December 18, 2014

Coast Guard proposes new regulation at Oregon
Inlet, but won't restrict boat traffic for now


Mariners will be not be stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard from transiting Oregon Inlet under a new navigation regulation, unless conditions become hazardous enough to justify issuing a notice to mariners. 

Exacerbated by a recent northeaster, even alternate channels under the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge are barely navigable because of sand build-up, but the Coast Guard is not, for now, restricting boat traffic, said Lt. Lane Monroe with Coast Guard Sector North Carolina.

“If the mariner deems it safe to use an alternate span, then that is incumbent upon themselves to do it safely,” he said, adding that common sense should prevail.

“The Coast Guard is not looking to impose unnecessary regulations.”

But the interim rule, published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, gives them more authority to prevent dangerous situations. With the lack of a protective bridge fender system at the alternate spans south of the main channel, there are concerns about the vulnerability of the bridge substructure.

“Vessel strikes to the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge (that) could cause catastrophic damage to the bridge,” the document said, “make immediate action necessary to minimize the risk of potential loss of life, damage to the bridge, and the impact on access to Hatteras Island.”

Monroe said that temporary limits on boat traffic could be enacted based on the size and draft of the vessel as well as weather and shoaling conditions. Notices could be issued at any time, he said, when necessary for the safety of motorists on the bridge and mariners navigating through the waterway.

Although publication of the rule creating a Regulated Navigation Area within 100 yards in any direction of the bridge surprised some Outer Bankers, it has been in the works for nearly five years, Monroe said.

“The Coast Guard has had this option in its pocket for some time,” he said.

In 2010, he said, the original draft RVA was signed, but it was not published because dredging and other mitigation had alleviated the situation.  Working closely with the state Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard started updating the document in July. It was released in November and implemented on Dec. 17.

“I believe that exigent circumstances have warranted that being pursued now,” he said.

Monroe said that a similar RNA has been in place for years at the Columbia River in Oregon, where breaking water on a sandbar creates sporadic hazardous conditions. In response, he said, the Coast Guard issues a notice to mariners closing transit through the bar to certain vessels. When the conditions improve, the bar is reopened. 

Recent inspection of the Bonner bridge pilings has revealed significant erosion of supportive sand, and a Dec. 1 survey of the main navigation channel found only about 2- to 3-feet of water in some areas.

“It is a pretty dire situation,” said Jed Dixon, a member of Dare County Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission. “I would say most boats would have trouble getting through.”

Dixon, who is the deputy director of the Ferry Division, said that the northeast wind has again pushed the migrating Bodie Island spit into the channel, which had been dredged this summer.

“It’s been an ongoing problem – it’s nothing new,” he said. “This is one of those times it’s gotten pretty severe.”

Harry Schiffman, vice-chairman of the Oregon Inlet Task Force, an advisory committee to the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said that conditions in the inlet are unlikely to improve until the winds shift southwest – which typically happens in the early spring, although it is not unheard of in the winter.

“I really think the Coast Guard is being pro-active,” he said. “The Coast Guard certainly doesn’t want to restrict commerce, but they also don’t want anyone to hit the bridge.”

Schiffman, owner of TowBoat U.S. – Oregon Inlet,  said he does not believe the channels will be closed to all vessels, although he said he would not be surprised if height restrictions have to be implemented at some point.

“They have to be sure there’s enough water to go through,” he said.

Meanwhile, Schiffman said, it would be helpful for Coast Guard Oregon Inlet to broadcast updates on VHF radio throughout the day so that boaters who are unfamiliar with Oregon Inlet have a head’s up about treacherous conditions at the bar and in the inlet. 

The Coast Guard will continue to mark a channel with the best water, Monroe said.

Enforcement of the temporary restrictions will be based on existing RNA regulations that impose penalties, he said, but there are no plans for the Coast Guard to have a vessel patrolling the area for violators. Citizens could also report violators, he said. If a violator is a commercial vessel with a transponder, the Coast Guard could check the tracking device remotely. Or patrol officers could board other vessels and review the tracking data.

When the RNA is finalized, Monroe said, it will be shown on Oregon Inlet navigation charts and will include notes warning about the waterway’s hazards.

The Coast Guard has been meeting with NCDOT to determine what vessels pose the biggest risk to the bridge, he said. Input on the rule is also being sought from watermen, boat operators and other members of the public.

Comments on the regulation will be accepted through Feb. 17. The full interim rule is available to view and comment on at

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