ELLSWORTH — From the days when sailing vessels were the primary means of transportation along the Maine coast, mariners have relied on the clang and bang of bell and gong buoys to warn them away from offshore dangers that can sink a vessel that strays from safe waters.
Over the past several months, though, nine of those critical navigational aids have been silenced, their bronze bells and gongs spirited away by maritime souvenir hunters or, more likely, seagoing thieves who hope to convert the fruits of their larceny to cold cash.
The perpetrators are taking, as well as creating, serious risks. Stealing a sound signal from a buoy not only endangers the mariners who rely on them in rugged weather conditions, it is a federal crime punishable by penalties of up to $25,000 per day for each buoy, or up to a year in prison.
Since early August, the Coast Guard has gone public seeking information about who may be responsible for the thefts. The reward for information can total as much as half the amount of the fines assessed.
At first, the thefts seemed to be concentrated around western Penobscot Bay. The bell was stolen from the Fox Islands Thorofare buoy, which is relied on by the ferries that run between Rockland and North Haven, and the gong went missing from the West Penobscot Bay Entrance Buoy, both lighted navigational aids.
Also at the mouth of the western bay, the bell went missing from the South Breaker buoy that marks a rock pile at the edge of the Muscle Ridge Chanel off Whitehead Island and from the Wheeler Rocks buoy off the northern tip of remote Metinic Island.
Whether a single, peripatetic thief was at work, or whether the fever for turning bronze into gold was catching, the action spread both east and west.
To the westward, the White Bull Island gong disappeared from a buoy off Harpswell where Casco Bay mingles with the Bay of Fundy. In eastern Penobscot Bay, the gong was stolen from the Eagle Island buoy and the bell taken from the Porcupine Ledge buoy off the western shore of Deer Isle. Downeast, the gong went missing from the Little Breaking Ledge buoy at the mouth of Chandler Bay east of Jonesport.
The Long Ledge Lighted gong buoy at the entrance to the Western Way and Mount Desert Island’s Great Harbor was also silenced, but that might not have been a part of what appears to have been a real crime spree.
According to Petty Officer Nicholas McGowen of the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation team in Southwest Harbor, the gong on the Long Ledge buoy never went missing, only one of the clappers that, actuated by the action of the sea, strikes the gong to produce a mournful chime.
Whoever has been taking the sound devices, they haven’t been using a rowboat. All of the buoys from which the bells and gongs were taken are located in open water, many of them in exposed locations, only reachable by boats of substantial size and seaworthiness. What’s more, the sound devices are heavy.
According to the Coast Guard, each of the four stolen bells weighs 225 pounds. Each gong, consisting of three thick bronze plates about a foot in diameter stacked on top of one another, weighs 371 pounds.
With buyers currently paying around $1.80 for scrap bronze, each silicone bronze bell is worth about $405; each gong, about $668.
So far, according to the Coast Guard, it has spent roughly $29,000 for new gongs and bells, and that doesn’t count the time spent by boat crews doing the replacement work.
As of Friday, according to Petty Officer Nicole Groll, spokeswoman for the Coast Guard’s First District in Boston, five buoys are still without sound devices. Three of them, Eagle Island, Porcupine Ledge and Little Breaking Ledge, are in eastern Maine waters.
“We’re waiting for supplies to go ahead and replace them,” McGowen said, speaking in Southwest Harbor. The Aids to Navigation Team crew in Southwest Harbor is responsible for maintaining buoys and other navigation aids in the area from Marshall Point Lighthouse in Port Clyde to the Saint Croix River, which borders Canada.
When the weighty bells and gongs are ready, they first have to be manufactured; it won’t be a boat from Southwest Harbor that does the replacement work.
“They’re a little out of our class,” McGowen said. “It will take a little bigger class vessel,” like the 175-foot buoy tender Abbie Burgess, homeported in Rockland, or the 175-foot Marcus Hanna, based in South Portland.
In the meantime, the Coast Guard is asking that anyone with information about the great bell and gong caper contact the Coast Guard Sector Northern New England command center in Portland at 767-0303.