BoatUS Reports

News From The World Of American Boating

Edited by Ryck Lydecker

Icons of the Water

Two sentinels of the sea and one iconic vessel from boating's Hollywood history all gained added distinction recently when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar awarded them federal recognition, two as Historic Landmarks, and one as a National Historic Place. In June, Salazar announced the designation of Lightship Overfalls (LV118), now a maritime museum in Lewes, Delaware, a National Historic Landmark. The steel vessel, launched in 1938, is the last lightship constructed for and commissioned by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which merged with the U.S. Coast Guard the following year.

Joining Overfalls on that register is Split Rock Light Station on Lake Superior's north shore near Beaver Bay, Minnesota. The lighthouse and adjacent structures, operated by the Minnesota Historical Society and now part of a state park, appear virtually unchanged since its construction in 1910. Every year on November 10, the navigational beacon, decommissioned in 1969, is lit in memory of the 29 men lost when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in 1975.

Photo of a fish-eyed view of Split Rock LighthouseA fish-eyed view of Split Rock Lighthouse, Two harbors, Minnesota. (Photo: Joe Michl)

Over 200 properties related to U.S. maritime history are currently on the Historic Landmarks registry, including vessels, light stations, lifesaving stations, World War II sites, canals, homes of famous individuals, marine hospitals, dry docks, canneries, and entire historic port towns.

In August John Wayne's beloved World War II minesweeper cum personal yacht, Wild Goose, tied up on a different but equally distinctive list, the National Register of Historic Places. Wayne bought the converted 136-foot, ex-Navy vessel in 1962 and owned it until shortly before his death in 1979. It's one of four wooden minesweepers left out of 481 built for the war effort. A tour boat company in Newport Beach, California, now owns Wild Goose. Wayne lived there when he owned the boat and it reportedly held an important place in the famous cowboy-actor's life. Wild Goose had roles in two movies, "The President's Analyst" in 1967 and "Skidoo" released in 1968, but Wayne appeared in neither. The boat also had a bit part in TV's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." It joins some 200 vessels listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Explore The John Smith Trail

Boaters in the Chesapeake Bay can follow in the wake of explorer John Smith, with a new work from author John Page Williams. A Boater's Guide to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail is a joint effort by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, where Williams works as head naturalist, the National Park Service, and the Chesapeake Conservancy. Williams says the book is the product of years of exploration on the bay and mixes historical detail with practical information on how to cruise Smith's route.

Williams grew up in Virginia, fishing around the James and Chickahominy Rivers, gunkholing on the Rappahannock, and spending summers in lower Potomac. His first job was as a guide running school field trips all over the Bay. Williams has worked for the foundation for 38 years. John Smith, English explorer and a leader of Jamestown Settlement, covered almost as much of the Chesapeake in 1608 as Williams has in his travels — some 3,000 miles stretching from the Susquehanna River to the mouth of the Bay. Congress designated the "Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail" in 2006 and the following year Williams wrote a guide to it for National Geographic. This time, he says, he wanted to produce a more practical guide for boaters. (See John Page William's article Good Catch, Better Release".)

Coastal Spatial Planning Must Include Public

A report from a blue-ribbon panel of ocean experts calls on Congress and the White House to include the public "and stakeholders" at every step in the process of coastal and marine spatial planning, now underway at national and regional levels. That advice is among 10 specific recommendations from the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a partnership of two previous national study groups that advocated major changes in marine-resource management and ocean governance over seven years ago.

Photo of shoreline on San Miguel Island, Point Bennett, Channel Islands, CaliforniaThe quiet shoreline on San Miguel Island, Point Bennett, Channel Islands, California. (Photo: National Parks Service)

While acknowledging "ecosystem health is the major goal," the commission also calls upon the President's new National Ocean Council as well as regional marine-planning bodies to ensure that commercial activities that depend upon our ocean waters "are not slowed or halted during the planning process." It recognizes recreational boating and sportfishing among commercial uses and further calls for better assessment of the value of recreational uses of ocean and coastal waters, economically and culturally.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative came together in 2005 following completion of studies by the private Pew Oceans Commission and the presidentially appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Eight commissioners from both bodies now serve on the joint panel headed by William Ruckelshaus, first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and former California Congressman Norman Mineta.

"It's encouraging to see an influential group like the Joint Ocean Council reiterating the importance of on-water recreation and calling for including the public in planning processes," said BoatUS Vice President of Government Affairs Margaret Podlich. Marine spatial planning is one of nine ocean policy priorities outlined in an executive order signed by President Obama in June 2010. The order created a National Ocean Policy Council in the White House and Podlich said the focus now is shifting to state and regional planning for ocean uses. "Marine spatial planning should accommodate the widest variety of activities, local needs, and economic opportunities. Public access to the water is key," Podlich added. "That's why boaters must stay informed, get organized at the grassroots level, and be ready to provide significant input as the marine-planning councils come into being and undertake these tasks." Boaters and anglers can stay informed on access issues by regularly visiting

Surreal Surfing

Looking for a one-of-a-kind experience? Boaters who surf in Galveston Bay have found it: waist-high waves that travel at eight to 12 knots, can transition from whitewater to A-frames and back, and last for miles at a time.

"What we call 'tanker surfing' can mean mind-boggling four- to six-mile rides," says Captain James Fulbright of Tanker Surf Charters. "It took 15 years and a total commitment to researching, practicing, and perfecting tanker surfing, but we've got it pretty well figured out. Nowadays, I have visitors come from all over. One couple even came to Galveston from New Zealand for their honeymoon, just so they could ride a tanker wave together while holding hands. They were successful. It was awesome."

Photo of a container ship in Galveston Channel, TexasA surfer up close and personal with a container ship in Galveston Channel, Texas.

Other tanker surfing guests Capt. James has hosted include world longboard champ Jen Smith, surfboard designer Ryan Engle, and even Jimmy Buffett. The iconic maritime singer's take on tanker surfing? "It was one of the rides of my life."

Tanker surfing is possible in Galveston, thanks to the many large submerged shoals surrounding the ship channels. Once a ship's wake hits the edge of the channel, waves build and/or break, and can continue doing so for miles at a time. But finding and surfing these waves isn't as easy as it seems. "The majority of tanker surfing is done in open water, miles from any shoreline, and far from the tankers themselves," Capt. James explains. "Variables that dictate where and if a ship's waves will break include the tides, bottom contour, and water depth, as well as the ship's size, speed, design, and draft. On a busy day, we may travel over 100 miles, following some ships the entire 30-mile length of the channel."

Of course once you find the wave, you've got to catch it. This can be tougher than catching a wave on the beach, thanks to their speed and shape, the wind, and chop. "As they travel over changing shoals, the waves shift," Fulbright adds. "Keeping up with them can be challenging."

The good news? If you lose the wave or fail to catch it, you won't have to paddle all the way back to shore, because the chase boat is there to pick you up. Check it out (and watch some jaw-dropping tanker-surfing videos) at

A Keen Nose Saves The Whales?

Wanted: Research Assistant. Must be comfortable working in small boats on open water and have an interest in marine life. High-energy team player who enjoys exciting days at sea preferred.

If that sounds like your dream job, you're not only too late; you're the wrong species. This job is already taken by a spunky Labrador retriever named Tucker, a key member of a University of Washington, Seattle, research team working to understand the decline of Puget Sound's killer whales. Tucker's special skill? It's his keen sense of smell because this canine's career is spent on the foredeck of a small boat sniffing out the key "ingredient" in the research — whale poop.

Photo of a black Lab in the orange life jacket

During the summer months, the black Lab in the orange life jacket can be found enjoying Puget Sound and the waters around the San Juan Islands aboard a Grady-White Tournament 21, balanced on the bow with his nose to windward. Behind him will be a crew of graduate students poised for action with just what you'd expect for such research — specially designed pooper-scoopers. Tucker can smell whale scat up to 650 feet away and navigators must track the wind direction to be in position to recover it. The trick for the boat operator is to keep both bow and nose in a whale's "scent cone" without approaching too close and disturbing the animal's behavior.

Since 2006, Dr. Samuel Wasser, head of the university's Center for Conservation Biology, has used furry, four-legged research assistants to locate whale droppings as an important clue to the decline of the whales, now listed as endangered by the U.S. and Canada as well as the state of Washington. Wasser is a biologist who pioneered methods of extracting hormones and genetic material from the droppings of other animals.

"We use feces because it's the easiest to collect and it provides a window into the physiological changes in the animal," he explained. "I developed the idea to use dogs when my research was being conducted in Africa in the 1980s. During that time I developed ways of measuring stress through the reproductive hormones in mammals." Wasser adapted his techniques to the declining killer-whale population found from May to October in these waters. Also known as orcas, what's identified as the Southern Resident population suddenly and inexplicably declined over 20 percent in the late 1990s and now numbers only about 86 animals.

"The decline of the Chinook salmon is the biggest factor impacting the whales," Wasser said, but he theorizes that pollution from industrial toxins in Puget Sound and the increase in whale-watching boats are also factors.

In the boat, Wasser's team watches Tucker's behavior and when he starts getting excited, they know he's "on the scent"; there's scat to be scooped nearby. Tucker knows that when they recover the sample, he'll be rewarded with a game of tug-of-war with his favorite ball toy. If Lassie made her mark saving Timmy, maybe Tucker will make his saving the whales.

Dam Deal Done

Pacific salmon should get a big break in a few years when the country's biggest dam-removal project begins to pay off on Washington's Elwha River. Once a major spawning stream for six salmon species plus steelhead, two dams built for power generation, in 1913 and 1927, have blocked all but the final five miles of the river, which flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Neither dam had fish-passage channels built in, cutting off the interior 40 miles of river, and another 30 miles of tributary streams to spawning coho, pink, sockeye, and chum salmon, as well as Chinook, which could weigh in at 100 pounds or more. An estimated 400,000 fish once returned to the Elwha annually to spawn. Now, only about 4,000 fish spawn in the lower river that remains open to the sea.

Dam removal began in the summer of 2010 with shutting off the hydroelectric generators and draining the two lakes behind the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. Actual demolition of the dams began this past September and is expected to take about three years. Nearly the entire Elwha watershed is within Olympic National Park, so the spawning habitat has remained largely pristine.

The nation's largest dam-removal project has been a long time coming. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which occupies land at the river mouth, has pressed for dam removal since at least 1968. The tribe led restoration efforts on the lower river and has operated a salmon hatchery there since 1976. Congress passed legislation to study how to remove the dam and restore the Elwha in 1992. The decade-long wait and pent-up demand to open the river again spawned Celebrate Elwha, on September 14, in nearby Port Angeles. Events marking the start of demolition included a music and arts festival on City Pier, a concert, poetry readings, and a science fair.

Gorging On Gulf Oil

In June 2010, Ben Van Mooy and his team of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution went to the Gulf of Mexico to learn what part microbes played in the rapid breakdown of the oil slick left by the Deepwater Horizon spill. "The question was: Is this oil food in their eyes?" Van Mooy says. "And if it was, were they going to be able to eat it?" They found microbes feeding on the oil, he says, but that wasn't the surprising part; they're known to be able to degrade oil under the right circumstances. But the area of the Gulf where the spill occurred seemed a poor environment for that, making it difficult for microbes to break down the oil.

"We tried to make a calculation to figure out if the microbial banquet was big enough that it might play a role in getting rid of the slick," Van Mooy says. "We found out it was probably a huge component. We think the microbial degradation was probably one of the bigger processes that contributed to the natural disappearance of the slick." Respiration — the process of converting food or, in this case, oil into energy — was happening inside the slick at five times the rate it was happening outside the slick, he reports.

What the microbes did with all that extra energy remains a mystery, Van Mooy says. Ordinarily, microbes with a supply of nutrients would multiply and when the Woods Hole team added nutrients to their samples, that's exactly what happened. In the Gulf, though, the oil worked more like junk food.

"It seems like they ate the oil, but didn't have the nutrients to grow," he says. "So they were faced with the question 'What do we do with the energy we've just gained from this oil?' When we humans gorge ourselves, we get fat. Microbes have the ability to make fat molecules, and they use those to store energy, and we think that's probably what they did — they just gained weight."

Van Mooy cautions against seeing microbes as a garbage disposal for oil spills. For one thing, he points out, they didn't work fast enough. "Even though the microbes may have played a role in degrading it, they couldn't prevent it," he says. "The slick still happened." The long-term consequences remain to be seen, he notes. "Oil has thousands of different kinds of molecules in it; it's not just one thing. Past research suggests that they probably ate the less toxic molecules, and left the toxic molecules behind. In a sense, they helped because they degraded a lot of the oil, but at this point we don't know what role they played in the long-term toxic effects of the oil." 

— Published: December 2011

Water Colors

Photo of painting "Angles and Dangles" by Dennis Boom"Angles and Dangles" by Dennis Boom.

This year marked the 30-year anniversary of a collaboration between the U.S. Coast Guard and a New York art society. The Coast Guard Art program began in 1981 as a way to showcase the work not only of the Coast Guard, but also of marine artists who take part in the program. Military artist George Gray started the program, and the Coast Guard's art collection has grown to 1,800 pieces. The works are judged and exhibited by the Salmagundi Club, a 140-year-old art and cultural center in New York, whose members have included N.C. Wyeth and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Smaller exhibitions travel under the auspices of the Coast Guard, and a schedule is available on their website along with pictures of the winning artworks.


Photo of painting "30 Miles from Punta Gorda" by Hugh O'Connor."30 Miles from Punta Gorda" by Hugh O'Connor.


A Glimpse Of The Gulf

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) takes another look at the Gulf Coast region in a new report highlighting the economic importance of a region battered by natural and man-made disasters in recent years. "The Gulf of Mexico at a Glance: A Second Glance" is a follow-up to a 2008 report from NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Commerce, along with the Gulf Coast Alliance, which is made up of the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The report relies on the latest federal figures, almost all of which predate the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. Thus, it doesn't include subsequent closures of recreational and commercial fisheries, but it paints a picture of the Gulf's importance in previous years that should be helpful in the continuing restoration and rebuilding of the region.

Photo of birds on the shoreline

In 2009, according to the report, almost a third of recreational fishing trips in the country, some 23 million, were taken in the Gulf of Mexico, and accounted for 44 percent of the recreational catch in the United States. The report details the top recreational catches by weight, using National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) numbers for 2009. In 2010, those same numbers show a dramatic drop-off for fish caught offshore, where oil spill-related closures occurred.

Red snapper catches showed the most dramatic decrease — 55 percent measured by weight — while fish found closer to shore were less affected. (Red drum catches actually showed an increase of 10 percent.) Data collected by the NMFS show a 30-percent drop in the number of charter fishing trips for the same period.



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