Editorial: A light to save of life

During the day it’s all but impossible to miss the breakwater protecting Greenport Harbor. Constructed of boulders, it juts out 1,570 feet from Youngs Point, pointing south directly at Shelter Island’s northern shore. There’s been a structure there since 1883.
But once twilight gives way to night, it’s another story entirely.

Unless the moon is bright, the breakwater blends with the water and horizon and can be all but impossible to see, especially at high tide. Experienced boaters in full control of their faculties know which side of the single light at the breakwater’s end gives safe passage and which leads to disaster. In theory, that light should be warning enough, but history shows it’s not.

Seven summers ago a boat carrying five people slammed into the breakwater in the early morning hours and two people died. This past week another boat ran right up onto the rocks; fortunately, no one was seriously injured. As Captain Joe Frohnhoefer, owner of one of the two companies that lifted the vessel off the breakwater, told The Suffolk Times this week, the people aboard were fortunate the accident occurred at high tide, when only the topmost rocks are above water. At low tide, the speeding boat would have crashed right into, rather than up and over, the unyielding breakwater.

It’s true that in both collisions the drivers were charged with boating while intoxicated. But no such charges were filed in 2007, when five people were injured after a 20-foot boat struck the breakwater on a Sunday night. The driver, an Amagansett man heading home, hit the rocks about 20 yards from the light. A passing boater plucked four of the passengers from the water, three of them children under 10, and brought them to Eastern Long Island Hospital’s emergency dock. Fortunately all the kids were wearing life jackets and suffered only minor injuries, but the adult brought in with them was treated for a fractured and dislocated hip. The boat’s driver came ashore with a towing crew but later sought treatment for neck pain.

Capt. Frohnhoefer has requested that a string of yellow lights be installed to mark at least a portion of the breakwater, but the Coast Guard turned him down, saying that boaters should know where to go. Were that always the case the Coast Guard’s workload would be substantially lighter. Chances are the breakwater will be the scene of other accidents. But perhaps we can make that less likely and, if one does occur, prevent the loss of life.