May, which serves as the “lightkeepers” for the bay, has a keen understanding of the dangers associated with navigating an unmarked body of water laden with as many treacherous shoals as Rehoboth Bay. Each spring, ANT Cape May undertakes a careful study of the bay to identify how much the sandy shoals have shifted during the previous winter and what new precautions need to be implemented to ensure the safety of all boaters for the upcoming summer season. Simply because a safe channel was in a certain location the year prior is no guarantee the channel remains as previously charted.

Senior Chief Dever
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever

“Each spring when we go down to Delaware to fix the damage caused by winter and to replace the buoys for summer, we have to find the channel again since it constantly moves around,” said Senior Chief Dever. “In addition, sandbars develop in different places, so the first pass through is usually rather hair-raising.”

That being said, the severe damage caused by winter’s ice floes to the buoys and lighted aids of Rehoboth Bay couldn’t wait until spring to address. Coast Guard ANT Cape May quickly devised a temporary channel marking strategy, and on February 11th, set out on a blustery morning to re-mark and light the channel. The plan was to reach the sites of the fallen lights and temporarily mark their former stations with a lighted buoy until a more permanent solution could be established.

SN Stevenson & FN Panas lift  foam buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) SN Chad Stevenson and
FN Greg Panas lift a foam buoy
up to MK2 Rich Wasilius

Working aids to navigation is never easy at any time of the year, but when the winter winds chill to the bone, setting buoys or working lights in an open 21-foot buoy boat (TANB) is anything but a “walk in the park.” Nonetheless, the shallow waters of Rehoboth Bay require smaller buoy boats to carry the burden of maintaining the bay’s aids to navigation, regardless of the time of year or weather conditions. Thus, two crews outfitted in dry suits, hoods, caps, gloves and goggles prepared for “battle” with Mother Nature, and at high tide, launched two TANBs into the frigid waters at Massey’s Landing. The only sight of boater activity was a lone “clammer” who was finishing up a day’s work that began at 4:00 a.m. by carrying bulging bags of clams from the floating dock to the back of his pick-up truck.

FN Panas carries a foam buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

FN Greg Panas carries a
foam buoy to one of the
21-foot buoy boats

Once underway, BM1s Julie Kehoe and Jeremy McConnell demonstrated why the U.S. Coast Guard is the best at what they do by each safely guiding their TANB and crew along unmarked channels and into shoal-laden areas to reestablish lighted aids in both Rehoboth Bay and Indian River. Utilizing a combination of experience and caution, the coxswains deftly maneuvered their boats to the edge of shoals in order to place a lighted buoy where it was most desperately needed to help warn boaters.

Ignoring the stinging winds and frigid temperatures, TANB crews worked daylong to prepare and set buoys on the precise GPS location required. Like clockwork, the crews readied each buoy by attaching a 75-lb Dor Mor sinker to lengths of heavy chain, which was in turn affixed to the buoy itself. When the process was complete, crewmembers “faked” the chain along the side of the boat and propped up the buoy and sinker just before it was dropped over the side upon command from the coxswain.

FN Wright drags for fallen light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

FN Brian Wright prepares
to drag for a fallen light
from the stern of the TANB

Another tedious but necessary task performed by crewmembers throughout the blustery day was to “drag” for the fallen lights in hopes of snagging the structures for eventual salvage. BM1 Kehoe systematically drove her boat back and forth in the broad vicinity of the site where the former lights stood as crewmembers worked from the stern of the TANB with an arrangement of cables and aluminum plates designed to catch on the structures lying somewhere at the bottom of the bay.

Whether setting lighted buoys, dragging for fallen light structures or gathering the latest information on the ever-changing channels in Rehoboth Bay and Indian River, the crews never wavered in their duty despite the presence of winter’s biting cold and numbing effects. A job to ensure the safety of boaters needed completed and the day wouldn’t end until the arduous task was finished. By day’s end, the mission of reestablishing lighted buoys on the stations of the former wooden pile structures was completed, and with it, the Coastguardsmen derived the satisfaction of knowing they overcame “Old Man Winter” to once again ensure a set of “good lights” would be “left on” to guide mariners safely back home each day.



Rehoboth Bay ATON Crew...

BM1 Kehoe and CWO McGarigal
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) BM1 Julie Kehoe and
CWO Sean McGarigal

Bob Trapani & EM1 Mercurio
Photo by Brian Wright

(L to R) Auxiliarist Bob Trapani and
EM1 Gary Mercurio

EM1 Mercurio drags for fallen light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM1 Gary Mercurio drags for a
fallen light on the stern of the TANB

BM1 McConnell & SN Stevenson program optic
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) BM1 Jeremy McConnell and
SN Chad Stevenson prepare to program
the Carmanah LED optic on the
temporary Junction IR Buoy

Preparing to set Rehoboth Bay Buoy 13
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) MK2 Rich Wasilius and
FN Greg Panas prepare to set
Rehoboth Bay Buoy 13

FN Wright dressed to battle "Old Man Winter"
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

FN Brian Wright is dressed
to do battle with the cold
of "Old Man Winter"

A temporary lighted buoy
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A temporary lighted buoy takes
the place of the missing Rehoboth Bay
Channel Light 9

Created: February 2004