Ambrose Light, deemed obsolete, passes into history

It was New York Harbor’s beacon for 41 years. Now Ambrose Light is a thing of the past — a victim both of a maritime accident and of progress.

After the 76-foot light tower was smashed by a tanker ship a year ago, the U.S. Coast Guard decided to dismantle the crippled structure. Ambrose Light, also known as Ambrose Tower, will not be replaced.

Instead, mariners bound for New York or New Jersey ports will enjoy the removal of an impediment to navigation. At the same time, Ambrose Channel is being extended an additional 4.5 miles out to sea, and the rendezvous zone for the Sandy Hook Pilots will move farther offshore and be enlarged.

In snuffing Ambrose Light, the Coast Guard is acknowledging that modern navigation technology has reduced the need for a light beacon in the area. Lengthening the channel and widening the pilot-station zone will help the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey accommodate larger tankers and containerships.

Ambrose Channel is being lengthened so that it reaches out to the so-called “60-foot curve.†The Sandy Hook Pilots said embarkations will be safer because the channel entrance is far away from a sandbar that sometimes created tricky sea conditions for the pilot launch operators.

“There’s more sea room,†Henry Mahlmann, the pilots’ New York president, told Professional Mariner. “And it most likely will be calmer out there than it was at the existing pilot station, because you’ll be farther away from the bar. Very often, the pilot boat used to go offshore because it was calmer.â€

In November 2007, the 799-foot tanker Axel Spirit struck Ambrose Light. At the time, the region was experiencing high winds and heavy seas caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Noel. Although the light continued to shine, the steel tower had critical damage to its legs and stanchion. The revolving light was bent and was no longer rotating.

It was the third time Ambrose Light had been struck by a vessel since 1996. The Coast Guard notified mariners of the condition of the tower and installed a temporary light buoy about 300 yards in front of the broken tower, which was located eight miles from Sandy Hook, N.J.

Costello Dismantling Co., of Middleboro, Mass., removed Ambrose Light in September — with assistance from tugboats Sea Wolf, Sea Bear and Miss Yvette. The Coast Guard’s decision followed several discussions with the harbor’s mariners, including pilots, vessel operators and the tug and barge community.

“There was a consensus that rebuilding the tower wouldn’t be a good idea,†said Chief Warrant Officer Darren Pauly, a Coast Guard Aids to Navigation officer at Sector New York. “To put it in the same location creates a hazard. It would get hit again, and it wouldn’t be safer to put it back there.â€

Before any tower marked the entrance to Ambrose Channel, Lightship Ambrose floated there from 1823 to the 1960s. The earliest version of Ambrose Light was constructed in 1967. The most recent steel tower, which also included a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) automated weather station, was installed in 1999.

Pauly said Ambrose Light outlived its usefulness to mariners. Instead, the Coast Guard has added four new gateway buoys in the extended channel and two buoys that mark shoals. Five other buoys were moved. The Ambrose Sea Buoy was shifted 2.5 nautical miles seaward.

A buoy tender was busy from August to October renumbering the existing buoys all the way up to the Hudson River. Crews also installed a new NOAA weather buoy out beyond the entrance to the extended channel, in the Hudson Canyon-Ambrose Shipping Lane.

The Ambrose Light tower became “not really necessary, with electronic navigation and our new LED technology we’re using for the (buoy) lights. They’re brighter,†Pauly said.

With the demise of Ambrose Light, the Sandy Hook Pilots expect safer embarkations and disembarkations.

“It will be easier for the ship to make a lee for the pilot,†Mahlmann said.

In the channel extension negotiations, the region’s tug and barge industry was able to persuade the Coast Guard to stagger one of the south-side buoys to mark an area where northbound tugboats customarily have entered the channel. The staggered navigation aid — buoy No. 1A — signals a 1.2-mile opening between that buoy and buoy No. 1. Instead of being 1.6 nm apart, buoys 1 and 3 are now 2.1 miles apart.

Capt. Eric Johansson, director of the harbor’s Tug and Barge Committee, said new navigation charts will specify to everyone that the area is a designated spot for the towing vessels to access the channel.

“We maintained our traditional sea lanes,†said Johansson, who is an associate professor of marine transportation at SUNY Maritime College. “The intent is to guide mariners safely in and out of the channel, in the area where they have always gone in and out. It would have been a little tighter without the staggered buoys.â€

The original plan “had all gateway buoys, which would have made them feel they were doing something wrong,†Johansson said. “Now they’re going to have it on the chart, with arrows to show that this is a place to enter and exit Ambrose Channel. This is the customary practice of the towing industry. Now there’s no doubt.â€

Sandy Hook Channel was unchanged in the Ambrose Channel extension.

—Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff