New Maine foghorn system: Point/counterpoint

Shelley Fleming-Wigglesworth
In November 2015, the U.S. Coast Guard announced plans to install MarinerRadio Activated Sound Signal (MRASS) devices at 17 foghorns located at lighthouses across Maine. The MRASS devices will replace the existing foghorns, which are currently activated automatically by sensor according to weather conditions.

Rather than sounding automatically in foggy weather, in order for the foghorn to sound, mariners must have access to a working VHF-FM radio and manually activate the foghorn sound signal by keying it five times consecutively on VHF channel 83A. After the keying, the signal will then sound for up to 60 minutes following each activation.

“The purpose of this modernization initiative is to replace the less reliable and less efficient VM-100 fog detectors with a Coast Guard-designed, radio-controlled system,” said the Coast Guard’s Lt. David T. Bourbeau, Northern New England Sector Chief of Waterways Management Division.

Many boaters, fishermen and mariners disagree. At a recent public meeting in Kennebunkport, Maine to discuss the changes, Cape Porpoise, Maine, lighthouse keeper Scott Dombrowski said, “It seems as if technology is going backward, going from a fully automatic system to a manually operated system.”

Dombrowski also pointed out what he perceives to be the impractical nature of relying solely on radios to activate the signal. “Small boats and kayaks get wet, especially when in distress. The need to fumble around and get a radio out, tune it to a special station, and key it five times while you are getting battered is just not practical or safe in my mind. In poor conditions, radios may go overboard, not to mention batteries in radios [may] go dead.”

Dombrowski does not stand alone with his concerns. Other safety concerns are coming in from across the state and beyond about the new on-demand foghorn activation.

“Quite simply, many small boaters and kayakers do not carry or use radio devices and, therefore, would not be able to activate the foghorn if it is needed,” said Kennebunkport, Maine, selectman Allen Daggett.

Registered Maine Guide Theresa Willette added, “I can tell you right now, people in kayaks don’t have radios and are not going to carry and use radios. I see it every day in my business, and I am concerned for their safety out there.”

Coast Guard Capt. Michael Baroody responded to some of the concerns raised: “The foghorn is just one tool of many that should be used for safe navigation,” adding, “Radio-controlled devices are strongly recommended, just as life jackets are.”

Maine resident Dan Beard questions the reliability, accessibility and range of the radio-wave remote-control access: “If I’m offshore 10 to 12 miles and key in for a sound, will it work?”

Rob Lehmann, the U.S. Coast Guard officer in charge of the aids to navigation, said “For the MRASS to work you have to be within two to four miles of the foghorn and in direct line on the water for it to work properly. If you are that far off, it could potentially set off the horn at several area lighthouses all at once. There are a lot of variables involved.”

Dombrowski said he feels the new way of sounding the foghorn is a “dangerous way to operate,” adding, “This foghorn change is part of an overall concern I have for the continued degrading of our local navigational system over the past 20 years.”

Though Bourbeau said it was not a question of degrading the local navigational system, but, rather, a matter of new technology replacing outdated systems. “We are trying to operate more efficiently. Modern technology can do amazing things if you choose to embrace it. A lot of people don’t realize that. We are here to work through this with you.”

If you have questions, comments or concerns about the new foghorn system, or if you would like more information about the sound-signal activation changes, please contact Lt. David Bourbeau, Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, Waterways Management Division Chief, at 207-347-5015 or nnewaterways@uscg.mil.

 Shelley Fleming-Wigglesworth is a freelance journalist from Maine specializing in at-sea stories and maritime and commercial fishing news. She has fished with, and written about, some of the best fishermen in the business, including captains Dave Carraro, Dave Marciano, Tyler McLaughlin, TJ Ott and Bruce Hebert of National Geographic Channel’s “Wicked Tuna” show. Her work appears in “National Fisherman” magazine, “Commercial Fisheries News,” The Maine Lobstermen’s Association newsletter, “Fishery Nation,” and “Coastal Angler” magazine.

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