Mystery voyage for 1-ton traveler Bye-bye, buoy: Dragging chains and anchors, a Chesapeake Bay observation buoy is ripped from its mooring by ice and drifts 22 miles, and no one is sure just what happened.

February 17, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE -- It was an incredible journey, no question about it.

A one-ton buoy, dragging more than its own weight in chains and anchors, was ripped from its mooring by ice in the Chesapeake Bay into southward-moving currents. Eleven days later, the electronic-laden buoy was found to have drifted 22 miles up the bay from its original position and into the Choptank River, two miles from the laboratory that monitors it.

"We'll never know the whole story," says Carole Moore, senior faculty research assistant at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies.

Quite an admission from a scientist, one of those data-collecting folks who tell us there are no mysteries, just things we don't know yet.

But the journey of the buoy, part of the Chesapeake Bay Observing System (CBOS) that Ms. Moore helps monitor, has her and others shaking their heads in wonder.

The yellow buoy, which is about 18 feet tall, carries lights, antennae, solar panels, electronic equipment, gauges and and 600 pounds of ballast to help it provide information about wind and water in the Chesapeake Bay. The buoys are monitored by the CBOS, a federal-academic cooperative program that studies the bay.

The buoy's information is what scientists call "real-time." It is transmitted every 30 minutes to a receiving tower at Horn Point on the Choptank, which in turn sends it to a computer. From there, the bay's conditions go onto the Internet computer network within seconds of the original transmission by the buoy.

The information provides the CBOS and computer users with an instant snapshot of the Chesapeake through details of wind velocity, water salinity and temperature, currents, oxygen and tides.

Under normal conditions, two buoys are stationed in the bay -- one at the north end, one in the middle by James Island. A third buoy will go into the water this year at the bay's mouth, near the Potomac River.

Until Feb. 3, the midbay buoy was quietly doing its job near James Island. Then the second severe storm of the winter hit, and ice formed on the bay.

"We lost communication with it Feb. 3," Ms. Moore says. The same weather that silenced the buoy kept laboratory personnel from going out to check on it.

Ms. Moore, animatedly theorizing on how the buoy might have broken loose and made its journey, says:

"It's getting snowed on; the ice is building. The ice keeps getting higher and higher then the storms come up from the south. It must have been a flood tide, and the wind was from the south."

Then the buoy, $68,000 worth of electronics anchored by 90 feet of heavy chain and two railroad wheels with a lot of free ice thrown in, was torn loose by the shifting tides. Ice, buoy and baggage were blown by southerly winds up the bay toward the Choptank.

"Then the winds changed to the northwest when this guy was at the mouth of the Choptank," Ms. Moore says, and turned it eastward into the river.

The first call about the rambling buoy came a week after it stopped transmitting, she says.

"DNR called Friday and told us it was at Todds Point," she says. "I said, 'Try to tow it in.' They did that, but apparently the wheels got stuck and stopped the boat flat. It was anchored, so they had to let go of it."

Tuesday, the CBOS staff asked the DNR to try again. By then, the buoy was at Castle Haven Point, even closer to the "mother lab" two miles away at Horn Point.

"It was just out there bobbing in the wrong place," Ms. Moore says.

The DNR was willing to try another rescue attempt.

"So Wednesday, they went out and picked it up, bless their hearts," Ms. Moore says. "They brought it into Cambridge Creek. I went down to see it and said, "That's my buoy!' "

A DNR crane hoisted the damaged buoy from the boat onto a trailer, and it was taken via land back to Horn Point.

So the buoy, considerably the worse for its travels, is home. Its bottom portion, an industrial-strength molded foam resistant to wear and tear, is in tatters. Much of the electronic equipment -- aerials and gauges -- is missing, but the wandering buoy hung on to its chain and railroad wheels, encrusted with barnacles.

It's probably a total loss, Ms. Moore says, unless some of the remaining interior electronic gear can be salvaged. But the bay observation program has three others in good condition, so a buoy, if not this one, will be back near James Island in March. A second will be moored at the southern end of the bay and a third in the northern bay.

Half-hour reports on bay conditions will resume and will increase with the addition to the south.

And perhaps March won't bring the kind of weather that sent the buoy on its remarkable journey.

When the buoys are returned to the bay next month, their information can be obtained through the Internet at http://cbos.hpel.cees.edu.

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