Help needed to nab buoy vandals

August 10, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON

Capt. John Smith survived hostile fire 400 years ago during his daring explorations of the Chesapeake Bay.

The buoy that bobbed at the mouth of the Patapsco River as part of a historic water trail bearing Smith's name to provide anglers and boaters with valuable information hasn't fared nearly as well.

Thursday, the bullet-riddled marker was pulled from the water and put in the repair shop. The Natural Resources Police have opened a tip line as they investigate the damaging of a piece of federal property.

Someone from the moron family decided to use the $120,000 buoy for target practice last month - July 24 at 7:25 p.m., to be precise - blasting apart the top navigational beacon and punching holes in three of the buoy's four solar panels. The vandalism happened just two days after the one-year anniversary of the buoy's deployment.

It appears that the weapons of choice were a small-bore rifle and a shotgun.

I'm guessing someone knows who did it because trigger-happy thugs love to run their mouths.

The Patapsco "smart" buoy was the third along the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the nation's first water-based national historic trail that follows the explorer's 3,000-mile trip around the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Real-time information about currents, waves and wind collected by its sensors was transmitted to a toll-free phone number, 877-BUOY-BAY, and to a Web site,

The buoys - the result of a partnership of citizen groups, Verizon and the government - were installed with great fanfare. A year ago, as a group of us watched from a press boat, a crane on an Army Corps of Engineers work boat swung the Patapsco buoy over the side, gently lowering it into 20 feet of water between Six Foot Knoll and Seven Foot Knoll. The buoy, which began broadcasting data while sitting on the work boat deck, kicked into high gear as its sensors touched the water.

Maryland officials were elated that they would be able to track water-quality trends and quickly gather information to help pinpoint the cause of summertime fish kills.

The buoy had another use, too, acting as an electronic tour guide for the John Smith water trail. John Page Williams, a longtime naturalist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, provided a historical narration of Smith's 1607 and 1608 voyages that could be received by cell phones.

Despite the setback, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has plans to drop another buoy at the mouth of the Susquehanna River off Havre de Grace this fall, giving the water trail five information beacons, three in Maryland waters and two in Virginia.

You couldn't blame NOAA officials if they held off until authorities catch up with, and make examples of, the skilled marksmen who picked on a bright yellow, virtually immobile object. (Nice work, guys. I'm sure the U.S. Olympic Committee could use your deadly aim in Beijing.)

I wonder, did they sneak up on the unsuspecting buoy or just roar up in their boat and plug away until they ran out of ammo and beer?

Must have been fun. One thing is for certain: They made a lot of noise, and someone out fishing or boating that Thursday evening must have heard something.

NOAA's Doug Wilson, who works out of the Eastport office, says they won't know how much it will cost to patch up the buoy until they take it apart and see what the bullets struck. He would like to have it back in service by next month.

Repairs probably won't be cheap. The buoys were custom designed for the trail and took 1 1/2 years to build.

Williams says the good news is the reaction of the bay maritime community on Web sites such as

"What's encouraging to me is how many people are reacting to this incident," he says. "These people have a sense of ownership of these buoys. I think at this point there will be enough people watching these buoys that no one will risk taking shots again."

In the meantime, NRP is all ears. The Coast Guard, which watches over federal property, is interested, too.

NRP Sgt. Ken Turner says they don't have any suspects yet, but they would like to hear from boaters or anglers who were in the area that evening. The number is 410-260-8888.

"We're looking at some different charges. Obviously, this is a high-dollar piece of equipment," Turner says. "Let's catch someone, and then I can tell you what the charges are and I'll have a court date, too."

It would be nice if an organization such as the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association offered a little reward for information. But I would like to think the outdoors community would do it for free. Because who wants to share the water with someone who would destroy the navigational light on a buoy and fire a gun where a ricocheting bullet could strike an innocent person?

Drop a dime. Turn in a jerk.

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