Mike Perry navigates the Great Egg Harbor Inlet with caution.
Boating season will begin to pick up next month, and the waterway — a crucial channel for local boaters to access the ocean — remains as dangerous as it was last year, Perry said.
“Everyone was under the impression the Coast Guard was going to do something about it,” said Perry, the owner of the Harbour Cove Marine Services in Somers Point. “Nothing has been done and it’s almost impossible to get through.”
Many boaters use the inlet, which connects the Great Egg Harbor Bay with the Atlantic Ocean. It is located near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge. Local residents are concerned the upcoming boating season could be hazardous for visitors to the area, especially those with larger boats, who may be unfamiliar with the problem of outdated navigation markers on the water. They fear this could lead to more damaged and capsized boats and serious injuries.
That was almost the case Friday when a 55-foot commercial fishing trawler ran aground on a sandbank and had to be towed across the bay to Somers Point.
“It’s a very nasty inlet,” said John Bodin, operations manager for Towboat U.S. who also serves as the Marine Safety Officer for Somers Point. “The best way I can describe it is driving down a road that leads to a brick wall. You are going to crash.”
The change in tides causes a lot of shifting sand in the area, and this inlet is more problematic than others in the region, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Corrina Ott said.
“It’s a very fluctuating environment there,” she said. “It’s one of the areas we pay attention to.”
The Coast Guard surveyed the inlet at the end of last year and approved changes this winter for the buoys that direct boat traffic, said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Dave Pilitowski. A team from the navigation unit in Cape May plans to make the changes to the markers to direct boaters more northward as early as Monday, depending on the weather.
The team will survey the area a few times a season and change the markers as needed, but Pilitowski said they are dependent on local residents to update them of changes.
A dangerous situation
Norman Miller took his family onto the water in his 30-foot Hunter sailboat named “Morning Breeze” last July and almost lost his vessel to the inlet. Miller said he was sailing within the approved buoys when a 6-foot wave pushed the boat onto a sand bank. The experience was “terrifying” to Miller’s family on board, especially his two grandchildren, ages 8 years and 18 months, he said.
“We tried to get the boat off, but it was too much to handle,” he said. “My wife was holding her granddaughters tightly saying, ‘Everything’s all right. Pop-pop knows what he’s doing.’ and in the side of her mouth she’s saying, ‘You’re going to finally kill me.’ Out of tragedy there is at least some humor.”
A nearby towing company rescued the family, but not before the vessel suffered $20,000 in damages, Miller said.
“It was totally fractured all the way around,” he said. “It was short of totalling the boat. It was almost unrepairable.”
The experience left Miller, 67, who has sailed in the inlet since he was a small child, having second thoughts about going out onto the water this summer.
“I don’t know if I’m going to go out there anymore. It’s just too dangerous,” the Buckingham, Pa. resident said. “All the years I’ve sailed the inlet there were years that were more contentious than others, but it was never insurmountable. Last year and this year have changed everything in the inlet substantially.”
Perry said the sand bank has gotten bigger and stretched across the channel since last season. The problem is so bad he and other boaters have taken the matter into their own hands. Perry and Somers Point resident Kevin Scarborough went out last weekend to find their own route and mapped out about a half-mile detour.
“It’s a very dangerous situation, especially at low tide, especially for people who don’t know the area,” Scarborough said. “They will run into the ground.”
At low tide, the water level inside the currently approved waterway can drop to as low as 6 feet, which is impassable for many larger boats, said Somers Point resident Greg DiSabatino.
When out on the bay, DiSabatino uses a depth finder to monitor the water level.
“A lot of large expensive boats come into that inlet. If you don’t have local knowledge and come from out of state, you could be in for a bad trip,” he said. “It really shouldn’t be that way.”
Residents said they have seen several boats severely damaged or capsized in the inlet during the past year in the inlet.
Bodin said his company responds to calls from three or four vessels a week from the inlet in “serious trouble” during the summer months. A lot of boaters also call the office and ask for tips on how to navigate the water.
John McLaughlin, owner of Sea Tow Services of Atlantic City, estimates his company responds to about 50 accidents a year in the inlet.
“A lot of them don’t know how bad it is,” he said.
The hazardous conditions also affect the local economy, said Mark Wagner, who chairs the offshore racing program for the Ocean City Yacht Club.
Concerns about the situation compelled the organization to cut the number of races from 10 last year to four this year, he said.
“And that might not even be enough,” he said. “We have to make sure the boats can run through the inlet.”
Boaters need the waterway to access the ocean, the Bucks County, Pa., resident said.
“If the inlet is closed, some boaters will not get out,” he said. “You will see a lot of boats leave the area. That’s not good for the economy.”
Hoping for a solution
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James J. “Sonny” McCullough said he has spoken to the Coast Guard and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, about the situation occurring off his township’s coast. McCullough, who lives near the inlet and has boated there for more than 40 years, thinks the situation is only getting worse and that there is no long-term solution for the problem.
“It’s always been a dangerous inlet,” he said. “It changes every year.”
Dwight Pakan, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the organization has dredged sand from the inlet but only for its Ocean City beachfill program to replenish the beaches. The corps spent about $74 million to fill more than 13 million cubic yards of sand since 1991, a corps report on the project said.
The program does serve the added benefit of deepening the inlet’s waters, but it’s not the top priority, he said.
Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the department does not do any dredging projects there.
In the meantime, the Coast Guard advises boaters to keep a radio and flares on board in case of an emergency.
“That area does cause us trouble,” Ott said. “The best advice is to stay within the navigable channels and continue at low speed.”
Report a problem
To report a problem with a navigational marker on a waterway, contact Chief Warrant Officer Dave Pilitowski of the U.S. Coast Guard at 215-271-4911 or e-mail David.E.Pilitowski@uscg.mil.
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