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Coast Guard abandons change to foghorns in Huntington

Soozie Turek, of Lloyd Neck, pictured by the

Soozie Turek, of Lloyd Neck, pictured by the water in Lloyd Harbor, says she can hear the Huntington Lighthouse foghorn from her property. (January 21, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Photo by Danielle Finkelstein

A Coast Guard program to change how foghorns work - so boaters can activate the devices themselves - has run aground in Huntington.

Thirty-five lighthouses around the country have been converted to the do-it-yourself system in the past five years. But the concept of mariners being able to switch on the horns has gone over like a lead sinker with boaters who rely on the Huntington Harbor Lighthouse, which the agency picked as the first in the New York metropolitan area to be revamped.

After receiving only negative feedback, the Coast Guard has postponed the changeover from a system that sounds the horn when a light beam detects moisture in the air. Officials are now looking at first converting the Montauk Point Lighthouse horn on Long Island, along with others along the Connecticut shore, even as they continue to meet with Huntington boaters.

The agency says the old mechanisms have become unreliable and difficult to maintain because spare parts are now hard to find.

The new system would be activated when boaters tune their marine band VHF radios to Channel 79 and press the talk button five times. In response, a fog signal would sound for 45 minutes.

Boating groups fear the new technology would prove irresistible to pranksters. "It might work in Oregon or up in Maine, where they don't have that much recreational boating traffic or in the off-season," said Jon L. Ten Haagen, commodore of the Greater Huntington Council of Yacht & Boating Clubs. "In Huntington, where we have hundreds of boats going in and out every weekend, it would be going off all the time."

Pam Setchell, president of Save Huntington's Lighthouse, the nonprofit group that leases and maintains the Huntington Harbor Light, voiced a different concern: that boaters who really need the foghorn in bad weather might not know how to operate it. "We've got 4,000 recreational boaters in all the harbors in Huntington," she said, and most have never signed up to receive Coast Guard bulletins. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."

And nearby residents, who three years ago endured five straight days of the foghorn in good weather when its mechanism malfunctioned, don't see the change as an improvement. "I could see how inebriated young people might trigger that mechanism as a nuisance," Lloyd Harbor resident Soozie Turek said. "I'd like to see a choice C."

The Coast Guard responds that at the 32 lighthouses in the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest and three in the Northeast with the new equipment, inappropriate activation has not been an issue.

"There hasn't been any kind of problem with them," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Craig Coburn, who supervises foghorns in the Great Lakes.

"There may be an initial period of time where it's new and kids seem to think it's amusing and people want to try it out to see if it really works," said Rear Adm. Joe Nimmich, a Huntington native who is the Coast Guard commander for the Northeast. "In the long run, people cooperate with it."

Cmdr. Kevin Oditt, chief of the Prevention Department for Sector Long Island Sound, said that because of the feedback from Huntington, "we've decided not to install it there until we can get some more experience and come out and do some more education." He said Montauk Inlet might be a better first site because "there's not as much recreational traffic."

But one Montauk mariner said the reception there may not be better.

"If it is controllable by the general public, it could have unintended consequences," said Montauk Boatmen's & Captain's Association president Stret Whitting.

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